“There is no such thing as a reluctant star. Stars are almost always people that want to make up for their own weaknesses by being loved by the public and I’m no exception to that.” — George Michael, 1987.
But there is such a thing as a reluctant pop star. George Michael was no different from the many singer-songwriters desperate for critical acclaim and credibility. What made him unique was that he was willing to throw away his chance at being the biggest pop star and sex symbol in the world because he believed that his songs were good enough to sell themselves.
And in most cases, he was right.
It was a far cry from his heyday in the 1980’s and 90’s, when he was on the verge of being the new King of Pop – with the producing and songwriting chops to rival Prince. At one point in the 80’s, he outsold those two, along with Madonna, and his music videos were, arguably, more appealing to a mainstream audience that probably preferred him over a couple of African-Americans and a sexually provocative woman (especially since he was still, generally, seen as heterosexual at this point). And, boy could he sing. He could hold his own against heavyweights like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Freddie Mercury is my gold standard for rock singers, and Michael did a better job than anyone at filling in for the late Queen frontman.
But Michael always craved artistic credibility. He was such a versatile songwriter that he was able to tailor his writing to fit whatever stage of his career he was at.
During Wham’s image-oriented days, when he and Andrew Ridgeley were portraying two rebellious ne’er-do-wellers content to live on the dole while pursuing their own hedonistic pleasures, Michael was able to produce some great pop songs that seemed to promote this message but were actually scathingly satirical and subversive. He even displayed a pretty good hip-hop flow on “Wham Rap” that was never going to get him confused with Eminem but helped introduce rap to the mainstream in the UK. When the band took a turn to bubblegum pop, Michael proved he could write upbeat, positive hook-heavy songs with the best of them.
As he was preparing for his solo career, he began to display a more mature edge on songs like “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper” (ironically, one of Wham’s earliest written songs – although the version produced as a George Michael solo record differed quite a bit from the original version). As he told Rolling Stone in 1988, on the eve of his solo bow: “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.”
As Ridgeley noted in that Rolling Stone profile, Michael was extremely single-minded to such a degree that outside observers could easily see him as arrogant. And nowhere was this more apparent than in his solo career. His debut, 1987’s Faith, was a near-perfect masterpiece that, in one fell swoop, put to rest his bubblegum pop image and established himself as a bona fide superstar who could seamlessly incorporate genres as diverse as American-style blues, R&B and soul.
The album was phenomenally successful (25 million records sold worldwide, as well as four #1 hit singles in the U.S.), but it had also relied, quite a bit, on Michael’s burgeoning sex appeal and good looks. As his videos demonstrated, he may have left Wham in the dust when it came to songwriting and producing, but he was still utilizing parts of the old playbook when it came to using image to sell music.
That changed with his sophomore effort. Listen Without Prejudice, Vo1. 1 is exactly what it says on the cover. Michael was determined to be judged solely on the quality of his music and even took the extra step of not using his image to promote the album at all. His handsome face was nowhere to be seen on the album cover, nor did he appear in any of the music videos from the record.
He also revealed a more emotional, serious side to his songwriting, as the songs on Listen Without Prejudice were more introspective, somber and, in some cases, more socially conscious than his previous output. For instance, “Praying for Time” was a solemn reflection on inequity and poverty – a gorgeous song, to be sure, but an unconventional choice as lead single for a follow-up album to a cultural phenomenon like Faith. Acoustic-based numbers like “Waiting for that Day,” “Heal the Pain,” and “Something to Save,” and piano-driven ballads like the war-themed “Mother’s Pride” and “They Won’t Go When I Go” dominate the album. Ultimately, it’s a good record, but one more to be admired than loved. Simply put, there isn’t much that’s fun about it and the whole thing just seems like a self-important slog.
