George Michael: The Archetypes And The Angel
Updated: Feb 24
For some, it is David Bowie, for others it is Freddie Mercury, but for me, it has to be George Michael.
As a teenager, I watched him from afar, curious about the suburban fake tan and blonde highlights which seemed at odds with his brooding melancholy. Club Tropicana and Last Christmas were frothy and fun yet hinted at a deeper yearning.
Throughout the 90s and 00s, his life veered between triumph and tragedy, self-sabotage and self-discovery. George was a man of contradictions. He demanded loyalty; he let people into his life who did not serve him well. He craved privacy; he would leave the lights on in his Highgate home so that anyone could see in. He needed love and intimacy; he searched out casual and anonymous encounters. There was George Michael and then there was Georgios Panayiotou.
Here was a man trying to be himself whilst negotiating the hyperbole and hysteria of celebrity and the demands of Sony Music. The cost was high. Through his songs we glimpsed his inner life, his private pain, the profound grief he felt for his mother and Anselmo. Eventually, this was too much, he had to let go.
Recently, I have been watching his videos on YouTube and I have become intrigued by Freedom! '90. The song alludes to George's struggles with depression, artistic integrity and personal identity. At the time, he was beginning to push against the constraints of the music industry whilst rejecting the manufactured sex symbol image being imposed upon him.
Once again, George had refused to appear in a music video. Instead, he called upon Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Cindy Crawford - the Supermodels - to lip-sync the song. David Fincher, who had just directed Madonna’s Vogue video, was brought on board and the result is one of the most iconic music videos of the MTV years.
Has it dated? Not at all. It would be crass to say that the video objectifies women, it is about empowerment and freedom after all. But, as I watch it again, I see something else. I would go as so far as to say it is a prophecy of George’s life.
Here I take a Jungian 'transpersonal interpretation’ of the video which is literally rammed with archetypal symbolism, meaning the themes and imagery within the video go beyond culture and context. The 'transpersonal' asks us to engage with our soul.
In the video, the first person we see lip-syncing is an unnamed man – it is not George - it is a male model called John Pearson. In fairy tales, there is often a ‘herald’, someone who appears near the beginning of the story to announce the need for change in the hero’s life.
We are then introduced to ‘five powerful women’. These women represent George in all his facets. In numerology, five is the number of change and instability. People who are ruled by the number five are not easy to be around, they change their mind often and they do not like commitment. Putting it bluntly, their lives can be a bit messy and unpredictable.
In the 90s, Linda Evangelista was known as the chameleon of the modelling world. In archetypal language, she is a ‘shapeshifter’. The ‘shapeshifter’ can be your ally, your enemy and sometimes both at the same time. If one person truly represents George in the video, it is Linda. George was also shapeshifting at this time, becoming his own person. This is a video of shadows and George was beginning to explore the shadowy parts of himself.
We then meet Naomi who is all attitude and biker boots. The video’s stylist Camilla Nickerson is quoted as saying, the idea was to make Naomi appear ‘fierce’. In tarot, the card of ‘Fortitude’ or ‘Strength’ shows a woman with a lion, this is about taming, controlling and overcoming self-doubt, an ideal card for George as he took on the mighty Sony Music. But as we know, try and tame a lion and eventually it will turn on you.
Cindy Crawford appears naked in a bath which when they filmed her, had to be propped up on scaffolding to get the right angle. It is almost like she is upside down. In tarot, the ‘Star’ card is represented by a naked maiden kneeling by a pond. Reversed, this card can mean haughtiness and impotence. George's creativity enriched his life, it also set him apart. The maiden is always shown holding two jugs from which she pours water. This card can mean loss and abandonment. For George, the death of his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa from AIDS, two years after they first met, was a loss that would impact the rest of his life.
There is another side to all of this which perhaps Tatiana symbolizes. With her mass of blonde curls, it is like she is an embodiment of the ‘Sun’, which in tarot often means material contentment. After his death, we found out that George had been an anonymous and extremely generous donor to many charities, he also had a significant art collection which was auctioned and the profits distributed to his charities.
Emerging through lofty double doors, draped in a 60ft linen sheet is Christy. The cool blue light of this sequence makes her seem mysterious and impenetrable. In tarot, the ‘High Priestess' is often shown wearing a long blue tunic which blends with the sea in the background. This image is about an uncertain future.
There is a second male model who hangs upside down in a doorway. He looks like the ‘Hanged Man’ in tarot. This is a powerful card, it can mean wisdom but it also means trials, tribulation, disgrace and unforeseen catastrophe. The latter part of George’s life involved prison, a life-changing fall from a car whilst at speed, drug-related offences and both mental and physical collapse.
In the final sequence of the video there is a whistling kettle on a stove. A kettle is a very common archetypal image, it is after all a cauldron; a magical vessel from which change can happen and the future is seen. The kettle also symbolizes passion and emotion. People can get hurt. No wonder Linda thinks twice about picking it up.
Did George Michael and David Fincher intend to use this archetypal imagery in the video? I'm sure they did. But often this type of imagery works on an unconscious level; we can be drawn to these images without even realizing it. When we look closely at imagery that appeals to us, sometimes we begin to see another story beyond what is first revealed, and this can help us make sense of own experiences and feelings.
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou 25 June 1963 - 25 December 2016. Photo by Rankin Photography. Image courtesy Rankin.