British pop icon George Michael died at home in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England, on Dec. 25, 2016. The veritable superstar, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, was 53 years old.
While Michael’s influence on pop as a genre is irrefutable, his influence on fashion and style is not to be overlooked, especially the music video for his 1990 song “Freedom! ’90,” which featured supermodels Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Tatjana Patitz all lip-syncing the lyrics to his hit. (This came after Michael had committed to no longer appearing in front of the camera as he continued to write, produce, and perform at the peak of his career.)
The five models had appeared together on the January 1990 cover of British Vogue, inspiring Michael to seek them out to act as his stand-ins.
Michael’s choice to involve these women in the “Freedom! ’90” video was significant on a number of levels. While each of them had already reached celebrity status, Michael insisted to the participants that their work would only serve to further solidify their careers and cement their position as cultural icons.
And he was right — mostly because of the way the women were featured, which represented a series of choices that both subverted and empowered the idea of the supermodel in the collective cultural conscious of the time. This created a lasting effect still felt today.
By having the women voice Michael’s lyrics, he not only quietly shattered the norm in which models appeared in music videos as just the performer’s property, but rather reimagined the “girlfriend” part as the leading role, eliminating the male gaze from which these women traditionally existed in the medium.
These casting decisions also served as a subtle way to call attention to how women’s looks and bodies were being used by pop culture, and the music industry especially, in the post-MTV era. The were commodities used to sell records, music, and more.
Michael, consciously or not, elevated strong women and female identities even further by having the supermodels act as his proxies; having his voice emerge from their mouths was a quietly rogue way to challenge the nature of gender in an era when hypersexualized versions of binary gender identities otherwise dominated.
The fashion in the video — which was styled by now-Vogue contributing editor Camilla Nickerson — and the hair, done by Guido Palau, who’s currently the global creative director of Redken, also played with the notion of over-the-top glamour that defined the era up until that point.
While each of the models in the video had a different look than the other, they all offered up visual guides to an idea of powerful femininity that existed outside of the more mainstream ideals of the day. This again played with the idea of the gender binary, androgyny, sex, and the presentation of hyperfemininity that could, and did, exist without having been prescribed, sanitized, and condoned by a heteronormative, masculine point of view.
The fashion in the video almost presignaled the arrival of grunge and the end of the decadence and opulence of the late 1980s and early 1990s by creating a visual language in which codified beauty norms were “undone” slightly, revealing something darker, more unexpected and, ultimately, inarguably sexy.
Michael’s impact on pop culture will never be forgotten — and neither will he.
Shortly after the news of Michael’s death broke on social media, Linda Evangelista posted the following on Instagram:
And Cindy Crawford shared her grief on Twitter:
— Cindy Crawford (@CindyCrawford) December 26, 2016