From his earliest days as a booty-shaking teen-pop sensation — “Make It Big,” the Wham! album on which he made it big, was released in October 1984, when he was just 21 — George Michael did more than hunger for stardom. He craved credibility as a pop musician. He didn’t have to wait long for it either. In 1987, “Faith,” his first solo album, was a critical/commercial/cultural smash, a record that blew away any doubts as to whether he was a truly ambitious and elevated pop-musical artist. It was his grown-up statement (made at the age of 24), his English-boy version of a DIY-in-the-studio Prince album, his ritual of graduation into the big leagues of the funk-pop sublime.
And yet…the old image hung around. He still wasn’t quite on that Madonna/Prince/Michael Jackson level. Maybe that was because in his videos (this was the era when how you looked on MTV was half of who you were), it was clear that Michael was still obsessed with micro-managing how he came across. To a degree, the fussiness of his presentation undercut the image he was now trying to present. The ’80s were the high era of manly stubble, but no one ever had stubble like George Michael in the videos for “Faith” or “I Want Your Sex”: It was like a sculpted charcoal shadow that had been airbrushed on. His too-perfect version of too-rough-to-care facial hair was of a piece with his too-shiny leather jacket (marked with the word Revenge) that looked like a promotional collaboration between Kenneth Anger and Members Only; his too meticulously torn jeans; his too perfectly frosted hair; his too-tough aviator sunglasses. In those videos, Michael was working so hard to make us take him seriously that he still kept a lot of folks from taking him seriously.
When I heard the news of his death, the first thing I did was to reach for the song that, over the years, I’ve come to believe is Michael’s most incandescent track: “Freedom! ’90.” At the time, it was a song that was hard not to experience through the video: those fashion models lip-synching to Michael’s voice (whatever that meant), the Revenge jacket set ablaze, the whole teasing significance of it — his “rejection” of the image-making machinery of pop stardom, the underlying message of the lyrics “I think there’s something you should know, I think it’s time I stopped the show. There’s something deep inside of me, there’s someone I forgot to be.” Whether or not Michael intended those words as a sly signal of his sexuality, it certainly sounds that way now.
Yet whatever he felt trapped in (the corporation of pop, the fashion-mall rough-trade rebel imagery of his own devising, the agony of a hidden existence), the sound of “Freedom! ’90” channels a liberation as thrilling as any in the history of pop. It’s a rockier vibe than he usually laid down — a propulsive, rollicking groove that sweeps the listener along like a gospel river, the sound built around crystalline piano chords that are woven right into the center of the mix, the way they were in mid-period Rolling Stones (“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Loving Cup”). It’s one of those songs, like Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” where the more it goes on, the more addicted you get to it. After the exuberance of the early Wham! songs and the meticulous dance-pop passion of “Faith,” “Freedom! ’90” seemed to erupt out of some new dimension of George Michael. It was his exhilarating goodbye to the ’80s, and no one could have guessed that the decade he was now treating as a trap would remain his one true contained period of pop glory.
The way we remember the pop culture of the ’80s is still shaped, to a degree, by the Gen-Xers who came up during that decade. They were the first ironic generation, so they helped to place a certain guilty-pleasure, it’s-trash-but-I-love-it aesthetic at the center of things. That sensibility seems made to order when it comes to remembering Wham! The songs were bouncy and effervescent, George Michael was a pretty boy with a swarthy wide baby face, and the girls thrashed and screamed. In this case, though, the teen-pop puppet master was George Michael too. He wrote and produced the songs on “Make It Big,” a creative feat that marked him as a pop prodigy.
Yet we still tend to put those songs in a throwaway box marked “Pop It’s Embarrassing To Admit You Take Totally Seriously.” That judgement, with 30 years’ hindsight, now looks far too easy, too dismissive, too automatic, too snobbish, too untrue to the joys embedded in George Michael’s exuberant gift for melody, and in his smooth-as-silk soaring angel’s croon.
