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George Michael’s Fight for Freedom

On “Freedom! ’90,” going solo, and what happens when Frank Sinatra thinks you’ve screwed up

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60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run (and a brand-new book!). Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 114 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” Read an excerpt below.

When you hear a pop song a lot in the background—when it’s playing so softly or so far away that you can’t quite physically hear the lyrics, or maybe you’re distracted, maybe you’re doing your homework, maybe you’re watching the video, but there are literally five literal supermodels in the video so you’re maybe not giving the lyrics your full attention—do you ever just fill in the lyrics, in your head, perhaps erroneously? You just assume, you just try to guess the next line, and then you convince yourself that your assumption must be correct, even if it’s not? I did not mishear the chorus to “Freedom! ’90,” exactly, but I did just naturally assume at first that the line here must be: “And I don’t love you / And you don’t love me.” But that’s very wrong, and this is not the sort of song George Michael wants you to mishear.

“I don’t belong to you / And you don’t belong to me.” That is just slightly clunkier, rhythmically, than I don’t love you, but he does. George Michael loves you, or, at the very least, he loves that you love him, but loving a pop star does not mean you own and therefore control that pop star, and “Freedom! ’90” is a song about George Michael declaring his freedom from your expectations starting right here in 1990. He is severing his previous contract with his devoted, lovestruck, often paralyzingly horny, and occasionally quite overbearing fan base and proposing a new one. A new understanding, a new agreement between pop star and devoted global fan base, based on love and mutual respect and healthy personal boundaries. Also, on this particular song, this particular contract will be overseen—it will be notarized, in a sense—by literally five literal supermodels because part of the new contract is that George Michael don’t want to be in the videos no more.

Oh goodness gracious, I’d forgotten about this song. It’s called “Freedom.” It’s on Wham!’s Make It Big from ’84. It sounds like a cover of a Motown hit even though it ain’t. And I think we’ve established that the best feeling in the world … What is best in life, you ask? What is best in life is when you love a song but then you totally forget that song exists—because there’s too much other stuff to remember, right, like the names of all your He-Man guys and all your Transformers—but then you hear that song again and remember that you love it, but simultaneously it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time again. I love that feeling so much.

What a lucky girl. Seems relevant that even in 1984, even in Wham!, even before he gets, like, ultra-famous, George Michael is already puzzling out the relationship between love and freedom. He understands that loving someone does not require imprisonment. Quite the opposite, as pop music has often tried to tell us. I keep meaning to bring up that Wham! also featured a few backup singers and dancers: first Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman, and then Dee left and was replaced by Helen DeMacque (better known as Pepsi), and then Pepsi and Shirlie had a duo for a while. Those ladies don’t make the album covers, but they’re important. Wham! was a band, in addition to being a hunky teen-pop duo, in addition to being a blatant delivery system for George Michael, solo megastar. We gotta do it, right? We gotta do both of ’em, really. All right then, let’s do both of ’em.

Here’s the true space shuttle launch, right? This song is Cape Canaveral. You picture the saxophone player on “Careless Whisper”—no offense to INXS, but INXS ain’t got a song with a sax riff half as rad as “Careless Whisper,” obviously—you picture the saxophone player here emerging from the colossal plumes of smoke generated by George Michael, right here, as George bellows every individual, iconic, angst-ridden syllable of “We’d hurt each other with the things we want to say.” “Careless Whisper,” in its way, is also Pure Wham!, in that this song had been around for the entirety of Wham! It’s on the first Wham! demo tape, along with “Club Tropicana” and “Wham Rap!” Andrew Ridgeley worked out the chords; George fleshed it out and wrote the words and gradually shepherded this song to all-time pop greatness. “Careless Whisper” is both Pure Wham! and Pure Not Wham!, in that, officially, the single is billed as “Wham! featuring George Michael,” and the video is George Michael featuring George Michael, and no offense, but nobody listens to this song for the chords.

“So I’m never gonna dance again / The way I danced with you.” Is this song about Wham!? Is this song George apologizing to Andrew for breaking up Wham!? No. No, it’s not. Don’t overthink it. Let’s not get cute. This isn’t an especially cute state of affairs. In the Wham! documentary: “In reality, the turning point with Wham! was nothing to do with Wham! The turning point with Wham! was me as I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m a massive star, and I’m gay.’ And the depression was about that. It was about the way I’d boxed myself in. You know, ‘Careful what you wish for.’” What George had wished for was pop superstardom, and the songs he was writing had already pretty much gotten him there. How many seconds of “Last Christmas” do you require to reacquaint yourself with the all-time pop greatness of “Last Christmas”?

Shout-out to George Michael and Mariah Carey for accidentally discovering the 20th-century pop star life hack for staying ubiquitous in the 21st century: Write a Christmas song. That’s all you gotta do. Write a hit Christmas song. You might top the charts for one month a year forever. In the movie, they talk about getting extremely drunk while shooting the “Last Christmas” video. The theme of the “Last Christmas” video is majestic plumage and romantic intrigue on a ski trip. And also George—all of George’s interviews are archival audio, of course, but he feels absolutely present-tense in this movie in the best way—George talks about how one day he and Andrew are just hanging out and watching TV or something, and George goes, “Hold on a second, I got an idea,” and George runs upstairs and writes “Last Christmas,” and he comes back downstairs and says, “I did it.”

And how you feel ultimately about Wham! as a band, as a partnership, as a balanced collaboration between two dear childhood friends, it comes down to whether you’ll grant that Andrew plays a crucial role in that story, in the creation of “Last Christmas.” Andrew does not play a songwriting role or a producing role or a performing role necessarily. But he is still crucial to this process. Andrew is not crucial to the song, no, but Andrew is crucial to George as George creates this song, and George will not realize how crucial Andrew is, on a personal level, until George has skyrocketed to legit solo fame and Andrew is no longer there at all.

To hear the full episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to order Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.