Tim Tan Huynh

George Michael – “Freedom ’90”

15 May 2015 — The artist being absent and supermodels lip-syncing in his place is bold and smart. The style of its now-famous Hollywood director and message of its then-closeted gay superstar add to the aura of this video.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m visiting the Apple web site when I notice the promo for the (since-delayed) Apple Watch featuring Christy Turlington Burns. The supermodel-turned-activist still looks good and later I realize that she’s in her mid-forties. Then I inevitably think of her looks in the video for George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.” This flashback gives me a chance to pay homage to the iconic video.

Behind the Scenes, Sort of

The story, as I imagine it, goes thusly: some time twenty-five years ago, George Michael sees a cover of Vogue with Christy and fellow supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patiz. The fame-weary Michael gets the idea to have these women appear in his place for the video of his upcoming single.

Michael convinces all them to go along with his idea and, just as importantly, he convinces his record label to pay for the idea. Evangelista had famously said, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day” (Harper’s Bazaar). David Fincher signs on to direct; he’s already directed the video for Madonna’s “Vogue” earlier in the year, so he’s no stranger to ambitious video concepts involving pop superstars.

Vogue (UK), Jan 1990
The cover for the January 1990 issue of Vogue UK. From left to right are Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patiz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford.

Somebody (possibly Michael) makes the decision to include male models. Wikipedia says they’re Peter Formby, John Pearson, Todo Segalla, and Mario Sorrenti. Somebody (probably Michael) makes another, more impactful decision: the models, male and female alike, will lip-sync the lyrics. This simple direction proves to be savvy because, ironically, viewers pay more attention the lyrics than they would otherwise, maybe due to the so-called Halo Effect.

Losing Faith, Gaining Fincher

Besides beautiful people with flawless bone structure, the video has other stimulating imagery. It has fire and explosions! The objects being set aflame and blown up have symbolic meaning, of course. The leather jacket, vinyl jukebox, and acoustic guitar are obvious visual references to “Faith,” which had helped launch Michael to the level of fame that he shuns in “Freedom ’90” video.

The beginning of the latter parallels the former, by showing the inner working of a stereo instead of a jukebox, but Fincher still leaves his mark. The abandoned house has the same dark and decrepit look that would later feature in Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1995). I think that Christy gets the best shots, especially the one in which she peers through the shadows. My favorite part of the video is the montage of the models lip-synching “That’s what you get.”

The Song

The video wouldn’t be as memorable if the song weren’t good. I’m not a fan of George Michael, but the music is catchy. The drums and piano are more prominent than they are in most pop songs, and the variety of vocal tracks is likely intended to convey Michael listening to multiple voices in his head. The choir backing in the chorus gives it a Southern gospel sound, which suits the emancipation theme of the song.

The lyrics are even more poignant in hindsight. They’re words from a disenchanted pop superstar and closeted gay man, deeply unsatisfied with his professional and personal situation. Several years later, he visually disses his record label of this period in “Fastlove,” and he doesn’t publicly acknowledge his orientation until the public restroom scandal, though he does exploit it with the video for “Outside.”

Like Apple’s Super Bowl commercial, the “Freedom ’90” video is a landmark in its field. It can’t be replicated mainly because it comes from a state of the world that’s long gone. Specifically, supermodels are no longer household names and popular entertainers are openly gay. Still, I enjoy the video.