Take a song that’s the clear Exhibit A of what I’m talking about: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” No, it’s not “When Doves Cry” or “A Day in the Life.” It’s a jingle of love, a ditty. Thirty years ago, I would never have defended it (much). Yet I wonder if anyone has had an experience like this one. “Wake Me Up” has been used in many movies, and earlier this year it was used — as a joke — to accompany a flashback in “Zoolander 2,” during which Derek Zoolander remembers his carefree younger days (before a car crash puts an abrupt end to the memory). A true confession: I’m sitting there watching the movie, in a theater with about five other people in it, and that unmistakable blast of “Jitterbug!” comes on the soundtrack, it’s supposed to sound dippy as hell, and all I can think is “This song f—-in’ kicks!” It cartwheels right through your defenses. I’m supposed to add, of course, that it’s a “guilty pleasure,” but what does the “guilt” even mean anymore? It’s just a tic.
Other songs from that period need less defense. We’ve all just finished listening to “Last Christmas” two dozen times over the past three weeks, and each time I hear it I can never get over what a supremely tender song it is, and how gorgeously George Michael sings it, with a voice that seems lit from within. “Everything She Wants” is a cynical moody classic, like the guy version of “Smooth Operator,” and though “Careless Whisper” doesn’t achieve the sheer rapture of melody that Michael broke through to three years later in “Father Figure,” its sentimental sadness is indelible. The track from “Make It Big” that may most spectacularly confirm Michael’s songwriting and producing gifts is “Freedom,” with its exhilarating, reconfigured Motown groove and its plea for fidelity (“I don’t want your freedom, I don’t want to play around”) that, in hindsight, contained, at least in coded fashion, one of Michael’s earliest (clandestine) acknowledgments of — and counterreactions to — the proud sexuality of gay culture.
When a pop star is a major sex symbol, it can seem as if he’s ruling the world, but once he gets a little older and turns his back on that side of himself, it’s like a magical suit of clothing he’s decided to leave on the hanger; he becomes just another person. In 1991, I was invited to a generic movie premiere party, and at one point I glanced to the side and noticed, to my shock, that David Lee Roth was standing there, all by himself, like someone who’d been a rock star about a hundred years ago. His days of gigolo prancing weren’t that far behind him, but hardly anyone noticed him. It’s not that he looked so much older — it’s that the aura was gone. And once George Michael let that dimension of himself go, he relinquished much of his passion as an artist too. Despite the majesty of “Freedom! ’90,” “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” wasn’t a success, and that seemed to confirm — at least, in his own mind — that the George Michael era was over. Maybe he wanted it to be.
It takes something more — a superhuman drive — to sustain a heightened career over the decades, the way that Madonna has (or that Prince did). On his rare solo albums, like “Older,” Michael’s songwriting may on some level have “matured,” but it lost its pop command. A song like “Fastlove” was the rare exception, and even that seemed, more than not, an over-produced echo of past glories. Each time, it was as if he was coming out of retirement and didn’t have his heart in it. He may, all told, have had a dozen great songs. But I wouldn’t want to be in a world without them.
The moment I’ll remember George Michael by most is his March 23, 1991 in-concert cover rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” the one where Elton John joins him onstage at Wembley Arena halfway through. (The two first performed the song together at Live Aid in 1985.) It’s a slow-burn performance that positively glows with emotion, delectably smooth on the surface yet suffused with what now seems a lifetime of longing, love, and loss. If I had to point to the greatest achievement of George Michael’s career, apart from his creation of “Freedom! ’90,” I might say that it’s the sheer rapt outpouring of his performance of this song — in particular, near the end, the godly way that he takes flight into the line “I’d just allow a fragment of your life…to wander free.” That was a major dimension of George Michael’s quest — to wander free — and it was part of the lure of his music, which sings and pulses with a freedom it will always be foolish to deny, or resist.