George Michael

I don’t know much about George Michael, but I do know that some artists do their best work in a repressive enviornment, one where their talent for metaphor is more interesting than their talent for–-specious word–truth, or confession. For gay singer/songwriters like Michael, who initially became pop sensations on the teen music scene during the early nineteen-eighties, heterosexuality, then as now, equaled dollars. And Michael wanted to work the market. As the lead singer for Wham!, the Anglo-Greek artist not only attracted notice because he had a voice, but a sense, I am sure, that teenage girls like to identify with the boys they want as much as they want to be taken over by them. Dressed in his oversized T-shirt (as if covering up a pubescent chest), genderless shorts, and thick roller-skater socks, Michael also sported a blonde-tipped quiff, and a little make up, but nothing too extreme: he would never dream of upstaging his female fans’ fantasies about their own prettiness–a prettiness that would, presumably, attract Michael’s notice. In that Boy George dominated era of white English soul singers, Wham!, was distinctive because its unrelenting pop sound was not tinged with ska or reggae, the “third world” musical influences that Boy George and Culture Club exploited early on. Instead, Wham! was just aggressively upbeat, like the promise of a marriage that would never go wrong. But by the time Wham! disbanded in 1986, Michael began to find ways to talk about his love of soul music, and of men, and the difference all blue-eyed soul singers feel, I am sure, given their music’s source. In 1987, when he was only twenty-three, Michael released his first excellent solo album, “Faith.” With it came a new look. Casting off his formerly genderless drag, Michael exposed his chest hair, too neatly trimmed facial hair, and a vague Freddie Mercury-like air of queerness. But Michael didn’t talk much about his personal life then. Besides, pop stars of his magnitude usually project a very particular idea: that they can be had by anyone, and should be. A year before “Faith,” was released, Michael made a smart business decision: to perform a duet with Aretha Franklin, one of his idols. Actually, that was a smart business decision on both Michael and ReRe’s part: her brand would legitimize his white soul sound, and he would usher her into a new era of music-making. (Part of Franklin’s longevity has to do less with the quality of her music than her understanding of how the music business works, and her cold attitude toward maintaining her position in it. During the hours leading up to Whitney Houston’s memorial service in New Jersey, for instance, Franklin, who was then performing and New York, and was considered a family member, issued a statement that she couldn’t make Houston’s memorial, as she originally intended, because she was having a problem with her feet. Or legs. Or something. In any case, it was only a matter of days after Houston was laid to rest that Franklin revealed she was working on new music with her former mentor, Clive Davis, who, of course, she had known and worked with before he even steered Whitney to great commercial success.) The Michael-Franklin duet title said it all, from a business point of view: “Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” The song had something of the old Wham! bounciness, but the black vocal style Michael loved growing up was at the forefront of the piece; it didn’t have to be flattened out, Wham! style, since Aretha was the great popularizer of that sound. (“Knew You Were Waiting,” ended up being Franklin’s first and only number one hit in the UK.) I wouldn’t have remembered the particulars of “Faith”–I lost track of Michael’s carer during his protracted legal battle with Sony, which began after the release of his utterly brilliant 1990 album, “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol I,” a record I call hermit pop, the I’m-too-famous-to-leave-the-studio-which-is-my-only-friend stage of musical success, viz Brian Wilson, Kate Bush, Sly Stone–except that when “One More Try,” plays on the radio I keep near my bedside, it wrecks me. I didn’t know the lyrics, and didn’t know the song title, until I thought to Google both. The song is about mentorship, and how Michael’s former “teacher,” his guidance, and all that implies, lead to a broken heart, and fear, which is to say love and it’s offshoot: vulnerability. The song is Michael’s confession; he’s addressing another teacher standing in the wings. Michael doesn’t identify his first teacher or the one’s he’s talking to as men but, given that there’s also a song on “Faith” called “Father Figure,” I’ll let my interpretation stand. In any case, I know of no other soul song like “One More Try,” wherein the complications and richness of an older man/younger man dynamic is talked about more truthfully, despite the gender curtain. We begin with the sound of a lament: a synthesizer warbling in the background as a slow drum beat eventually provides support for Michael’s big, round voice, which is tinged with a world weariness he has yet to earn, but he feels that way anyway. Michael says he’s tired of “danger, and people on the street” (cruising?) He doesn’t want to go back out there, he wants to be with a mentor, a “teacher,” who loves and protects him, just as his previous teacher did. But that previous mentor left him. Given the power of Michael’s voice and artistry, one wonders if his previous protector abandoned him because he knew Michael would surpass him in the world. And yet Michael still longs for his former teacher’s approval, which accounts for the terrible, terrible ache in his voice. Could this new man be any different? Michael doesn’t want to be hurt. “I don’t want to learn to hold you, touch you, and think that you’re mine…There ain’t no joy for an uptown boy, who’s teacher has told him goodbye?” Will his new teacher help define who he is, and help him figure out what to do, how to live, to love? Who will be his elder now? Henry James tried to say us as much in parts of “The Pupil.” Still, the world would not let Michael’s metaphors alone. In recent years there have been the tea room photographs, the drug arrests, the break ups, all of which prompted Michael’s various bald confessions about his sexuality, his isolation, and so on. But none of this is nearly as interesting as his early work in the studio. In 2011, the black recording artist, Beverly Knight, recorded a version of “One More Try,” that Michael sanctioned, but the record makes no emotional sense: Knight treats the piece like a song, whereas Michael sings “One More Try,” as though his life and his various fantastic complications–the white gay boy in love with black music, the music nerd passing himself off as a sexpot, the student of soul too porous for this common world–depended on it.