I’ve been further processing the life and death of fallen singer George Michael, a one-time superstar who spent more time out of fame in America over the last three-plus decades than he spent in it.
Last week, I wrote a quick tribute to this immensely talented singing and songwriting legend and ranked his 25 Greatest hits, based primarily on their popularity and chart performance here in America.
This week, I delve deeper into his stellar music career and rank the Best of the Rest, his Unsung Hits (at the bottom of this article). I also explore how much George Michael’s unrelenting quest for professional and personal freedom influenced his art and affected his once superstar career.
As I took the long 12-hour drive back to Chicago from the Christmas holiday, I listened to his deep music catalog…not just the big hits that I ranked in the immediate wake of his death, but albums like Patience, his last studio effort released in 2004 and Songs From the Last Century, his jazz-flavored 1999 album covering, well, songs from the 20th century.
I also gave closer listens to his albums Older and Listen Without Prejudice Pt. 1, two ’90s albums that were more successful than Patience and Songs, but not nearly as successful as his magnum opus Faith, the 1987 solo début that has reportedly sold 12 million copies in America alone.
Upon hearing it, people would be surprised to hear just how dark and troubled a significant part of Michael’s song catalog actually sounds when you really listen to it. After all, this was once a self-professed pop kid who basically had it all in the second half of the ’80s, as he competed for chart supremacy with the likes of music gods and goddesses like Madonna, Whitney, Michael and Prince – and on many occasions he won!
This was a man whose first big hit in America, Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” prevented Prince’s third single from Purple Rain – the title track – from reaching #1 in 1984.
In 1988, when Michael Jackson’s landmark Bad album, the follow-up to Thriller, was knocking down #1 hits like they were beer bottles at a college frat party, it was George Michael who wound up being the top singles and album artist of the year. His album Faith and its many #1 hits denied MJ that honor (and denied Whitney Houston’s sophomore effort, too, for that matter).
In fact, George Michael actually had more #1 singles – eight – than each one of those superstar artists achieved between 1984 and 1989.
But everyone knows the big hits, songs like “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “Monkey” and “Careless Whisper,” among many others. Those songs paid the bills, made Michael famous and kept his label, Columbia Records (a subsidiary of Sony Music) happy.
The problem was, Michael wasn’t happy.
At least not based on the interviews he later gave or the lyrical content of songs filling those lesser known albums…the ones that weren’t as upbeat, as pop-friendly or which didn’t sell gobs and gobs of records.
There’s a major theme that runs through a lot of George Michael’s deep catalog. He seemed obsessed with the very notion of “freedom,” mostly his own, but even that of others with whom he was either acquainted or whom made good fictional song characters.
There are the obvious references to his own freedom in the two distinct big hits bearing that word as their title: Wham!’s “Freedom” from the 1984 album Make It Big, and Michael’s epic solo hit from the Listen Without Prejudice album, “Freedom 90!” The two songs bore a few similarities, namely both were huge top-10 singles, and both were upbeat and melodic with very catchy hooks – in other words perfect pop songs.
But they carried very different messages.
In Wham!’s “Freedom,” the protagonist didn’t want to be free from the affection of his love interest, despite her philandering ways.
In Michael’s “Freedom! 90,” it was just the opposite. He’s the one seeking freedom, not necessarily from any specific person or situation, but from the proverbial chains that bound him during his early career. And the lyrics seem to suggest the protagonist is on the verge of finally getting it. In the song, he speaks of being a ladies’ man as a youngster in the first verse, being an MTV-honed pop star in the second one, and then caps both verses with variations of the line: “but today the way I play the game has got to change, oh yeah. Now I’m gonna get myself happy.”
But Michael apparently wasn’t yet free or happy. According to various interviews he later gave, the British superstar had his first sexual experience with a man around the time of “Freedom! 90.” Up to that point, according to the superstar, Michael had only been with women, despite many rumors and beliefs to the contrary…and by his own account his earlier songs reflected heterosexual relationships.
However, by 1990, he’d surely become well aware of the stigma that comes with being a gay male in American society, especially a very high-profile one. And although he purportedly hadn’t yet acted on his sexual impulses at that time in his life, he certainly had to have had thoughts of them…and what they might do to his then-soaring music career.
