George Michael: The Archetypes And The Angel
Updated: Jul 27
‘One without myth is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues with him, or yet with contemporary human society’ - Carl Jung
For some, it has to be David Bowie, for others Freddie Mercury, but for me, it's George Michael. As a teenager, I watched him from afar, whilst listening to much cooler music of course, yet I was curious about his brooding glamour and suburban swagger. Club Tropicana and Last Christmas may have been fizzy and fun, but they hinted of a deeper yearning.
Throughout the 90s and 2000s, George’s life veered between triumph and tragedy, self-sabotage and self-discovery. The contradictions were stark: he demanded loyalty, and yet he let people into his life who did not serve him well. He craved privacy, and he would leave the lights on in his Highgate home so that anyone could see in. He needed love and intimacy, whilst searching out casual and anonymous encounters. There was George Michael, and then there was Georgios Panayiotou.
Here was someone trying to become himself, whilst negotiating the hyperbole and hysteria of celebrity, and the multi-million pound demands of Sony Music. The cost was high. Through his music, we glimpse his inner life, his private pain, the transgenerational trauma, and the profound grief he felt for his mother and his lover Anselmo. Eventually, this was too much, he had to let go.
Recently, I have been watching his videos on YouTube and I've been intrigued by Freedom! '90. As a song, it is pop perfection, a catwalk anthem and protest song rolled into one, which alludes to George's struggles with artistic integrity and personal identity. At the time, he was beginning to push against the constraints of the music industry, whilst rejecting the manufactured, normative sex symbol image being projected upon him.
In response, George had refused to appear in his own music videos. If the record company wanted sex, it would be on his terms, so he enlisted Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, and Cindy Crawford, the original Supermodels, to lip-sync the song. David Fincher, who had just directed Madonna’s Vogue, was brought on board for the visuals. The result: one of the most iconic music videos of the MTV years.
Has it dated? Not at all. It would be crass to say that it 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 interpretation’ of the video. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, was fascinated by myths and legends, fairy tales, astrology, folklore and tarot cards. For Jung, the motifs found here are archetypal, in that they hint at an innate human knowledge, which prefigures and influences conscious behaviour.
The video makes good use of shadows, which is a key Jungian concept. My interpretation is that George was beginning to explore the ‘shadowy’ parts of himself: the complex trauma of his childhood, the shame he felt around his sexuality, and the transgenerational trauma of his Greek heritage. Even the structure of the video, with its mid point of blood and needles, which reflects contemporary fears about AIDS and HIV, follows the Jungian structure of the hero's journey.
The first person we see in the video is not George, rather it is an unnamed man, a male model called John Pearson, who lip-syncs the first verse. In fairy tales, there is often a ‘herald’, someone who appears at the beginning of the story to announce the hero's need for change.
We are then introduced to the ‘five powerful women’. These women, the supermodels, not only represent the different parts of George's personality, they are also aspects of his 'anima'. By this I mean his 'archetypal feminine’, that innate part of him that is divergent from masculine gender norms. 'The muse' is associated with the 'anima', and of course, in this video, the supermodels symbolise George's creativity. For creatives, 'the muse' can be elusive, the relationship with it complex, the potential transformative.
That there are five women is significant too. In numerology, five is the number of change and instability. People who are ruled by the number five can be tricky, they are not easy to be around, they change their mind often and resist commitment; their lives can be messy and unpredictable.
In the 90s, Linda Evangelista was known as the chameleon of the modelling world. In archetypal vernacular, she is a ‘shapeshifter’. The ‘shapeshifter’ can be your ally, or your enemy, or both. If one person truly represents George in the video, it is Linda. George was also shapeshifting at this time, letting go of his 'pin-up' veneer to become a great singer-songwriter, as well as a producer, businessman, sharp legal mind and nemesis to the music industry.
We then meet Naomi, who has attitude and biker boots. The video’s stylist Camilla Nickerson said at the time that 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 had to be propped up on scaffolding to get the right camera 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 Tatiana symbolizes. With her mass of blonde curls, she is an embodiment of the ‘Sun’, which in tarot means material contentment. After his death, we found out that George had been an anonymous and extremely generous donor to many charities and individuals, he also had a significant art collection which was auctioned off, making £11million for his charities.
Emerging through lofty double doors, draped in a 60ft linen sheet is Christy Turlington. The cool blue light of this sequence makes her seem mysterious and sacred. 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. That our legal system could put such a sensitive man through the prison system is barbaric, and George never recovered from this.
In the final sequence of the video, a kettle whistles as it comes to the boil. A kettle is a cauldron; a magical vessel from which transformation happens, and the future is seen.
In Gaelic culture, there is a lore that we embody three inner cauldrons. The upright cauldron represents the younger part of ourselves and needs to be turned to release inner wisdom. But here in the video, the upright kettle, is furiously boiling. People may get scalded; Linda thinks twice about picking it up.
Did George Michael and David Fincher intend to make use of archetypal imagery in the video? I would not be surprised if they did. But often, this type of imagery works on a subconscious level; we can be drawn to these images and characters without understanding why. If we stay curious to that, and be creative with it, we may discover a deeper story beyond what is first revealed, and this can help us make sense of our feelings and help us with our healing.
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou 25 June 1963 - 25 December 2016.