After about six months since the Wham! breakup was announced, we were treated to George Michael having an epic superstar duet with one of his idols, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. That single, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” delivered the goods with George holding very well in his end in the presence of the always formidable Aretha. It led to Aretha’s second US Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single and of course another major feather in George’s cap, and it was a major smash in many territories.
But George didn’t play it safe when he released his follow-up, “I Want Your Sex“. It courted controversy starting from the title itself, and despite the positive “monogamy” message, we were living in a pretty conservative era then so it was a big deal–though radio stations like 99.5 RT didn’t mind playing it, Casey Kasem only mentions the song but not play it on his Top 40 countdown. Of course on primetime (or morning or afternoon) music video programs on network TV, you won’t see this video playing, but I was able to catch one on a music video show that airs late in the evening–of course I know even then they would be “sanitizing” and editing out some parts. Still, it is indeed a sexy video, featuring the exotic Kathy Jeung (his then-girlfriend) as the leading lady. It only dawned on me now that it borrowed from David Bowie’s “China Girl” video in that aspect, though rendered in a culturally-neutral, cosmopolitan high-fashion style. At this point, I was thinking George’s sexuality is like David Bowie, that he might have feminine moves but digs exotic girls like what David Bowie does. Still, I’m glad that despite the controversy it was a very successful single, peaking at No. 2 in the US
Then came the career-defining blockbuster: “Faith” was unconventional for its time as it is a rockabilly-styled ditty with a sparse arrangement (especially with this era notorious for its overreliance on synths and drum machines), but well, because it’s toe-tappingly infectious it made it so distinct that it’s inevitable that it became a mega-success. And of course there is the iconic image of George playing guitar while clad in denim jeans and leather jacket with those aviator shades and that stubble (more about his looks when I discuss his follow-up album to this). That song and that video remains indelible to this day and it always sounds fresh.
This was followed by another stunning single, the soulful ballad “Father Figure“. The video is also very stylish as it features a plot about a love affair between a chic fashion model and a taxi driver played by George. The video may not be as awesome as “Faith” (though it’s still a lovely video), but the song still resonates to this day. In fact, its groove was sampled by rap duo PM Dawn five years later as “Looking Through Patient Eyes” featuring backing vocals by Cathy Dennis.* George then followed it up with more hits like the ballad “One More Try“, club banger “Monkey“, and the jazzy ballad “Kissing a Fool“.
* Cathy Dennis is a lovely pop singer in her own right with a bunch of hits in the early 1990s like “Touch Me (All Night Long)” and “Too Many Walls” and a whole host of underrated shoulda-been hit songs like “Irresistible”, but she is now better known as a killer pop songwriter-for-hire, responsible for Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, and the theme song to the Idol franchise.
After the Faith juggernaut, George found time to help out his friend Deon Estus, who was the bassist in Wham!’s backing band, as the latter embarked on his solo career. George lent backing vocals to the 1989 US Top 5 hit, “Heaven Help Me“. It was a lovely piece of soul. It also brought back some personal memories as this was the last song played when I visited that college friend I mentioned in my Prince essay before he suddenly gave me the cold shoulder.
It was then almost a year-and-a-half before we get to hear from George again. But it came with a jolting message–first as he released his ballad “Praying for Time“, it came with a note that he will not appear in a music video anymore, and that the cover art for the album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 will not feature his image. In our shores, his “no image on album cover” directive was disobeyed as a small profile picture of him was superimposed on the main cover art. Radio station 99.5 RT also premiered the entire album, and I actually liked what I heard, though it was pretty slow going as it’s laden with ballads filled with serious messages, just like the launching single “Praying for Time“–when it was released I have to admit I didn’t really dig the song that much and found it too dour, but as years wore on its lyrics carry more resonance especially with the state of the world these days. It’s also noted that it mostly lacks dance groove, with the exception of “Freedom ’90“, “Soul Free” and my second-most favorite track from that album, “Waiting for that Day“–which qualifies as a ballad, but it samples James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” groove which I thought made this more interesting to listen to, and I have to say its lyrics resonated with me, especially about an important person in my life whose ties I had to sever about four-and-a-half years later.
