How George Michael gave us all a piece of ‘Freedom’

We all got a piece of George Michael’s ‘Freedom.’ Here’s how the late singer and his road to coming out touched so many LGBT lives.

By Buck C. Cooke

LIKE SO MANY, I WAS STRUCK by the death of George Michael on Christmas Day. For me, though, this wasn’t just another case of “this person whose work I enjoyed when I was younger passed away” or ‘80s nostalgia. Michael and his work had a profound impact on my life.

Yes, I loved the music he produced with Andrew Ridgeley as Wham! My prepubescent self was a little too excited by the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, and his first solo single, “Careless Whisper,” is sublimely lovely and heart-rending.

But George Michael’s music would provide the soundtrack to my coming out process, and as a result, impact the rest of my life.

As Faith debuted in 1987, Michael’s first solo album coincided with a seismic shift in my awareness of other men. I was a freshman in high school, and his music videos most definitely resonated with my closeted self – along with a visceral love for all of the singles from the album, especially “I Want Your Sex” and “Monkey.”

From start to finish, Faith is one of the most perfect albums ever written and stands the test of time incredibly well.

During my senior year, Michael released his sophomore album Listen Without Prejudice, Volume One. The album, a vocal and song writing masterpiece for Michael, contained a track that would further develop the seeds of self-awareness within me and hundreds of thousands of other LGBT people: “Freedom! ’90” is one of my favorite songs of all time.

Initially, I just thought it was a really fun, joyful song, but as I got older, the lyrics would take on new, more somber meaning. Years later, after I had come out to myself following my graduation from college, I would marvel at the meaning of the lyrics – words I had been singing at the top of my lungs for years – but finally then began to understand their true meaning:

I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I told you so
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone else I’ve got to be

AS I WAS COMING TO TERMS with my own sexual identity, it was so obvious to me then that this was Michael’s way of coming out to the world, even though he wouldn’t “officially” come out for some time. While I had said the words “I’m gay” to myself, I was terrified of others finding out, so listening to and singing “Freedom! ’90” became even more powerful.

Michael wrote in those lyrics that he wanted to be someone else, and I could relate. I wanted to be the straight guy I thought I was, the straight guy I had tried to be. I wanted to be straight, but I had failed.

There’s a line in the song – “All we have to do now/ Is take these lies and make them true somehow.” I wanted to do that, but I knew I couldn’t live a lie, although I sure did try for another couple of years. Sure, I told a few people, but I could count them on one hand and I knew they wouldn’t tell a soul.

I was afraid of what my family would say, my friends, my fraternity brothers, my co-workers, my boss, my church … everyone. After months and months of prayer and trying to change myself or begging God to change me and doing lots of reading and research, I started to realize that I couldn’t change who I was. I slowly began to believe that I shouldn’t have to change.

By the time I was in graduate school at Florida State, I had told most of my friends from college, and most of them had been very supportive. I had a great therapist, and she really helped me figure out what was right for me: To tell everyone, including my conservative, Southern Baptist family.

Michael writes in the second verse:

I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I stopped the show
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone I forgot to be

I DIDN’T WANT THAT to happen to me. I absolutely did not want to forget who I was, even if the prospect of telling my parents scared me more than anything ever had. I had to be honest with the two most important people in my life, because that’s what they had taught me growing up. “Be honest. Tell the truth. You can talk to us. We love you.”

I knew I would disappoint them and cause them pain, but I also knew that not telling them was causing me extreme anguish. I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts and was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t take this stone from around my neck.

As the song fades at the end, Michael sings:

May not be what you want from me
Just the way it’s got to be
Lose the face now
I’ve got to live, I’ve got to live

You can barely hear the last two lines in the song, and I wonder if that wasn’t by design. Michael is saying that he has to drop the façade the world believes about him in order to live. Not just get by, but live.

I could totally relate. Keeping that part of my life a secret was quite literally killing me. Again, I marvel at how these insights escaped me when the album was released, or any of the hundreds of times afterward that I listened to the song in the intervening years. Right there in front of me was one of my favorite songs telling this nervous young gay man how he could alleviate his suffering.

MICHAEL SUFFERED A GREAT DEAL in his life, from substance abuse and sexual compulsion to the loss of loved ones, but his body of work brought so much joy to so many people around the world. For me, his music did make me unbelievably happy as a fan, but it also helped me unlock a profound truth about myself and help me come to terms with what seemed inconceivable at the time – that I could be a happy, well-adjusted gay man and live a life that was open and free.

I will be thankful for his music anytime I hear one of his songs that touches my heart and makes me feel joy or sorrow, but I will be forever grateful for the things he helped me learn about myself as I struggled to experience the freedom about which he sang.

I won’t let you down
I will not give you up
Got to have some faith in the sound
It’s the one good thing that I’ve got
I won’t let you down
Please don’t give me up
‘Cause I would really love to stick around
Oh yeah

Thanks to your music, George, you’ll always stick around. Rest in peace.

Buck Cooke is a freelance writer in Atlanta. Reach him via this magazine.

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