I remember exactly where I was when I first saw the video for “Freedom! ’90,” the smash single from George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. I was 10 years old, crouched in front of the family television with my finger on the box so I could switch the channel from MTV to PBS if my mom or dad walked into the room. My parents never censored what I read or watched, but if you’ve seen the video, you may understand why I felt a bit shy. In Michael’s gorgeous fuck-you anthem to his past and the media, supermodels Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington lip sync and pose; a steam-slicked Cindy Crawford writhes in a bathtub. Naomi Campbell, of course, makes the best entrance as she spins and dances to her headphones in the manner of some uncatchable sex priestess. Like many of you, I so badly wanted to be one of them.
The “Freedom! ’90” video was a wry and successful attempt to call out the shallowness of the industry while still capitalizing on it; not only were beautiful faces used to sell a song that seemed to critique both the industry and Michael himself for that practice, but models literally exist to have sellable images projected on them. “Freedom! ’90” helped kick off the decade for me, setting the aesthetic for almost everything I aspired to, right down to the spare, grungey loft apartments.
The video literally starts out with the technology that fueled ’90s listening, a CD player, and features guitars, a leather jacket, and a jukebox (symbols from a previous chapter of Michael’s popstar life) exploding in flames as the chorus sings “Freedom!”–because most of all, the song is Michael’s personal wormhole from one identity toward a truer one. Even the title, named for the beginning of a brand new decade, sounds like a liberating fresh start. For me, it was a song about being yourself, a common theme in the ’90s and in my life.
Famous people die every year, and their deaths mean different things to different people. George Michael, David Bowie, and Prince all left this world in 2016, and they were in their own ways boundary pushers. They joined my cadre of distant guides because their art created new spaces in my brain, because they were cool, and because, like many of their fans, I never felt like I properly fit into mainstream Middle American society. Michael, in his leather jacket and dangling earrings, was an appealing pop bad boy.
Like most children who grew up in the U.S. during the latter decades of the 20th century, I watched The Brady Bunch after school every day, but Florence Henderson’s recent death, in my head, represented two erosions: that of a beloved television mom, and that of an era in which I always felt a little alienated from the sensibilities and customs of my white Protestant peers, who seemed to share the culture depicted in that quintessentially American TV show–a culture that I, even as the child of pretty Americanized and highly-educated immigrants, felt left out of. But again, these things mean different things to different people: the slow disintegration of that era is part of what makes so much of America angry these days, Archie Bunker-style.
Archie Bunker aired in the ’70s, and it’s true that the more things change, the more they remain the same. But I do feel in recent years as though the 20th century–the era of my childhood–is fading away, both the parts that I loved and the parts that were, in my view, problematic. Fidel Castro, Nancy Reagan, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Antonin Scalia, George Martin, Phife Dawg–they and many others who passed away in 2016, too many to name in this grim list, some more famous than others, are all people who without question shaped 20th-century Western society in ways big and small, bad and good. Their influence has brought us to this point, though I feel now, even more than I did in the years after 9-11, that we have truly passed into a new century, and not just because I grew up without the internet and haven’t used a pay phone in 15 years.
I naively believed that the difficulties of my youth would be resolved by now–inequality, climate change, poverty, war–but they are not. I definitely didn’t think I’d be watching videos of black citizens being assassinated in the streets, a rise in global nationalism, or an irresponsible racist enabler gearing up to take office, his squadron of complicit offspring seemingly poised to capitalize on it at the bank. It’s not that the 20th century’s impact is dead; the progress of that decade inarguably shapes this new era. “Freedom! ’90” is in part a song and a video about why what the media shows you isn’t always real: 26 years later, it seems much of America agrees. You can also argue that “Freedom! ’90” is a veiled coming out song, and certainly the struggle Michael dealt with regarding his public and private sexuality is not nearly as ubiquitous in this country as it was just a few decades ago, even if our society has more evolving to do. I am old enough now to understand that history really does move forward circularly, and that as the old guides leave us, the new ones both benefit from their influence and inevitably repeat old errors, or re-address ancient issues with new mistakes, or make new art realizing or not realizing which long-gone writer or musician influenced their work. As we move forward, the past exists, and it ceases to exist.
For my part, I kind of want to blow up my own metaphorical jukebox, which I suppose means “Freedom! ’90” is more of an aspiration for me than I ever imagined it would be at this stage in my life, and not because I never became a supermodel. Mostly, at the end of what has been a truly crap year, I long to lie on my childhood bed again, listen to George Michael on full blast, and mime Tatiana Patitz blowing cigarette smoke toward my window, which looked out over my Midwestern town, at the edges of which I could just make out the open fields that lay beyond.