The 1980s were not exemplary years for lyrical complexity in pop music: Duran Duran had thrown such concerns overboard as their sailboat carried them to exotic video ports of call, opening the door for Tears for Fears to dispense impenetrable pop psychology (“Shout”), A-ha to pen awkwardly phrased pleas for physical intimacy (“Take on Me”) and Madonna to embody the mercenary spirit of the impending Me Generation (“Material Girl”). This was the dawn of the MTV era, and our eyes were becoming an essential element of musical discernment. Who cared if Power Station’s songs seemed to have been written under a tight time deadline—did you see how cool Robert Palmer was in the video?
The sudden importance of videogenecy led to a clutch of musical acts whose primary talents were, euphemistically speaking, visibly evident. Superficially, the dashing playboy image that Andrew Ridgeley had formulated for the Make It Big release, along with the duo’s improbable good looks, fueled the easy dismissals by “viewers” who weren’t even listening. What they failed to hear is the surprising complexity of George Michael’s lyrics, his willingness to confront the enduring characteristics of the human condition such as abandonment issues (“Wake me up before you go go, don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo”), adequacy issues (“if my best isn’t good enough, then how can it be good enough for two?”), and frustration with our that oldest of our genetic imprimaturs, our own inability to resist temptation (“Should’ve known better than to cheat a friend and waste the chance that I’ve been given”). Wham!’s irresistible major-key melodies seemed like pop confections but were actually covert delivery devices for prickly minor-key sentiments.
“Freedom” tackles the compulsion to accentuate the positives in our broken relationships. George Michael conjures a dark scenario where his expressed desire for monogamy is brushed aside—“If you loved me, baby, you’d deny it, but you laugh and tell me I should try it.” The callous disregard exhibited by the object of his affections ought to have listeners yelling at their cassette player like viewers of horror movies try to warn the on-screen characters, yet how can we not ache for the hero, so earnest in his intentions and so foolish in his optimism? When Michael sings, “You could take me to hell and back just as long as we’re together—and you do,” he is grudgingly acknowledging the complexities of the things we define as love. Haven’t we all, in one way or another, felt “like a prisoner who has his own key”?
Wham! never got credit for such intricate pathos. Too many judged their proverbial book by its cover, but 25 years on, it’s clear the story was more complicated than the cover ever let on. Time has locked the song’s characters into an eternity of repeating their mistakes, but as listeners, we are able to correct our errant ways. Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due. Bill Reagan
6. “If You Were There”
When it comes to covering a song, there are two ways artists can go about it: They can either handle a track with kid gloves and simply go through the motions of recording it, or they can completely own it—body and soul—and give it a completely new context to thrive in. No one will deny that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a brilliant song, but to say that Jeff Buckley’s rendition is better than the canned production that marks Cohen’s original would be the understatement of the year.
So it shouldn’t come as much a surprise, then, that when Wham! decided to tackle the Isley Brothers’ classic tune “If You Were There”, they positively destroyed any memory of the original. Alternately funky and exciting, playful and downright sensual, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Wham!‘s version as transcendent as it is, though it’s a fair bet to assume that much of its greatness stems directly from George Michael’s powerful singing. Michael—pop’s Pavarotti in terms of sheer passion—manages to convey the sense of loving and longing without once ever having to go outside of his vocal comfort zone, proving that when it comes to catharsis, sometimes less truly can be more. In those well-selected moments when he chooses to send his voice straining toward falsetto, listeners must struggle themselves to prevent their own hearts from melting.
The most disappointing aspect of “If You Were There”, however, is that this absolute gem of a song—coming from a parent album full of them—never was released as a single, forcing fans to discover it on their own. Yet, this sort of ecstasy keep-away is just the sort of thing that Michael does best. Amidst the track’s fluid bass lines, courtesy of Deon Estes, and peppy drum programming, it’s hard not to wish yourself there in the studio during the recording of this song, just to be a part of the small-scale renaissance that took place in its refashioning. After all, updating a pop standard is tricky business, something Wham! learned the hard way on their first album, with their remake of the Miracles’ soul classic “Love Machine.” The fact that Wham! manage to find the emotional core of “If You Were There” without sacrificing any of the bright Day-Glo production with which they highlight all their tracks here is nothing short of astonishing. When asked for his reaction to the song in 1985 by NME, Ernie Isley had only this to say:
“I can’t believe it: they changed everything for the better. Hell, there were parts of the song that I don’t think I even knew existed until I heard it come of that boy’s mouth. It’s hard for me to talk about, really. Just ... damn.”
Even listening to this song in 2009, it’s hard to think of a more perfect union of both performer and material. Though the Isley Brothers were born to write “If You Were There”, it was George Michael who was born to sing it. History would never be the same in its wake. Evan Sawdey