So the career became the casualty.
He became a modern-day superstar recluse, shunning one of the vehicles that helped make him a superstar – the music video. He chose for years not to be the main star in his own video clips, skipping some altogether, including the uber-popular “Freedom! 90!” Instead, for that one, about a half-dozen supermodels in their twenties pranced and writhed around various settings with some lip-syncing Michael’s tune. Despite this marketing approach, “Freedom! 90” wound up being one of Michael’s signature tunes.
Still, this lack of self-promotion was seen as a lack of product-promotion by Sony, who in turn didn’t get behind the Listen Without Prejudice album as much as they had Faith, based on the artist’s account. The album, in turn, sold a fraction of what its blockbuster predecessor did.
Yet even with Michael at odds with his label, he still managed a handful of hits in America. The 1992 #1 duet with Elton John was a live cover of the tune “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” that John had made famous 18 years earlier. It was ironic, and perhaps not so coincidental, that Michael and John had collaborated on this tune, given that Sir Elton had already traveled George’s path, that of a gay rock star whose coming out would eventually jeopardize his career during its peak. Even the song itself was centered around “freedom,” or partial freedom, as the protagonist sang “I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free, but losing everything is like the sun going down on me.”
That song choice could have been very telling, particularly at that time in Michael’s life. He was surely aware of his own still immense, but slowly waning popularity in America, where he had scored ten #1 singles and sold tens of millions of albums in less than ten years. But fame and fortune can be fleeting, and the thought of losing it all – the possible cost of his own freedom – could not be reassuring.
A year later, when Michael released the Adamski/Seal song “Killer/ Papa Was A Rolling Stone” in 1993, the opening line questioned the very notion of freedom, almost like a warning to anyone desiring it, including Michael himself. “So you want to be free, to live your life the way you wanna be!” Those words rang out against a thumping acid-house back beat and bass line that made freedom sound like an ominous thing. With the accompanying lyrics “will you give, if we cry…will we live or will we die,” if freedom was to come it would be with some consequence.
But George Michael was undeterred in his own quest for it.
In truth, partial freedom had already been granted. His acrimonious ties to longtime label, Columbia Records and Sony, had ended (after a controversial contract dispute), although not on his terms. He would be required to release another album on Sony as a condition of severing ties with the company.
But his next full album would be released on the Virgin/ Dreamworks labels. That album, 1996’s Older, showcased a still-young 32-year-old Michael more than 5 years removed from his previous world tour and studio album. The music was more mature, yet darker and less accessible than his earlier work, with songs like “Jesus To A Child” addressing the pain of having lost his lover (Brazilian Anselmo Feleppa) to AIDS-related complications in 1993.
In the album’s fourth track, “Spinning The Wheel,” Michael – knowing all too well the dangers of a promiscuous lifestyle – scolded a wayward lover whose dangerous extracurricular activities were putting the singer’s well-being at risk.
The hit single “Fastlove” gave a single man’s perspective on that promiscuity, extending an invitation for a hookup to someone “practicing the same religion” and proclaiming “Baby, I ain’t Mr. Right.”
The jazzy “Move On” recalled the nearly two-year depression Michael had just experienced and how he finally realized how much life he was missing and how “only time can set you free.” It’s a freedom he achieves with the song’s closing line, when his “angel finally set me free.”
In the album’s closing track, simply titled “Free,” only one line is uttered near the song’s end: “Feels good…to be free.”
Older was Michael’s least-best seller to that point (aside from Wham!’s first album and compilation albums), selling only one million copies in America. But the one-time heart-throb’s emancipation was happening right before our eyes, even if we didn’t yet know it. George Michael was telling us in song what he hadn’t (yet) in the media: that he was a gay man and growing increasingly happy about it, and Americans were either not astute enough to pick up on it, or we simply rejected the notion outright (depending of course upon where one stood on the issue). We were in our own state of denial about one of music’s biggest pop celebrities of the prior ten years…one whose music videos had always portrayed the image of a straight man surrounded by beautiful women posing as the singer’s love interests.
