Seven months ago, on a rainy night in New York City, I attended a benefit at a club somewhere south of 23rd St. In between a strong mix of classic funk and disco cuts, the DJ slipped on the 12” of “Everything She Wants” by Wham! It’d been more than 10 years since I last heard an anguished George Michael scream “Somebody tell me/ Why I work so hard for you.” Against a background of shadows and strobe lights, the song sounded even better in 2006 than in 1984. While grooving along to its sumptuous rhythm, I wondered why I never gave “Everything She Wants” much notice before. Of the era when George Michael recorded with Andrew Ridgeley as Wham!, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (which I didn’t particularly care for) stole the thunder of “Everything She Wants”. Both cuts appear back to back on Twenty Five, the new career retrospective by George Michael, but it’s the very danceable 12” of “Everything She Wants” that rightfully opens the set.
Twenty Five is the first George Michael compilation to appear on the market since 1998’s Ladies & Gentlemen. Though a couple of major hits—“Monkey” and “I Want Your Sex”, specifically—didn’t make the cut this time around, the format is basically the same: two discs of Michael’s hits and key album cuts divided by tempo. The For Living disc covers upbeat material like “Faith” and “Fastlove” while For Loving groups together ballads and love songs, such as “Careless Whisper” and “One More Try”. The main differences are that Twenty Five includes tracks from Patience (2004), the controversial “Shoot the Dog” single, a few Wham! hits, and the requisite new songs. (A “limited edition” set is also available with an extra disc of rare material, not reviewed here.)
Save for a few tracks, most of the music on Twenty Five holds up in 2006. “Too Funky”, from the Red, Hot and Dance benefit album, is stuck in an early ‘90s swirl of keyboards and new jack beats. Michael’s remake of Stevie Wonder’s “As” with Mary J. Blige is a well intentioned but flat effort. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” still sounds silly and “A Different Corner” is awash with slowly pulsating keyboards that were de rigeur in 1985 and quickly became out of date thereafter. That said, a throbbing club track like “Flawless (Go to the City)”, from Patience, will probably sound very antiquated in another 10 years.
Hearing these tracks through a filter of sexuality, however, adds another layer to the listening experience. George Michael is gay, a fact he openly celebrates on “An Easier Affair”, one of the new tracks recorded for this collection. “I told myself I was straight/ But I shouldn’t have worried/ ‘Cause my maker had a better plan for me.” Sung over a funky mid-temp groove, Michael’s message—“Don’t let them use my life to put your future down”—seems directed at other male pop stars whose sexuality is kept under wraps by a barrage of publicists and record label executives. Like Elton John, his duet partner on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, George Michael dated women to quell open speculation about his sex life. For more than half of his two-decade career, George Michael subtly encoded his sexual identity in the lyrics to some of his biggest hits, even while frolicking with women in his music videos. Listening to “Freedom ‘90” offers the following revelation: “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.”
Shortly after an incident involving an undercover cop at a gay club, and the subsequent media coverage, Michael’s lyrics weren’t so subtle anymore. George Michael had been officially “outed” and “Outside”, a disco-drenched gem that appeared as a new track on Ladies and Gentleman, told the story. In this song, staying in the closet is characterized as an illness that needs to be cured. (And what better cure than the dance floor?) A sense of liberation permeates the track. “I’ve never really said it before/ There’s nothing here but flesh and bone/ There’s nothing more”, he exclaims. With its very personal subject matter, it’s no wonder “Outside”, not to mention “Freedom ‘90” and “An Easier Affair”, ranks among Michael’s most soulful achievements.
But George Michael’s music is as important for its universality as it is for its sexual specificity. Presumably, “Amazing” is a love song about Michael and his partner, yet its genderless pronouns translate to all kinds of relationships. Rather gracefully, George Michael has proclaimed his love for men without alienating his fans. What Twenty Five illuminates that Ladies and Gentlemen did not is how Michael has come full circle in making peace with his sexuality. If album charts are any indication—Twenty Five topped the European Albums chart—he hasn’t lost many listeners in the process.