George Michael – a superfan reminisces
Damn you 2016. We thought you had your fill. You couldn’t leave us alone on Christmas Day.
The 1980’s were a golden age of pop and George Michael wasn’t far behind Prince and Madonna in terms of overall impact. His work in Wham! gave us a basket full of neon-tinged pop gems even if the video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” looks like a group of people who bought their clothes at a hotel gift shop in Benidorm. However, it was Michael’s single “Careless Whisper” (included as the last song on Wham!’s Make It Big in 1985) that revealed a more serious artist capable of holding his own with the best in music.
Most of us who grew up in America in the 1980’s had one radio station and it was the cable box. Despite the negativity lobbed at MTV’s influence on music, at the time, the channel served as an open-format radio station that didn’t differentiate between metal, pop, rock or R&B. I was hooked on Whitesnake, George Michael and LL Cool J at the same time and it seemed perfectly normal to me as a 15 year old. When Faith hit the charts, the stylish videos and irresistible melodies seemed to never stop coming. All told, six singles crashed the top 5.
Thanks to my dad, I was lucky enough to see Madonna and George Michael when each brought their first stadium tours through Florida in the late 1980s. With stages that stretched across the entire end zone of the Orange Bowl, the sheer immensity of the production opened my mind to the magic of popular music in a live setting. These days, few artists can tour football stadiums with regularity and even when they do, the modern production techniques make it feel overly calculated or heavy on backing tracks. That wasn’t the case in 1988 – or maybe I was too innocent to realize it. Regardless, George Michael’s Faith tour was an immense musical moment in my teenage years and I wore the hell out of my concert t-shirt with giant letters on the back spelling out “Explore Monogamy.” Unfortunately, this positive message didn’t go over with my high school basketball coach and I was sent home from practice a few days after that for wearing it.
Jason Lent’s George Michael ticket from 1987
To this day, Faith holds up as one of the best written albums of the 1980’s. It captured the spirited fun of the decade but also a growing sense of social responsibility (explore monogamy!). Starting with his participation in Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas?” in 1985, Michael looked beyond pop stardom at how he could make an impact on the world. From his generous work with AIDS charities to singles like “Praying For Time”, his work dealt with issues that many artists simple wouldn’t touch at the time for fear of losing their pop audience. Just today, more reports are coming out that Michael quietly donated huge amounts of his fortune to various efforts without making it public.
One of my favorite videos making the rounds this morning is rehearsal footage of George Michael and Queen preparing for the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute show. As David Bowie watches with a smile on his face, Michael steps into Freddie’s shoes and delivers a vocal performance for the ages. In front of the Wembley Stadium audience a few days later, it becomes clear just how suited George Michael was for the role. Whether it was alongside the guys in Queen or sharing the stage with Elton John, George Michael was a pop star of the highest order. At the beginning of the year, we lost David Bowie, an artist who perhaps had biggest influence on the artists of the 1980’s, and now the curtain has fallen on one of the decades biggest stars. It’s a cruel year for music and one I cannot wait to toast goodbye. Thank you, George.
George Michael with Queen rehearsing “Somebody to Love”
The actual performance of “Somebody to Love”
George Michael performs “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” with Elton John