Monday, August 15, 2011

The Most Effective Music Video Ever Made

I really liked Bill Simmons' contribution to Grantland's "YouTube Hall of Fame" blog this week: a live MTV performance by George Michael (backed by a very able Gospel-busk octet) of his best song, 1990's "Freedom '90." The performance was great, the live arrangement re-emphasizing the strength of the song itself, whose more familiar studio version is, let's face it, a little C + C Music Factory. Simmons was spot on as usual, but I was surprised to see no reference at all to the video for "Freedom '90," which is the entire reason I remember it as George Michael's best song.

That I would even admit to having an opinion on what George Michael's best song might be feels a little embarrassing to the 17-year-old in me that, at the time of this song's release, was listening primarily to Guns N' Roses, Van Halen, The Replacements, Fugazi, and Jane's Addiction. I was a self-identified rock kid, and George Michael, who first came to my attention with Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" video when I was in the 5th grade, was the farthest thing from "rock" that I could think of, and therefore of zero interest.

But the "Freedom '90" video was so ingeniously conceived and perfectly executed that it made an indifferent-to-hostile audience (me) take notice. I sat up in my chair and I paid attention to a George Michael video. How did George do it? He did not appear in the video himself; instead, he got a bunch of supermodels to lip-synch the song for him. If that was not enough (it was), the video was directed by David Fincher, who is now a big movie guy but made a lot of great, famous music videos in his early career, including "Straight Up," which is the whole reason we have Paula Abdul; "Vogue," definitely the best video Madonna ever made; and Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," which seems dumb now but was a big deal at the time. Armed with a great song and the likes of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford, Fincher depicts a mysterious world where superhumanly attractive people live in well-lit squalor, ignore catastrophic plumbing problems, and declare their independence.

Independence from what?

Glammed down for the  cover of the 12"
Despite the fact that he owed all of his success to that point to the medium, "Freedom '90" was the only video made for his "Listen Without Prejudice" album, and he wasn't even in it. Apparently unhappy with the caricature he had become thanks to his phenomenally overplayed MTV hit "Faith," he blamed record company image management and public overexposure, and addressed this frustration in the "Freedom '90" video by destroying all the iconography that was coming to define him: the guitar he played (or "played," as 17-year-old me would have snorted), the leather jacket he wore, and the jukebox he stood next to. He was saying to the audience: "You know how sick and tired you all are of me and my massive media presence? I feel the same way."

At the time I did not pick up on the (in retrospect, quite clear) subtext of struggling with being locked in the closet by a record company intent on marketing him to 14-year-old girls. I was too young to even think in those terms when Wham! started showing up on MTV. Even in the video where he's nude, writing on a woman's back in lipstick, it never seemed like that relationship might outlast the photo shoot. As I remember it -- and remember, I was a rock kid, so I wasn't paying very close attention -- George Michael's sexuality was like an open secret; no one cared to dig any deeper on because on some level everyone knew. He wasn't publicly out, but when he started getting busted in men's rooms nobody was shocked. Adding this dimension to his record company struggles makes the whole thing resonate on a deeper level than a rich guy's disagreement with his even richer employers. He was saying to the audience: "You know how silly it seems to keep putting me in videos with gorgeous girls and pretending like they interest me? Yeah, I'm not on board with that either."

This video is great without all that subtext, but with it, it's a classic. Let's watch it! 

