19. George Michael - Freedom '90

More than ever, popular American culture is obsessed with fame.  The goal to become famous is easier to attain than ever, but the cost is often high.  People mortgage their self-respect, body images and sobriety in order to have their pictures in magazines and faces on television.  And while getting famous may be an easier golden ring to grab in the digital age, the desire to become famous is nothing new.

Back in the early 80's, George Michael wanted to be famous, badly.  He wanted to be the world's biggest pop star and prove his disapproving father wrong and that he could succeed in the music business.  He needed to prove himself.   The problem is, he did succeed.  He became wildly successful, first with Wham! and then with his gigantic first solo album, Faith.  He had millions of fans, was on dozens of magazine covers and basically co-opted MTV as his own personal cable channel.  For someone who wrote a lot of catchy danceable songs, he was also critically well received.
George Michael was different from almost all of his contemporaries in the 80's.  Sure he sung pop songs, but he also wrote and produced them all by himself.  When he recorded the first Wham! album, he was nineteen!  I don't know about you, but I didn't have my stuff together nearly so well at nineteen.  Back then, I probably thought I did, but the old me realizes I was only kidding myself.  Sure, I thought I could change the world, I just never got around to doing anything about it, just like most of us.  But not George.  He wasn't going to waste any time.

And he didn't.  After Wham!, he released his first solo record to critical acclaim and sales of over 10,000,000 copies.  But it didn't make him happy.  His fame, like it has for many, had become its own machine, with George being pulled along in its wake.  So although he helped build that machine, he consciously stepped back from it and decided to let his music speak for itself.  And boy did it.

Starting off with that infectious drum machine loop, the stage was set for the song that would be popular for George based solely on its musical merits, rather than the attractive face with which it was packaged.  Then you add a just as catchy piano riff, and the song really takes off.  Although there are very few instruments playing in "Freedom '90," they way they're played is with a funky intricacy that builds a strong, if chaotic, foundation.  The song's disco'ish guitar break leading into the bridge may be my favorite musical part of the song, because it took such a dated sound and repackaged it in such a fresh sounding way.  Many singers could be overwhelmed by that much talented musical complexity, but George has a voice that can pull off almost anything.  The way George generally sings his vocals has a very breathy quality to it, but behind it all is pure talent.  There may be more talented pop singers than George, but none jump quickly to my mind.  So if he's not the best, he'd put up a hell of a fight for the title.

Lyrically, the song was first and foremost in response to his fame and trying to deal with it.  Looking back on it now, it also was probably strongly influenced by his living his life as a gay man in private, but not in public.  Both of those were tearing at him and he wanted to fight back, to a certain degree.  Sure, both messes were ones he made himself, but he was trying to deal with them the best way he could.  He's less interested in making the rest of the world happy, he's just going to try and focus on himself and let the rest take care of itself.

But today the way I play the game is not the same
No way
Think I'm gonna get myself happy

But he also realizes that there's an obligation after you take steps to assure your own happiness.  You have to help others find their own happiness.

All we have to see
Is that I don't belong to you
And you don't belong to me
You've gotta give for what you take

George also realized the chance he was taking with his new public persona.  It could have very well blown up in his face and his fame could have evaporated just as quickly as it had appeared.  He was unapologetic about how he was going to live his life, and for a man whose face (and ass) had become almost as famous as his music, it was a serious gamble to take.  But he didn't care, and that's probably why it worked.

May not be what you want from me
Just the way it's got to be
Lose the face now
I've got to live I've got to live

It's hard to combine a danceable song with lyrics that are strong and provocative.  George wasn't going to write a lyrically disposable song like "Car Wash" that was seriously catchy but with all the lyrical depth of a piece of paper.  George wanted to mix the two and do it in a way that would still speak to people.  He succeeded massively and put together a song that will almost always get me bobbing my head and harmonizing along with him in the choruses.  And judging by its critical reception and record sales, there are about 10,000,000 others of you who agree with me.

Two videos for this one.  The first is one of the most famous music videos of all time, while the second may be one of the best MTV Unplugged performances of all time.

(Fun Fact #643:  The video for "Freedom '90" was directed by noted perfectionist David Fincher, who went on to direct some great movies, including Fight Club, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the just released (and critically lauded) The Social Network)
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