I wasn’t around for the rock ‘n roll British invasion of the sixties but I sure do remember the impact that British acts had in the eighties. The Police, Culture Club, and Duran Duran, were as much a part of American culture as their American born and bred counterparts. It was during this time that MTV actually stood for Music Television back then (and not Miscellaneous Television as it unofficially does now) so there was music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The popularity of this round the clock music channel birthed video shows like Music Jukebox, Night Tracks, and even locally produced video shows right after Saturday morning cartoons. It was on one of those local Saturday morning shows that I first saw George Michael in his group Wham! with their video “Bad Boys”, the second single off of their first album Fantastic.
I loved George Michael’s voice upon the very first note. I vividly remember having to do chores but standing in the entrance way of our family room waiting for the video to end. I was instantly drawn in by the soulfulness of his voice. Wham! looked so tough to me in their leather jackets yet they were model type pretty (don’t laugh at me, I was in the fifth grade.) I soon found out that my neighbor across the street had Fantastic on cassette so I borrowed it and wore it out for about a week after school every day. It was sugary pop goodness straight from the UK and I loved it. Yes,even the songs like “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do?)” where George Michael was rapping (again, I was in the fifth grade.I didn’t know any better). Gratefully, George Michael recognized that he was a much above average singer and didn’t attempt to rap much after that first album.
Fast forward sometime later, I’m watching Solid Gold with my parents (boy am I really dating myself with this one), and Wham! reappears with their first video off of their second album Make It Big, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” They shed the bad boy image of tight jeans and leather jackets for neon clothes and beachwear. I was confused a bit but I liked it. It was so…happy! Much like a lot of Wham! songs, it had that infectious bop reminiscent of sixties music and Motown’s popular uptempos. And there was that voice I fell in love with upon the first note who could sing just about anything.
The album title Make It Big was indeed a self prophecy because it was this album that put George Michael and Andrew Ridgley’s group Wham! on the map. The album went multi-platinum and had three huge crossover singles: “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, “Everything She Wants”, and the classic ballad “Careless Whisper” which was written by Michael and Ridgeley when they were just seventeen years old.
Wham! would go on to put out two more records before George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley would part ways. Andrew Ridgeley went on to pursue endeavors outside of the music industry while George Michael reinvented himself into becoming one of the biggest successes in pop and R&B music. I really don’t think there are too many debut albums from a newly solo artist that have made a more long lasting impact than George Michael’s debut solo album Faith has. Wham!’s success was nothing to scoff at but Faith is what launched George Michael into the stratosphere of iconic pop stars with major hits including “Faith”, “Father Figure”, and “One More Try”.
We live in an era now where there is a lot of talk about white artists and cultural appropriation. While George Michael did raise a few eyebrows when he won Favorite R&B Male Artist and Favorite R&B Album at the American Music Awards in 1989, he never seemed any less than authentic. He had a respect for soul music and its architects that was very evident not just in his original music and covers of R&B classics but also in his collaborations. During the course of his career, he created duets with some of soul music’s greatest artists such as Ray Charles, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin.
I am not quite sure how the impact of the huge success of Faith affected George Michael. All I know is that when he returned with his album Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1, he seemed to want to make it abundantly clear that he would not be bullied by the industry to compromise his art for the sake of image. In the video for the second single “Freedom ‘90”, he was nowhere to be found. His lyrics declaring his freedom from the box that fame sometimes puts one in were lip synced by top supermodels. The most notable items from his “Faith” video, his leather jacket, a jukebox, and acoustic guitar, were all destroyed in various scenes throughout the video. It was as if to say that he was no longer interested in being forever tied to an image of himself that he was most recognized for. He could have tried to rehash the success of Faith over and over again but he refused. From then on he took charge of his own evolution as every artist should. I have tremendous respect for him for that.
George Michael should go down in history as one of the most talented singers and songwriters in popular music, regardless of any pitfalls that have marked his legacy. It’s unfortunate that in this day and age when a celebrity passes that they are sometimes viewed as being only as great as their last hit or only as relevant as their last scandal. Those of us that have been longtime George Michael fans aren’t mourning the loss of a star from the 80’s. We are mourning the loss of a consummate performer whose musical influence has and always will stand the test of time.
For more on George Michael and his influence on African American music, check out his page on NMAAM’s Rivers of Rhythm digital exhibit here.
And then check out this month’s Spotify playlist featuring my favorite songs and collaborations by George Michael.