in memoriam

George Michael’s ‘Freedom ’90’ Is an All-Time Power Song

Before I ever heard “Freedom ‘90” or saw its official music video with Naomi and Cindy, Linda and Christy, I saw this live performance, from a mid-’90s re-airing of MTV’s 1991 10th Anniversary Special. I was drawn to it immediately. It sounded like church.

MTV was my first real introduction to white people. Before watching the channel, I only really knew black people and cartoons. But here was white man George Michael, surrounded by black and brown musicians, looking comfortable. It seemed like they loved him and he loved them back — this was an unfamiliar reality I didn’t even realize was allowed.

Every aspect of the video was overwhelming to my first-grader brain. There was the dark room, the studio audience, and the smiles on everyone’s faces. There was his single gold-hoop earring, his dark shades, and his all-black outfit, complete with the black leather jacket and backwards black Raiders cap with a small tuft of hair sticking out the front. There were his backup singers, who looked like they’d been hired straight off the Rhythm Nation tour. And it was filmed in a way that only heightened the experience — that hypnotic, dizzying rotating circle shot.

Michael wasn’t the first white singer to use the cheat code of black backup singers, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but often in those cases the lead singers are overshadowed by the more talented ones behind them. In the middle of that circle, though, George finds a way to be the coolest: He looks better, sounds better, and even moves better than anyone else (all while doing a bop, which, if done by anyone else, would not be cool).

As too frequently happened when you saw a video you liked on MTV in the mid-’90s, I spent months anxiously waiting to see it again. There was no YouTube, so you couldn’t just summon the things you liked at a moment’s notice. If you wanted something, you had to just wait and hope to get lucky. As the months — and soon years — went on, the official video remained a mainstay on MTV and VH1, but I never saw the live performance again on TV. It became a distant memory, but the song stuck — and as I got older, I began to actually ingest the words.

“Heaven knows I was just a young boy,” go the lyrics, “didn’t know what I wanted to be.” I was in seventh grade, and I could relate. I didn’t know anything about Wham!, or that “Freedom ‘90” was a not-so-subtle coming-out anthem. But if you take an inch from Michael, he’ll give you a mile in return. “Freedom ‘90” is a power song — one of those things that can get you out of bed, shake you out of a depression, take you from good to great, from inspired to exalted. Some songs like this show up in your life and disappear quickly, but a handful stick with you. “Freedom ‘90” stuck with me, in large part because of this video. I’ve always wanted to feel something as much as George Michael seems to feel the music here, absorbing the energy from the musicians around him.

Years after coming in contact with the original performance, I rediscovered the live version on YouTube, as well as the performance’s behind-the-scenes footage, which shows Michael walking in as his singers are warming up with a version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” He gives some hugs, takes his position in the middle of the circle, and immediately starts singing and dancing, as if there’s no place like home, being soulful.

Whenever I hear this live version of “Freedom ‘90,” my truest self is singing along, missing notes in reality but sounding exactly like George Michael in my heart. If I’m stopped at a red light and someone catches me in the act, I’m not turning down the volume or lowering my voice. I’m reminded of the time in my life when I listened to “Liberation” by Outkast and “Freedom ‘90” back to back as if they were a two-act play, the former describing what you wanted and the latter serving as the result of what happened once you got there — the glory of feeling comfortable enough to be yourself. The freedom in that song means everything — breaking free from others, but more importantly, discarding your own chains and getting to know yourself.

George Michael wrote a song that told his story, and one that that helped me begin my own. When things around me have historically fallen down, I’ve only known one way out — it’s to have some faith in the sound, his sound. I’m still not as free as George looked and sounded while performing it, but at least he gave so many of us a soundtrack for that journey. Should I ever get there, I know what I’ll be singing, what I’ll be wearing, and how I’ll be dancing when the moment finally comes.

George Michael’s ‘Freedom ’90’ Is a Power Song