George Michael's "Freedom! '90"
Both music videos are, in many ways, completely absurd. George Micheal's "Freedom! '90" has a dilapidated apartment building occupied by some of the most beautiful people in the world. Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" takes place in a pink vacuum, a point in space and time occupied with bouncy naked women, a baby goat, and a giant omnipresent #THICKE. It is not fair for me to compare these two music videos. They are separated by twenty-three years and two distinctively different seasons ("Blurred Lines" is unabashedly a summer song, while "Freedom! '90" was released at the end of October). And, of course, they are very different artists.
But I can only start from where I'm coming from. The first thing I thought about when I saw "Blurred Lines" was: This reminds me of George Michael.
Unable to link unrated version, though you can watch it here. Warning: Not safe for work. Not safe for cafes. Not safe for women (listen to the lyrics).
Instead of being in the "Freedom! '90" video himself, George Michael, who did not want to be in front of the camera anymore, has ten models. Most people remember the women, but they are men here too, who all lip sing and dance to his song. The poses are provocative, to say the least. Who could forget Cindy Crawford writhing in the bathtub, caressing her face in the sweltering heat?
Or Naomi Campbell dancing against the shadows, her arms hugging her exposed breasts?
This is a sexual video that, at first glance, could be a prime example of the objectifying, superficial culture that MTV had nurtured at the turn of the century. Except it's not that. Not just, at least. If this was just a video that had dancing models, though aesthetically pleasing (and I would argue that this video is beautifully shot by David Fincher) it would ultimately be forgettable. There's more to what we're seeing, something that gives this video an extra dimension. Or maybe a better word would be tension. The tension here lies in the lyrics:
"I just hope you understand/
sometimes the clothes/
don't make the man."
"All we have to see/
is that I don't belong to you/
and you don't belong to me..."
You have to give what you take."
Many people think that this is George Michael's coming out song. All signs point to yes, with the lyrics and ritualistic burning or exploding of his iconic sex symbol iconography (see jacket above). But another interpretation could be that he was exploding the perceived image of himself, wiping it clean off the media map. He is freeing himself from being owned by his image. The fact that this empowerment is being sung by models that live largely off of their image gives this song a tension, a central contradiction, that I believe makes it one of the greatest music videos ever made.
And then there's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines".
And I know why the video immediately made me think of "Freedom! '90". "Blurred Lines" is what "Freedom! '90" would have been if George Michael made all the wrong decisions.
Think about how different "Freedom! '90" would have been if, instead of having the models slinking alone in their rooms, George Michael had been standing over them, nodding in sublime approval. Because that's what "Blurred Lines" basically is. Well, T.I.'s there. And a baby goat. And then there's this:
In a recent interview, Thicke says that he wanted to "break all the rules" with this video. But that statement is tremendously problematic.
He's not breaking any rules here.
He is not going against our patriarchal society, its hunger for image, for sexualized women, or our inane obsession with "me". He's embracing all of that here. All that he is pushing, maybe crossing lines with, slightly, is the presentation, but the message is very clearly going for the established status quo. Some people think that it's being ironic, but an ironic viewing of the video would be just as vapid and still give us nothing new. Irony can't excuse everything all the time. Even the lyrics support our insidious rape culture:
"I hate these blurred lines/
I know you want it/
I know you want it/
I know you want it..."
And so on, and so on. But I'm not here to blast this song for promoting rape culture (though anyone easily could). The problem I'm addressing is that there is not a drip of actual tension in this video. There is not an ounce of contradiction. It's so terribly literal that a 1st grader could understand it (DON'T LET YOUR 1ST GRADER WATCH THIS VIDEO). This video is seen as breaking rules. But it's not. That's why it's so offensive. Not because it is 'daringly' showing boobs.
My question is this: Why are we so scared of subversion?
When everything is so troubling in our world and so many people know it, why is our media failing us so badly? Why do our "stars" embrace the uncomplicated? And how can they keep pretending, even now, that they are on our side?
That's a lot to put on a silly summer song, I know. But you can give excuses to just about any song, any movie or TV show. Or, hell, even a book.
I guess what I'm wondering is if we will ever get another "Freedom! '90" from our pop culture. Who has the gumption to scream "Freedom"? Or even "Justice"? And actually mean it?
Who among them will actually have something new to say?