My favorite track off the album–and my all-time favorite George Michael song–is “Freedom 90″. They had to tack on the “90” to this song so to avoid confusion with his previous Wham! song with the same title, but this is way superior to that song, as most (including myself) would attest. Though the verses are specific to George’s own experiences, the soaring “FREEDOM!” chorus carries such a universal resonance that everyone can relate. So I’m a bit frustrated that this only peaked at No. 8 in the US and didn’t even hit Top 40 in the UK–this deserves to be a much bigger hit. Well, at least the music video featuring supermodels Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington is now one of the indelibly classic music videos of all time. But I have to note that though there is so much focus on the five female supermodels, there were male models in the video, too. At the time, I thought there were perhaps two models at most, but it turns out there were five. I know male models tend to be at the bottom of the fashion totem pole, but I want to elevate them and identify them by name (and scenes): John Pearson (the guy who was most like the “substitute” George reclining on a couch clad in leather jacket, T-shirt, and jeans), Mario Sorrenti (young guy reclining with a lamp–he eventually became renowned as a famous fashion photographer), Todo Segalla (the shirtless guy doing upside-down abdominal exercises on a horizontal bar), Peter Fromby (long-ish haired boyish cutie under a lit cellar), and Scott Benoit (sexy guy in shadowy close-up towards the end of video seemingly taking a shower and occasionally covering his face).
I can recall reading an interview of him in a magazine where he explained why he did what he did. Some important takeaways from it are these:
1) He was asked point-blank about his sexuality, and his response at the time was evasive, declaring he would neither confirm or deny he is gay. If you ask me, this kind of evasiveness usually is as good as confirming that he is, but of course not making it “official”. I can understand why–at the time I’m also struggling with my sexuality and “gay” was a label loaded with a lot of unwanted baggage that most people would demean your value as a person in the process, and of course I don’t want my value as a person to be solely defined by my sexuality.
2) The magazine article featured this self-portrait drawn by George himself. It was a pretty unflattering self-portrait, that it dawned on me that George probably has low self-esteem and thinks of himself as ugly. Admittedly during his Wham! days I did find his features a tad harsh, but as he grew his stubble since 1985, I suddenly found him good-looking and those “harsh” features seem to now all make sense (and I think George also arrived at the same conclusion). In many ways, he’s the forerunner of today’s “scruffy-is-hot” trend for men. It also now makes sense why he’s reportedly very particular of the images released of him, and why (like Mariah Carey) he tends to prefer to be shot at one angle over the other. In a certain way, this also could explain why he had Andrew Ridgeley with him when he started out–from many accounts I have then read over the years, the story goes is that George was introverted and Andrew helped George step out of his shell, and Andrew wanted to become a star, and George has that prodigious talent with his terrific singing voice and knack for creating great songs, so these friends banded together, with Andrew building up George’s self-esteem and confidence as George delivered those songs and the rest was history. So Andrew served a purpose in Wham! after all.
Later I watched the 1991 Brit Awards, and George was present to receive an award. I think it was presented by some model so George had to point out in his speech that the reason why he did the “Freedom 90” video the way he did is he pointed out he thinks the public would prefer to look at the prettier faces of models than someone like him. I kinda beg to disagree here as I think people do want to see him and think he’s attractive enough to fit with the “beautiful” ones. Now, the armchair psychologist in me also speculates that he started to chafe at the image he crafted when he promoted the Faith album that he started to feel like a fraud, that was why he decided to scale down and repudiate that previous persona.
