"... (H)ow can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form?"
As millions of his fans and admirers celebrated Christmas Day, slowly the grim news pierced the holiday glow via news outlets and social media: George Michael, a prodigious talent who sold over 100 million albums worldwide and became one of the planet’s dominant pop stars during the ‘80s and ‘90s, was gone at the absurdly young age of 53. A cruel year already scarred by the shocking deaths of some of popular music’s greatest icons was not yet sated. It’s almost as if a deeply malevolent spirit has been writing the script and holding the puppet strings of 2016. Against a backdrop of heightened global anxiety in the wake of calamitous election results in the US and elsewhere that have rattled the foundations of a world order already wracked by escalating hatred, terror, violence and poverty, the refuge of popular music and entertainment, where so many of us look to escape bleak reality, has turned into a long contemplation on mortality and loss.
For much of the ‘80s, George Michael was as bright a star in the pop music universe as anybody. He scored a string of international smash hits first as half of the duo Wham! and then as a solo artist. Michael’s success would continue into the ‘90s but would level off and decline by the end of the decade, and at his nadir, he would find himself in prison. It’s now been 20 years since his last appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in America, yet Michael has remained a beloved and influential artist. Blessed with a sweet and soulful voice, George Michael was a gifted performer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer responsible for some of the most enduring songs to emerge from the MTV generation. Younger fans may not appreciate how popular and beloved George Michael was at the height of his success, but those of us who grew up with well-worn copies of Wham!’s Make it Big and the epic 1987 classic Faith understand very well the magnitude of the world’s latest musical loss. One might argue that George Michael never fully realized the extent of his commercial or artistic potential, yet what he did achieve remains a timeless testament to his extraordinary talent.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to parents of English and Greek Cypriot descent, Michael’s interest in music led him through several bands and a stint as a DJ before he and former classmate Andrew Ridgely formed Wham! in 1981. Two years later, the duo signed to Innervision Records, who released their debut single “Wham Rap!” in June 1982. The single failed to ignite much enthusiasm, but the follow-up “Young Guns (Go For It)” shot to #3 in the UK after a fortuitous appearance on Top of the Pops introduced the fresh-faced 19-year-olds to a large new audience. In the wake of Wham!’s first success, “Wham Rap!” was reissued and this time it climbed into the Top 10. Their biggest hit yet, “Bad Boys”, was released in May 1983 and soared to #2. It also became their first chart single in America, reaching #60. In July 1983, Wham! released their debut album Fantastic, compiling their three prior hits with newly recorded material, including their fourth single “Club Tropicana” which lodged at #4. Wham!, having enjoyed four straight Top 10 singles in the UK, was snatched up by Columbia Records. They were on the brink of international stardom, and when it came it was like a hurricane riding the bouncy waves of jubilant ‘60s soul.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was the big breakthrough. A high energy Motown pastiche with an irresistibly upbeat video, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” hit #1 in the UK and, thanks largely to ubiquitous MTV airplay, spent three weeks at the top in America. The follow-up “Careless Whisper” (actually a George Michael solo single, it was credited as Wham! featuring George Michael in the US), a mid-tempo ballad studded with a blazing sax solo, became another #1 smash. The duo’s album Make it Big was true to its name, reaching #1 and selling over six million copies in the US alone. Michael was already flexing his creative muscles, having written almost all of the album as well as producing it. Make it Big yielded two more smash hits: a third straight US chart-topper in the dramatic electro-pop “Everything She Wants”, and another ‘60s-inspired burst of dance-pop energy, “Freedom”, which hit #3.
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In spite of Wham!’s success, George Michael yearned for more creative freedom and the ability to veer into more mature material. Wham! released a few more singles (highlighted by the #3 smash “I’m Your Man”) and a compilation album, Music From the Edge of Heaven, that gathered their last recordings (including “Last Christmas”, which has become an essential holiday staple over the years). A high-profile farewell show on 28 June 1986 at Wembley Stadium marked the end of the road for Wham!, but George Michael was just warming up. Already showing significant artistic progression, he released the solemnly beautiful ballad “A Different Corner” in April 1986. At first blush, with no percussion and lacking a radio-friendly melodic hook, it hardly seemed like a hit in the making, but the power and sincerity of Michael’s vocal performance pushed the song to #1 in the UK and #7 in America. “A Different Corner” boosted Michael’s confidence, validated his decision to go it alone, and offered a glimpse of things to come.
George Michael’s success continued to skyrocket as his January 1987 duet with legendary diva Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”, raced straight to #1 in the US. The fires of anticipation for Michael’s first solo album were stoked to a fever pitch, but nobody could have foreseen the magnitude and scope of his success with Faith. It was preceded by “I Want Your Sex”, a slice of minimalist sex-positive electro-funk that seems rather tame by today’s standards but at the time caused a bit of a tizzy at mainstream Top 40 radio and MTV. The steamy video (co-starring Michael’s then-girlfriend, American D.J. Kathy Jeung), required editing before MTV would air it, and some radio stations refused to play the song. Despite all the pearl-clutching, the track still hit #2 and the publicity surrounding the controversy only heightened the excitement for the new album.