Of course, the album also contains, arguably, his greatest-ever song. “Freedom ’90” reads like a manifesto for Michael’s entire career outlook at that point. “I won’t let you down; I will not give you up. Gotta have some faith in the sound; It’s the one good thing that I’ve got,” could have been the album title if it weren’t so unwieldy (then again, Fiona Apple once used an entire poem as an album title, so there’s that). Meanwhile, this passage is as close to an “F-You” to his various previous images as there is: “Didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy. And I guess it was enough for me. To win the race? A prettier face! Brand new clothes and a big fat place; On your rock and roll TV. But, today, the way I play the game is not the same; No way.” And if that weren’t enough, the video (still one of the best ever made) showed his iconic leather jacket, guitar and jukebox from the “Faith” video getting blown up.
It was an astonishing move from a guy that many thought would supplant Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. Plenty of pop and rock stars have made bold artistic statements that alienated large swaths of the mainstream audience (Lou Reed and Neil Young, for instance, turned this into an art form).
Michael, however, seemed to be hoping that his audience would come along with him and appreciate his art for what it was. In essence, he wasn’t looking to alienate his audience. Rather, he wanted them to mature with him and care about the things he cared about. It was a bold gambit – albeit with a predictable result. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 ended up being the Tusk to Faith’s Rumours. It sold well (8 million worldwide), hit #1 on the UK album charts and produced his final U.S. #1 solo hit: “Praying for Time” (a result you can almost chalk up to Michael’s leftover heat from Faith). But it was a failure compared to Faith and an angry Michael pointed the finger at his record label, Sony, accusing them of failing to promote the album properly.
His ensuing lawsuit against his label showed the extent of his single-mindedness. Interpreting a standard pre-trial offer to settle as an admission of weakness on Sony’s part, Michael decided to press forward with his case – determined to win his freedom from what he termed “professional slavery.” Michael seemed to understand that the public wouldn’t necessarily be on his side and that he risked alienating his fanbase by proceeding with the lawsuit. “One of the difficult things about taking on Sony was that I knew a lot of people’s attitude would be: ‘The silly git doesn’t want to do any interviews, doesn’t make any videos, he’s not going to do this, he’s not going to do that, and then he complains that they don’t push his music,'” Michael said in an interview prior to a 1996 MTV Unplugged performance.
By the time the verdict came down (overwhelmingly in favor of Sony), he had almost nothing to show for his rebellion. He had lost three years of his career and squandered much of his goodwill with the public. It took a ton of legal wrangling and even more money for Dreamworks to step in and buy out his Sony contract. The lawsuit had also shelved what could have been a very successful Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, that was to contain a mix of uptempo dance songs and live recordings, including “Too Funky,” one of his best singles, as well as his massively successful duet with Elton John on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Even worse, he had suffered two unbearable personal losses: his first lover, Anselmo Feleppa, as well as his mother. He later admitted that much of his rage at Sony and determination to proceed with his case stemmed from his anger over losing Feleppa. When he finally resurfaced in 1996 with the melancholy Older, he seemed through chasing hits and was, instead, focused on working through his grief. His 1998 arrest for cruising in a public bathroom in Beverly Hills (leading to his forced outing, as well as a hilarious music video) meant that he was pretty much finished in the U.S. His albums continued to sell well overseas, but he mostly ignored what had once been his biggest market. I doubt most Americans can even name a George Michael song that was recorded after the bathroom incident (other than “Outside,” of course).
That’s not to dismiss the latter part of his career, as he continued creating good songs and albums. None of it held a candle to his earlier stuff, though. Indeed, most of the remembrances of Michael that have been published since Sunday have all focused on his pre-1998 career.
Michael’s former Wham manager had an interesting take on his former charge during the Sony lawsuit. “Well, if you’re an artist, go sing in the garden,” Simon Napier-Bell said. “Why do you want to sell records if you’re just an artist? Being an artist is a cry for help. All artists are very insecure people. They are desperate to get noticed. They are looking for an audience. They are forced to be commercial, which makes their art, I think, all the better.”
Commercialism gets decried a lot, but it does force some artists to raise their game, knowing that they’ll be judged by a much larger audience. Once that hurdle was removed for Michael, it also seemed to eliminate some of his drive and motivation. Then again, stars can only burn so bright for a limited amount of time before they go dark. And very few of them ever burned as brightly as George Michael.