For many lesser artists, the numbers delivered by Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 would be something to celebrate, but because it was a steep drop from the levels delivered by Faith, it was deemed a disappointment. Anyway, after the singles from that album died down, his next releases were earmarked for charity. First up was his duet with Elton John covering the latter’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me“, which became a major international smash. This was then followed by “Too Funky“, which is supported by a video in a style similar to “Freedom 90” featuring Linda Evangelista (the only holdover from the “Freedom 90” video), Tyra Banks, Nadja Auermann, Eva Herzigova, Emma Sjöberg, and Estelle Hallyday, plus celebrities like TV Catwoman Julie Newmar, Pedro Almodovar muse Rossy de Palma and drag queens Joey Arias and Lypsinka. George’s stance on not appearing on his videos mellowed down as he was featured in fleeting scenes culminating in the ending when he’s shown as the “director” of the video (though the text art states “Drected by: ?”. It was a highly saturated visual delight. As you, the reader would know by now, I tend to have a bias towards George’s uptempo numbers, and I enjoyed the sensual and yes, funky song immensely. It was another successful single (peaking in No. 10 in the US and higher positions elsewhere).
I read somewhere that the video was originally a joint directorial effort between George and fashion designer Thierry Mugler and the latter supplied the fashions sported by the models. But there was major friction between the directors during the shoot and a clash of editorial visions. After almost two decades of the video’s original release, we got to see Thierry’s edit, and it was a revelation. First, there were a lot more models, like veteran Beverly Johnson and then up-and-comers Shana Zadrick and Emma Balfour and there were a whole host of male models featured too, reportedly including eventual Grey’s Anatomy star Justin Chambers and eventual Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Honsou. Second, one beefy male model was lip-syncing George Michael’s lines by standing on a wall clad only in tight denim jeans. Third, there seems to be a more coherent narrative in Thierry Mugler’s version, as it turns out Julie Newmar’s role was actually more prominent and so she appeared last on the catwalk in this version–note that the sequence in which the models appeared was radically different between the released version and Thierry’s original cut. So why did George object to Thierry’s version? My speculation is because he’s still very much in the closet and the sight of those hot homoerotic male models made him uncomfortable that he wanted them edited out, along with the “lesbian” sequence between Linda and Estelle.
George was among the artists who performed at Freddie Mercury‘s tribute concert with Queen, singing a duet with Lisa Stansfield on “These Are the Days of Our Lives“, and then went on to do “Somebody to Love” It was a perfect fit, as George’s voice has a similar tone and timbre to Freddie’s vocals–which goes to show how impressive a vocalist George is; in my reckoning George and Freddie are the top two pop/rock male vocalists of all time. Those performances are then compiled in a charity EP called Five Live and featured George’s other live performances from his 1991 Covers to Covers mini-tour (concerts where he mixes his own songs with him covering many of his favorite songs from other artists), including a medley of “Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (from Seal and the Temptations respectively).
Around that time, George filed a lawsuit against his record label, Sony, to free himself from his record contract. Some of the arguments in that suit is that Sony sabotaged promotions for Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 that is why it underperformed–at the time I didn’t quite sympathize with George’s stance on this since I felt he brought that to himself because he didn’t want to appear in videos and go on tour to promote that album–that Covers to Covers tour barely focused on material from that album, for instance and it wasn’t an extensive tour. I suppose because of that, the jury didn’t rule in George’s favor. But Sony’s reputation got hurt so they were able to come up with a deal to let Geroge buy out of his contract (reportedly costing George US$40 million) so he could be free to pursue other labels.
This led to the Older album. His launching single”Jesus to a Child” was a ballad dedicated to a deceased Brazilian friend of his who died of AIDS, Anselmo Feleppa–who as we would eventually find out was his boyfriend. Then came “Fast Love”, another awesome groovesome toe-tapper that philosophically is the opposite of “I Want Your Sex” as he touts the joys of casual sex. Another track I like from the album was the jazzy “Spinning the Wheel“–I’m a bit obsessed with the black female backup singer with the frizzy hairdo and flower on her hair. I also kinda like “Star People” but yes, they had to remix it to make it a single. At this point, George’s successes are mainly confined outside of the United States even if “Jesus to a Child” and “Fastlove” made the Top 10 there.