The floodgates of superstardom exploded with the release of Faith and its cleverly-conceived old-school rock 'n' roll title-track. Suddenly George Michael rivaled Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson as one of the top pop artists in the world. “Faith” the single, with its iconic ass-shaking video, spent a month at #1 in the US and cemented Michael’s standing as a first-rate sex symbol. Michael himself was rightly proud of the album, boasting to Rolling Stone in a January 1988 interview, “I really think that anyone who doesn't like anything on my new album has no right to say they like pop music. If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music." He was right.
The sultry “Father Figure” became the second of four straight #1 hits in America from Faith, including the stunning gospel-tinged ballad “One More Try” and the kinetic dancefloor novelty “Monkey”. The album’s final single, the lovely jazz-influenced “Kissing a Fool”, landed at #5, giving Faith a remarkable six Top 5 hits in America. Critics loved the album as well, and it won the prestigious prize for Album of the Year at the 1989 Grammy Awards. Faith has sold over ten million copies in the US alone and over 25 million globally. Interestingly, all of the album’s singles charted higher in America than in Michael’s native UK, a dynamic that would change rather quickly.
Faith was the apex of George Michael’s popularity. For the all-important follow-up, he wanted to go in a more serious direction. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, released in September 1990, is dark and somber compared with its generally upbeat predecessor, with markedly less mainstream appeal. The first single, “Praying for Time”, is a stately hymn that passionately addresses the struggles inflicting so many around the world. Despite the heavy subject matter, “Praying for Time” became yet another #1 hit for George Michael in America.
The follow-up “Freedom ‘90” is a declaration of independence from the type-cast sex symbol caricature he became during the Faith period. The video features several supermodels lip-syncing the track while the jacket, jukebox and guitar from the “Faith” video are shown aflame. The lyrics speak to Michael’s apparent regret at the uber-commercial sexual imagery that helped make him a megastar: “Well it looks like the road to heaven / but it feels like the road to hell / when I knew which side my bread was buttered I took the knife as well / posing for another picture / everybody’s got to sell / but when you shake your ass, they notice fast / and some mistakes were built to last”.
George Michael’s tune had changed rather quickly in only a few years. He seems to have forgotten what he told Rolling Stone two months after Faith was released: "People have the perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it's because that's all you can do. Not because it's all you choose to do, and not because it's the area you love. If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that."
He was absolutely correct in that interview, but somewhere along the line he began to believe the callous dismissals by some critics and a portion of the public that viewed him as a lightweight merely pumping out commercial product designed for mass consumption. He needn’t have been so perturbed -- he was already taken seriously by most, his talent widely recognized. Some were bewildered by Michael’s constant harping about his aversion to fame and his unhappiness with the superstardom brought by Faith. After an interview in the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar magazine in which he complained about his stardom, none other than Frank Sinatra shot back incredulously in a statement provided to The Mirror: “Now that he's a smash songwriter at 27 he wants to quit doing what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for -- just one crack at what he's complaining about." Old Blue Eyes had a valid point.
In fact, it seemed Michael wasn’t so averse to commercial success after all, once it became clear that his latest album’s performance would pale compared to Faith. Despite its decidedly non-commercial nature and Michael’s own admission in his lyrics to “Freedom ‘90” that he wasn’t going to go along with the demands of MTV and Top 40 radio, Michael was irate over the performance of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 in the America. “Freedom ‘90” reached #8 and the mid-tempo gem “Waiting for That Day”, the third and final Top 40 hit from the album in America, hit #27. It’s hard to conceive how the album could have performed better than it did (it reached #2 in the US and sold two million copies there), but Michael accused Sony Music (which had absorbed Columbia Records in 1988) of botching the album’s promotion. A planned Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, reportedly a more upbeat collection, never materialized, and Michael sued Sony Music for failing to adequately promote the album. He eventually lost the suit, and the episode ultimately proved a disastrous move that halted Michael’s artistic momentum and mired him in limbo for half a decade.
It’s unfortunate that Michael’s preoccupation with the perception of him as a serious artist while still hoping to sell vast quantities of product caused him such angst over what is actually his finest album. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is deeply compelling throughout, with Michael’s vocal prowess on full magnificent display and his songwriting at its peak. The gorgeous and heartbreaking “Mother’s Pride” and his jaw-dropping cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” are both career highlights, as is “Cowboys and Angels”, an exquisitely dreamy old-school waltz with a glistening vocal performance. Under the circumstances the album was substantially successful, but just as with Faith the overall experience left Michael unsatisfied.