Make It Best

by PopMatters Staff

31 Mar 2009


1. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”

For evidence of change, you needn’t look much further than the album covers. On the front of Fantastic, their 1983 debut as Wham!, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley go the leather-jackets-over-bare-chests route, their hair short and slickly styled, their backs to one another in a pose that is both standoffish and begrudgingly tough. These are not men who would necessarily comply with the request to wake you up before they went out for the evening; rather, they would leave you in the hands of an alarm clock, which would summon you from sleep, groggy, confused, and mildly aroused by the lingering scent of cracked leather and chest hair.

Make It Big is the complete opposite: here, on the U.S. cover, Michael and Ridgeley are awash in pastels and angelic radiance, their hair long and weightlessly coiffed; Ridgeley’s right arm, draped across Michael’s shoulder, suggests comfort and solidarity, as if to say, “We will wake you up”. Within a year’s time, Wham! went from dark to light, from teddy boys to pin-ups, from Runyonesque thugs to Dionysian cherubs. It was a makeover that worked in their interest—both the quality of their music and their popularity would skyrocket—and one that spoke volumes about their willingness to alter their appearance and their tune, especially in a decade as unforgiving as the 1980s. When you compare that kind of sudden, intuitive transition to a more belabored evolution such as that made by the Beatles (remember, it was years between the Hamburg clubs and their hermetic studio period), it’s clear: Wham!, though in the minds of some a mere flash in the proverbial pan of ‘80s pop, did more in that flash than most bands do over more prolonged careers.

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, the explosive bubblegum-soul number that opens Make It Big, is the duo’s biggest hit and also the best manifestation of their aesthetic reawakening. Handclaps, finger snaps, tambourine, that booming “jitterbug” mantra—there’s a reason why this infectious track knocked Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)” from the number-one spot on the U.S. charts. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is the ultimate popist’s rallying anthem, an ebullient antidote to ‘80s gloom-pop downers like Depeche Mode and New Order. It’s subversive, too, in that it’s thinking man’s music disguised as the opposite, a shout-out to the party people to raise the roof and, just as important, to tell your friends that you’re raising the roof.

Surely a thinking man, if he properly thought it through, would recognize the futility of sitting at home in secluded darkness listening to “Master and Servant” on repeat, especially when said man could be out, clad in an oversize T-shirt, submitting himself to this church of positivity, arms aloft, hips swaying from side to side, two more hands sending forth a thunder of clapped rhythm—a church led by a man in short shorts and yellow gloves, sure, but isn’t that something worth exalting all the same? Zeth Lundy


2. “Everything She Wants”

Though not often thought of as a socially conscious artist—his songs do run more toward the personal than the political—George Michael has taken his share of stances for social justice. He’s performed at Live Aid, Live 8, and Equality Rocks, and he has released a number of singles to raise money for charity, most recently last winter’s “December Song” download. In the 1980s, Wham! donated the profits from their “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” single to Ethiopian famine relief.

While the example of Band Aid makes “Last Christmas” a natural for charity, it’s the flip side that marks a truly important moment in Michael’s songwriting, as he found a seamless way to blend his interrogation of relationships with the Marxist ideology he was beginning to explore in earnest. In the process, he created not only a No. 1 single in the U.S. but also an anticapitalist piece that’s moving and insightful without being heavy-handed, using romance as a means examine the perils of unchecked consumerism in the “free” market.

The song begins as a lover’s lament sung from the perspective of a man growing frustrated with his female partner’s constant need to spend. Even at that surface level of reading, “Everything She Wants” holds up as one of Michael’s stronger songwriting efforts. But the reason it still resonates with him—it’s one of the few Wham! songs he still happily associates himself with—is that it so smoothly explores his political concerns.

During this period of his life—his late teens and early 20s—Michael was finding himself increasingly resistant to capitalism’s reliance on greed and consumerism. At first willing only to throw a few jabs at the Thatcher administration (c.f., the single “Wham Rap!” which was banned in the U.K. and which features Michael boasting of being “a dole boy”), Michael become more sensitized to the decentralized workings of capitalist exploitation through the malignant dealmaking of Wham!‘s record label, CBS. In this 1984 interview, filmed during the sessions for Make It Big, Michael notes, “When you are talking about CBS as a company, you’re not talking about individuals at all, you’re talking about huge corporate structure which has no one to blame really.” This concern with the faceless hegemony led him, like his New Wave confreres Scritti Politti, to a fascination with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

Disguising the state apparatus as a grasping lover in “Everything She Wants,” Michael played with the ways that those in power —like a demanding beloved—turn our values and our work into ideas and acts that invariably benefit the state itself, in its function as water carrier for the corporate hegemony. When Michael sings, “Won’t you tell me / Why I work so hard for you? / All to give you my money”, the speaker has begun to recognize his work’s true purpose: to facilitate capital accumulation for oligarchs operating under the ruse of the state. There’s no return on investment here for him, and he later sings, “They told me marriage”—read: the social contract—“was give and take ... you’ve got some giving to do”. The end of work, in the capitalist state, isn’t personal gain, emotional or spiritual satisfaction, or even essential human comfort. It’s the perpetuation of the corporate hegemony that binds us.

Our efforts bring us not toward a sense of accomplishment but instead strand on us the hedonic treadmill of consumer theory. The first verse’s “Everything you want and everything you see / Is out of reach, not good enough” points out the consumer-citizen’s never-ending aspirations. There’s always something better to buy, to elevate our lives, but it remains unattainable. Fooled like the beloved until “everything she wants is everything she sees”, we remain caught in a desire to own more in an effort to rise above, but with our labor only serving the hegemony. We’re trapped.

Metaphorically, Michael uses pregnancy to stand in for that trap. The worker/lover cannot leave his relationship to the corporate hegemony/beloved because the economic demands continually increase. The pregnancy, though, reminds us of our own complicity in creating our situation. Much like the beloved is both an individual tricked into empty bourgeoisie desires (verse one) and the social strictures that create those desires (verse two), we continually reinforce the values that trap us, reinscribing our servitude with each check signed (“all the things we sign / all the things we buy”) in our continual acts of conspicuous consumption.

While the prospects that the song surveys seem bleak, Michael is able to sneak in some hope. Taken as a love drama, the lines explaining that all of this consumption “ain’t gonna keep us together” sound regretful. However, understood as recognition of the end of capitalist bondage, the lines reveal themselves as an epiphany. Unlike in some pessimistic conceptions of late capitalism, Michael imagines no apocalypse in which the system has commodified everything (even love and childbirth). Instead, he conceives of the spaces that exist in what we don’t buy. As we recognize those spaces as opportunities, our relationship to our corporate culture becomes de-naturalized, and we can escape into the interstices.

It’s a lot to pack into a pop song, and its subtlety remains rewarding even 25 years later. Michael’s awareness of both the personal demands of a relationship and the political demands of consumption combine for a powerful piece of art, offering not only insight, but a reasoned and emotional hope for those caught in an oppressive system. Justin Cober-Lake

Topics: make it best | wham
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