0:03 What is the significance of the tea kettle? It bookends the video, so does it have any deeper meaning than emitting cool-looking steam for Fincher's camera? I would imagine that it signifies the fact that George has had just about enough -- he's boiling over -- and he's about to let go of his suppressed rage in song. 0:14 What is this high-tech music device? Is it one of those laser-based record players I used to see in catalogs but never ran across in real life? If it is, then why is the next shot of a CD case? I never ran across a CD player that looked like this. I concede the possibility that there were some super high-end Brookstoney CD players out there that my plebeian circles did not have financial access to, but why is this one in a building that looks like The Carter Apartments from New Jack City? 0:25 I won't bother trying to identify the male models in this video, partly because I assume it would be impossible and partly because I am indifferent to the information, but here begins the parade of supermodels lip-syncing the song (with varying degrees of skill), led by the stunning Linda Evangelista, who, saddled with a baggy turtleneck sweater and a season-one "Melrose Place" haircut, turns out to be the only fashion victim in this video -- mostly because she's the only one wearing anything other than a) a bedsheet b) a towel c) sexy underwear or d) nothing. Once again: brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed! 1:00 Naomi Campbell enters, all twirl and swagger, artfully dodging the mason jars collecting the water leaking from the ceiling. Is this the runoff from the boiling-over teakettle in Linda's apartment, coming through the floor? Based on what we now know about Naomi's temper and disposition, I tend to doubt that she'd so breezily shrug off this infringement on her personal space. 1:03 Seriously, where is all this water coming from? Does the building have larger plumbing problems? Is this a squat situation? 1:07 - 1:24 Linda gets the lion's share of the lip-syncing in this video, presumably because she was the best at it. I once heard that the guy that produced "Walk Like An Egyptian" made the four Bangles audition for each line in the song one at a time; Fincher is rumored to be that kind of a fastidious director, so I'm sure Linda earned this honor. Note her facial sigh on the line "I guess it was enough for me." I'm a little shocked we didn't see her in any movies. 1:42 Naomi soon shows why we didn't see her in any movies when she clearly mouths that she's "gonna get myselp happy." Lip-sync always looks better when the lip-syncer is actually singing -- it puts the appropriate strain in the neck that only comes from an active diaphragm, and helps one avoid saying words that aren't words. She looks great doing it though. All is forgiven, Naomi! (Please don't hurt me.) 1:49 Christy Turlington comes through some French doors dragging a 1,000 thread-count sheet like a bridal train. She must not have any water on the floor; maybe she's in the penthouse. Judging by the lighting, the power has been shut off in this building, which seems to be occupied exclusively by supermodels. I want to know more about this scenario. Do the models have advanced drug problems, or do they just have extraordinarily poor housekeeping skills? Based on my two cohabitations (one of which just passed the 11-year mark), I'd go with the latter. 2:08 "Sometimes the clothes do not make the man" is accompanied by a shot of Michael's then-iconic leather jacket (which he had worn in the "Faith" video) in the closet. If it wasn't clear already, now we know: George is not singing about an imaginary character or a composite of people he's known or making an allegory -- he's singing explicitly about himself. A few seconds later, the jacket spontaneously combusts, and it all becomes clear: George has had enough of the image he's been cultivating for the last decade. It probably wouldn't be a terrible thing if the whole building burned down, along with the jacket and the public image; it's got some nice architectural details, but it's clearly got plumbing problems and probably needs a gut reno. 2:27 Why is Christy so morose? Despite the semi-heavy lyrics, this is a pretty exuberant song -- I have never seen it fail on a dance floor -- so what's with the shoegazey delivery? Everybody else gets it; Naomi, Linda, male model #1, they're all embracing the spirit of hope and triumph that is at the core of this song. Come on, Christy, you're in the biggest video of the year, you're only 20, and they gave you the first chorus! You're only going downhill from here, you might as well enjoy the view. Pretty soon you're going to be married to Edward Burns and moments like this will be all that stands between you and a bottle of sleeping pills. 2:50 I do not understand the appeal of gravity boots. I guess they're great for doing inverted crunches and building up your six-pack, but dude, if you want some exercise you could spend some time fixing up this condemned building. Run a little conduit! I can think of at least three very lovely ladies who'd be verrry grateful for some electricity to run their hair dryers. (Then again, female gratitude may not necessarily be a strong incentive for this guy.) 3:00 It's kind of easy to forget now how huge a pop-culture presence Cindy Crawford was in 1990. She was everywhere, all the time -- in addition to being on every magazine cover printed between 1988 and 1995, she had her own show on MTV and even got the lead in an action flick opposite a (lesser) Baldwin -- but you (or at least I) never, ever got tired of looking at her. If she had maintained that level of ubiquity all the way up to the present day, I don't think I would have had any problem with it. She was (and still is) just that easy on the eyes. Here she gets true star treatment, making her first appearance halfway through the video, though we can't be sure it's her because she's upside-down (the first of many obscured or partial views of her then-inconceivably famous face -- more star treatment). Once Fincher goes for the close-up, though, that famous mole confirms that it is, in fact, the superest supermodel of them all. 3:15 Most of these lyrics are pretty straightforward in their meaning, but "got a brand new face for the boys on MTV" gave me pause for a moment. Did George Michael have some work done? Is he referring to the unshaven-stubble look he adopted when he went solo? Whatever else he may have done to further his career (or "play the game" as the song would have it), I think we can agree that at no point did he need a new face. He must be referring to having gone slightly (emphasis on "slightly") more butch when he broke from Wham!, i.e. quit cavorting in fluorescent lipstick, short shorts, and oversized hoops on both ears, thus enabling a pre-sexual generation of girls to keep their fixations as they got a little more (but still not very) savvy. But now he is tired of living that lie! 3:30 Who is this model? The other four I remember because they were everywhere -- this one I only know from this video. Google says it's Tatjana Patitz, but that does not help me. She looks a lot like Milla Jovovich -- maybe I thought they were the same person? As a 17-year-old male in 1990, I had pretty good supermodel awareness, but I don't think I've ever seen the name Tatjana Patitz until right now. Anyway, she's pretty. And wherever she is, I bet she's a better actress than Milla Jovovich.

