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Freedom: George Michael’s Gospel Song Missed the Good News

February 25, 2020


My dad recently sent me video footage of when I was a little kid. Part of it showed a moment that is one of my earliest memories: dancing with my sisters and cousins in my Uncle Tommy’s house to George Michael’s new hit at the time, “Freedom! ’90.” While everyone danced—it certainly has a catchy beat—my little cousin Danny stood in the middle of the dancing chorus belting out “Freedom! Freedom!” along with the song. It’s a sweet, funny memory. 

It brought up another sweet childhood memory: of the Mass. My parish near the South Side of Chicago tried to incorporate traditional black gospel music into the liturgy. (We grew up on the Blue Brothers, okay?) Parishioners never could get the gospel groove quite right, though, always frustrating the parish music director who was going for a James Brown church revival vibe. 

I link these two memories not because of  their relation to James Brown—the backing beat of “Freedom! ’90” was inspired by James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”—but for other similarities and differences. They are similar in that both the pop song and the liturgical music were meant to present “good news,” but different in that one connects us to our origins, God, while the other disconnects us from everything but our own desires, casting us into the void. Each song has a different conception of freedom: one Christian, another secularist and modern. 

Let’s begin with the modern. George Michael (born Georgious Panayitou) seemed to espouse a vision of freedom that might reflect a Greek prophet’s at Delphi. Growing up in England, Michael perhaps soaked in much of the liberal philosophy indebted to English greats, Hobbes and Locke, and the freedom heralded in “Freedom! ’90” encapsulates the heart of the modern world: our essential loneliness and break from the faith of the past, be it real faith or the title of a pop song. 

Let’s go back to my cousin Danny belting out “Freedom.” The lyrics that precede the song’s triumphant (but almost sad) freedom are: “All we have to see / Is that I don’t belong to you/ And you don’t belong to me / Yeah, yeah!”

So depressing. There’s nothing in that thought that recognizes the erotic, nuptial union characteristic of Christianity and Pope St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body. Instead, Michael’s song reveals the vanity of all our attempts at communion when atomic individualism is the monstrosity behind the curtain, and emptiness is all it can promise. 

The restlessness of the human heart has no answer. At one point in the song, Michael desperately pleads, “I won’t let you down / So please don’t give me up / ’Cause I would really really like to stick around, oh yeah.”

The song’s joyful, upbeat, and funky tempo is mixed with a tinge of lament—a lyrical downer. “Well it looks like the road to heaven, but it feels like the road to hell” hints at George’s interior struggle, which—despite his self-proclaimed pride—may have included feelings about his own sexuality.

The music video begins by showing us a tea pot about to blow, a telling representation of his well-known frustrations with his record company and its insistence on trying to control his image. But, there is another way this song may be received. Given the Hobbesian definition of freedom as “the absence of . . . external impediments of motion,” it might also hint at the freedom of 1990, the end of the Cold War inaugurating the last age of liberal democracy in which people are “free to choose,” because not all choices are safe ones. 

In that case, the song speaks of modernity and the man, and a total break from faith—both the spiritual kind and George’s own chart-topping (and “company-controlled”) song. Identifiable symbols of George’s “Faith” video, like his coat and the jukebox, are destroyed and replaced by a CD player. Digital replaces analog—a new era. Supermodels replace an idolized artist—a new era. New self replaces old self—a new era. 

George said that after his “Faith” concert tour he knew that he was gay. He told himself, “Okay, you have to start deconstructing this whole image”—an idea not at all different from the secularist instinct to deconstruct real faith in our age, consigning it to a “less enlightened” past. But the gospel of George Michael isn’t ultimately good. It fails to satisfy the human heart. The other Gospel of my early memory does. That’s the Gospel we should place our faith in, the Gospel proclaimed in the Mass.

At the heart of the Mass is the Eucharist, our share in God’s own incarnate love. Inverting “Freedom! ’90,” the Eucharist sings: “All we have to see / Is that I belong to you/ And you belong to me / Yeah, yeah! / Freedom!”

The Eucharist expresses the infinite humanism known as “Christianity.” It is a paradoxical and saintly truth that men and women  can only find themselves by making sincere gifts of themselves; we are our giving, especially when our gifts are freely given.

So, as catchy as “Freedom! ’90” is, the lesson from George Michael’s song is a sad and essentially lonely one, ultimately bereft of hope and light. Freedom is not found in  “give what you take,” but in give give give! (Eucharist = good gift!) Christ gives his entire self in this gift, just as the Father gives his entire self to the Son. Unlike “Freedom! ’90,” the Eucharist does not cut us off from the past but connects us to our deepest origins: the Father. We are taken up through the Son to the Father by the Holy Spirit. That leads to our true identity, which needs no deconstructing. 

It is in this Good News that we place our faith. 

Even though the gospel singing I so vividly recall from my youth was a bit awkward for a suburbanite boy, it didn’t have the tinge of sadness I sensed in George Michael’s song, even at so young an age. 

Next time you listen to Michael’s funky gospel tune remember that there’s a better tune to sing, one that promises not freedom from reality but an integral freedom in tune with the world, taught by the bearded wise God-man, Jesus Christ. Partake in that freedom through the Mass. And perhaps while there, whisper up a prayer for the soul of a gifted young man trying “to get himself happy” without the essential help of heaven.