Or maybe we did know about Michael’s developing sexuality and simply weren’t ready for it on anything other than our own terms. We had speculated on it for years, particularly given the singer’s ambiguity on the subject, along with his ability to straddle the line with his image.
As it was, the folks in Michael’s homeland seemingly had no problem with it, as Older became one of his best-sellers in the U.K., and still ranks among the 100 best-selling albums of all time there.
The precipitous drop in his American popularity, however, likely fueled a disdain for the U.S. by Michael. The situation wasn’t helped when the famous bathroom incident happened in April 1998 where he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet during a police-sting operation in Los Angeles. This prompted the singer’s satirical (and somewhat self-deprecating) take on the matter with the discofied tune “Outside,” one of two new songs on his 1998 greatest-hits compilation, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.
The inclusion of that controversial song on the album released by his former record label, Sony Music, appeared to be George’s “in your face!” moment, as this was the obligatory album that fulfilled the settlement terms of his emancipation from the label a few years earlier.
The song – or more accurately, the incident that inspired it – also forced his coming out, an essential step in his journey towards complete freedom. Like his split from Sony, this freedom didn’t quite come on his terms. But it was a freedom one could argue that Michael had now fully achieved, even if it was at the cost of a superstar singing career that saw each album selling fewer copies (in America) than the previous one.
When the British singer’s last studio album, Patience, was issued in 2004, George Michael had seemingly come full circle – at least personally. The songs were from a 40-year-old’s perspective – one who’d seen far more ups and downs in his lifetime than many others his age likely could imagine.
At that point, immense fame was a thing of his past, and Patience went largely unnoticed in the U.S. But the songs were more complex musically, even more mature lyrically and left no one guessing about their messages.
In the funky “Cars and Trains,” Michael told two cautionary love tales of a mother who was constantly bringing home new “daddies,” and a man who’d found a new beau, both believing that their latest (of many) love affairs wouldn’t end in hurt.
In the more poignant “My Mother Had A Brother,” the singer speaks to his deceased mother about an uncle with the “same desire in a different time” whose own suicide came the day that George was born. In the song, he asks the mother to tell her brother that the singer is living his life for him, because the uncle couldn’t wait one more day to enjoy the “freedom” that George was now enjoying.
In that same dedication to his late uncle, we hear the singer talking about all the love he’s making because “now that freedom is here, I’m gonna taste it all for you boy.” He continues, “those of us who have nothing to fear, we’ve got to make damn sure that it was worth it.”
Whether it was worth it is a matter of anyone’s guess or opinion. But George Michael was now truly free. Free from the incredible pressure of fame and all its burdens. Free from having to deliver his art on other people’s terms. And free from hiding who he really was and who he really loved.
And now, some twelve years later with his sudden passing, whatever other demons he faced? Yeah, now he’s free from those, too.
But that freedom came at a price.
RIP George Michael.
P.S., Speaking of freedom, the next time you play his biggest hit single, “Faith,” pay close attention to the organ solo that serves as the song’s intro. You may recognize it: it’s the melody of the chorus to Wham’s single “Freedom.”
The Best of the Rest:
You may have seen my ranking of George Michael’s 25 Best Songs, including “Faith” and “Freedom.” But that list contained mainly the big hits, and the ranking was largely influenced by how well they did on the American charts. If you haven’t checked out this incredibly talented artist’s less popular but still very good song catalog, you should.
In retrospect, some of these lesser known songs are better than the ones in the earlier countdown, they just didn’t get much love from pop radio (at least here in America) during the time of their releases.
I’ve ranked 20 of George Michael’s Best Unsung Songs for your listening/viewing pleasure (below) and added them to my special George Michael Spotify playlist here.
Check out the slide show countdown below.
Album: Songs from the Last Century (1999); remake of the 1995 sociopolitical song by U2 about Sarajevo's underground resistance movement.
To see where George Michael ranks on my list of the Best Blue-Eyed Soul Singers, click here.
To see where he ranks on my list of the Greatest British Artists in America, click here.
And to see last week’s tribute and countdown of his greatest hits, click here.