George Michael: The Archetypes And The Angel
Updated: Jan 31
For some, it is David Bowie, for others Freddie Mercury, but for me, it has to be George Michael.
As a teenager, I watched him from afar, whilst listening to cooler 'indie' music, yet curious about his brooding glamour, pastel shorts and suburban swagger. Club Tropicana and Last Christmas may have been frothy and fun, but they 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 'become' 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 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 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.
In response, George had refused to appear in his own music videos. For Freedom! '90, 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 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 which is full of archetypal imagery, meaning the themes and motifs represent an innate unspecific knowledge, derived from the sum total of human history, which prefigures and directs conscious behaviour. Even the structure of the video, with its shocking mid point of blood and needles, a contemporary theme in the era of AIDS and HIV of the late 80s early 90s, follows the hero's journey, an idea credited to the writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell who was influenced by Jung.
This is a video full of shadows. By his absence there is a sense that George is not quite ready to step into the shadowy parts of himself, those difficult complex parts, which the video fortells he will need to do, if he is to embark on the journey of integrating 'George' and Georgios.
Instead, the first person we see is an unnamed man, a male model called John Pearson, who is lip-syncing the song. 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 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 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, letting go of his 'pin-up' veneer to become one of the world's greatest singer-songwriters, as well as a producer, businessman, sharp legal mind and nemesis to the music industry.
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 for filming 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 affect 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, 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 kettle on a stove which whistles as it comes to the boil. 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 angry whistling kettle also symbolizes passion and emotion. People may 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 am 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 or understanding why. 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.