In April 1998, George was arrested for “lewd behavior” in an entrapment operation in a men’s restroom at Will Rogers park in Beverly Hills. Of course the tabloid press pounced on this and finally when he conducted interviews in the aftermath of that event, George confirmed what I had always known when I first saw him in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”–that he’s gay. I have to say I relate to this particular predicament–how or if I was in an exact situation like George, I would have to plead the fifth on that. Later that year he released a greatest hits collection called Ladies and Gentlemen: the Best of George Michael. It didn’t dawn on me the title of the collection was a nod to the arrest (remember that restrooms are designated as “Ladies” and “Gentlemen”, but obviously the carrier single “Outside” makes that reference obvious and I loved how he made it cheeky and humorous, like transforming the urinals into a discotheque, for instance. It felt liberating, and George looks finally comfortable in his own skin.
The double album was divided into two sections–“For the Heart”, which features ballads, and “For the Feet”, which features songs with a groove (not necessarily all unconditionally uptempo). I do appreciate his talent with ballads, and I like his duet with Brazilian jazz legend Astrud Gilberto (“Girl from Ipanema”) on the Portuguese language song “Desafinado“ (translated as “Out-of-Tune” in English). But of course on heavy rotation in my CD player was the “For the Feet” CD. Another highlight for me is his cover of Stevie Wonder‘s”As“, a duet with Mary J. Blige. It’s such a missed opportunity that this is not a bigger hit as this is just utterly terrific and needless to say I adore the video with multiple Georges and Marys. This is not the first time George covered Stevie–he did that beautiful, mournful ballad “They Won’t Know When I Go” on Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 previously.
The following year, he came out with an all-covers ballad album Songs from the Last Century. I basically ignored it since, well, I have always preferred his danceable uptempo stuff and there was none of it here. It was successful in Europe and a big flop in the US. Two and a half years later, he released this dance song called “Freeek!” Now, I was disappointed with that song and music video–its mechanical rhythms didn’t have the uplifting grooves we have come to expect from his uptempo stuff, and the music video seems he returned back to the closet as he strutted and preened like a hetero lothario surrounded by girls, which felt hypocritical. It was a big hot mess in my opinion, even if it was a hit throughout Europe. His follow-up single, “Shoot the Dog“, a discofied political protest song on then-US President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair‘s decision to invade Iraq, was an improvement, but it took the release of his Patience album to get on board especially with the singles “Amazing” and “Flawless (Go to the City)“.
The years since Patience was filled with turmoil as he had multiple arrests for driving incidents where he’s under the influence of drugs and again for anonymous public sex. It seems his relationship with then partner Kenny Goss was an open relationship, and I didn’t mind the sex thing, but the drugs thing alarmed me and I hope he would recover from this. But then he was felled by pneumonia in late 2011 and it seemed he has not recovered fully from that as his output significantly slowed down. He did release a few singles like “White Light” in 2012 after his near-brush with death and a live album, Symphonica (based on his 2011-2012 tour where he sang accompanied by a symphony orchestra various cover numbers and rearranged versions of his hits). But at this point, George is now regarded as a “legacy” artist, not at the forefront of pop relevance.
On a piquant note, another lasting legacy that George left behind is that he’s the guy who inspired James Corden‘s now famous viral segment in his talk show, Carpool Karaoke. It came from a comedy sketch for Red Nose Day for Comic Relief in 2011 where they were brainstorming ideas for that charity event and James was driving George around town.
Turns out George’s life in many ways mirrored mine, especially in coming to terms with my own sexual identity. I think we both struggled because of the milieu we were in then–it was pretty repressive in those days (and unfortunately with the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and to a lesser extent Rodrigo Duterte), there might be a chance that our hard-won freedoms would be reverted back. Considering the drug issues George had been through, I’m actually certain the latter president’s sentiment would be “good riddance”. It’s such a shame because George’s singing and songwriting talents have been proven to have withstood the test of time, and his musical legacy and his now-disclosed acts of generosity are definitely going to be missed.