 3:50 Remember when models were really, really pretty? I miss that. I miss it a lot. I would take the present-day, late-40s versions of any one of these ladies over anybody on any "cycle" of "America's Next Top Model." 3:55 - 4:06 "All we have to do is take these lies and make them true." This is a brilliant example of turning something as simple as "let's stop lying" into a wildly singable rhyming couplet. George Michael wrote some pretty great pop songs. (I'm partial to "Anything She Wants" by Wham! if I had to pick a runner-up.) "All we have to see is that I don't belong to you and you don't belong to me." You can read this just about any way you want -- it applies to almost any situation, and gives it a little F-you, which is what makes it a great lyric. 4:07 Man, Cindy Crawford looks good in that bathtub. Remember when models were really pretty? 4:11 The jukebox explodes. I bet it wasn't a real jukebox, though. If somebody found an authentic working jukebox that looked like that and blew it up, it would really be a shame. It actually explodes three times, but I'm assuming they just shot the same explosion with three cameras, because if they blew up three authentic working jukeboxes, eBay would put a price on their head. Two "Faith" props down, one to go. The guitar is next! 4:37 - 4:57 What is the meaning of this quick-cut montage with all the girls looking gorgeous ending with a pricked finger and sucking the blood? I am having a hard time grasping a meaning here. I have been tough on female fans of vampire mythology, but when the shoe is on the other foot, I have to admit It looks pretty sexy. I am still a 17-year-old rock kid paying close attention to a George Michael video in 1990, so whatever it is, it's working. 5:00 - 5:13 "When you shake your ass, they notice fast, some mistakes are built to last." Purely speculation, but I wonder if George isn't referring here to Dana Carvey's impression of him on "Saturday Night Live." 
5:36 Dueling symbolisms here: Someone is rustling around like the Snuffleuppagus under Christy's sheet, and Linda is trying to hide her face in her turtleneck. What's the deeper meaning here? I don't know, but between this and the bloodsucking, this completely, overtly stylized piece is finally starting to feel a little pretentious. Maybe because we haven't seen Cindy in a while, and we still haven't seen her whole face. Fincher (or his editor) knows what I want and he's going to make me watch to the end to get it. Point: Fincher. 5:56 There goes the guitar! Google says it's a Gretsch G400 Synchromatic Archtop! I bet it's not fake. How many guitars do you think are purposely destroyed on stage or on film each year? I would love to see some statistics on this. Could Pete Towshend ever have imagined what he'd unleashed? 6:08 Finally, a clear shot of Cindy Crawford. I once read that Orson Welles called "the star part" the character in a movie that everyone talks about constantly, but who the audience doesn't see until the end. (Welles got the star part of Harry Lime in "The Third Man.") That's what Cindy has in this video: the star part. One thing I always find interesting is when a songwriter jams run-on sentences that don't rhyme into his verses; it shows that the lyrical content of the song is very important to the songwriter and, oddly, this kind of free verse comes closer to poetry in music than rigidly metered lyrics do. Clearly, George Michael had a lot to say here, and he said it very well.  It's too bad that, after this most eloquent declaration of independence in every sense, I cannot name one George Michael song recorded after 1990, and that at this point if you refer to "George Michael" there's a good chance people will think you're talking about Michael Cera's character from "Arrested Development." It's pretty common when a musician comes out with a new record that it gets hyped up as being "more personal" than earlier work, but that work rarely delivers much insight into the artist.  I think "Freedom  '90" might be the most personal piece of pop music I can think of. I wouldn't classify myself as a George Michael fan -- the stuff he did before this is not to my liking and I don't know what he did after this -- but this song is pretty awesome even if it is, let's face it, a little C + C Music Factory.
Final note: I went back to to find the link to the live performance I referenced in the opening paragraph, and what's the top story but a meditation on the career of Cindy Crawford by Molly Lambert. Convergence!

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