Does “pop music” have a place on “must hear” album lists? As my gentle readers know, I often argue that it does, and George Michael’s work is a big part of the reason why rock critics today take pop music seriously, and his 1991 album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, is "Exhibit A." While still teens in the UK, Michael and his musical partner, Andrew Ridgeley, formed the duo, “Wham!,” which helped set the template for early-80’s pop music, complete with the squeaky-clean, camera-ready smiles and neon-colored clothing that exuberantly exclaimed, “Choose Life!” Laugh-out-loud hilarious, it was, if unintentionally so, and nobody who wasn’t a teenage girl even admitted to liking these two dorks. I mean, seriously.
But, in fact, more than just teenaged girls picked up cassette copies of Wham!’s 1984, #1 album, Make It Big, which sold truck loads and contained now-classic pop nuggets like, “Everything She Wants,” (#1) “Careless Whisper,” (#1) “Freedom,” (# 3) and the #1 song that gave birth to the boy-bands that ruled radio in the late-80’s and 90’s, “Wake Me Up, Before You Go-Go.” What was unexpected about these supposedly light, “disposable,” pop songs, however, was the deft, skillful songwriting and the sheer weight of the sinister subject matter: it was cheating girlfriends, cheating boyfriends, divorcing couples, lies, and lying-liars who held court in Michael’s jaundiced, musical world. Kinda sordid for a pop musician who appealed to millions of screaming teens, idn’t it?
In fact, Michael has made a career of writing pop hits about lurid, kinky subject matter, to wit, look up the lyrics to any of the following, bubbly Wham/Michael songs: “Credit Card Baby,” “The Edge Of Heaven,” “I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey,” “Father Figure,” “Fastlove,” and “Freek!” to name but a few. But the synthesized, pop sheen of Michael’s songs always obscured the vile, underworld he so often described, going completely unnoticed by the public, the fans, and the critics alike, ensuring that Wham! and George Michael were categorized as merely trifle, routinely pummeled in critical circles at the time, with one Rolling Stone critic dismissing Michael’s R&B-style vocals as, “prissy.” And the young musician was taking notes. Michael decided that being the alpha pop male of the moment wasn’t quite enough for him; he wanted all that AND to be taken seriously as an artiste. What he didn’t realize is, critics would have eventually come around to his brand of snap, crackle, and pop ear candy. The proof is in the pudding, as Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, and Kanye West reap the benefit of Michael’s party-pop, path finding. Note: yes, I said, Kanye West, who is much more of a piece with Michael than, say, Lil’ Wayne – admit it; you agree.
So, fast-forward to three years later; it’s 1987, and Michael, relinquishing all Wham-like, poster-friendly posing, grows a scruffy beard, puts on a leather jacket, buys a motor cycle (does he even drive it?), and releases the album that catapults him to 80’s, pop-god status, sharing rare air with the likes of Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson with the 20 million-selling album, Faith. With that album, Michael created the male, pop star blueprint still in place today (you’re welcome, Justins Timberlake and Beiber). And for most, Faith was Michael’s career zenith, but I disagree. While Faith was melodic, creative, oftentimes creepy, and overall, great fun, and while it certainly displayed an artist discovering the full potential of his voice and feet, his next album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, finds him at the height of his powers, seamlessly blending musical ideas, styles, and motifs, while at times just showing off, and deservedly so.
The album opens with the first single, the plodding, over-wrought, pretty good, but worst-song-on-the-album, “Praying For Time.” The mundane video featured the song’s lyrics in bulky, white letters over a black screen. Oooh, he’s so solemn, singing about politics and stuff…ho-hum. While the single went to #1, largely due to fan excitement for a new George Michael song, album sales stalled, overall, selling a comparatively paltry 8 million, and Michael started to bicker with his record label, due to his refusing the proven advertising strategy of actually appearing in his videos.
A compromise was reached with the promotion clip for the second single from the album, the funky, feisty, “Freedom 90,” which featured a series of supermodels in steam-filled rooms, mouthing the words to Michael’s song, while paraphernalia from his poster boy-era burned in the background. While the video was a welcome relief from its abysmal predecessor and the single fared well (#8), it proved to be the only other single that made a significant dent on the pop charts: the only other that hit the upper half of the charts, “Waiting For That Day,” featured an inspired blending of the Rolling Stone’s classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but barely reached the top 30 (#27).
And that’s too bad for pop fans, who, by skipping, Listen, Vol. 1, missed out on what stands as some of Michaels best musical moments, ever. “Something To Save,” one of the failed singles from the album, holds as one of Michael very best songs. Rare for a George Michael song, the themes of “Something To Save” revolve around open, honest communication and reciprocal love and compassion. Similarly, “Heal The Pain,” written in an up-tempo, slide-and-shuffle style, reminiscent of Paul McCarntney (and later re-recorded as a duet with him in 2008), imbues kindness and optimism into a three-minute pop song, again, unusual "light" for his dark genius. The slow-burning waltz, “Cowboys And Angels,” finds Michael back in familiar, sinister lyrical territory, and exquisitely so, while the should-have-been single, “Soul Free,” innovates with use of R&B, drum loop samples over a can’t-get-out-of-your-head chorus and some of Michael’s finest R&B crooning.
After Listen, Vol. 1 quietly and undeservedly faded into the sunset, an extended legal battle ensued between Michael and his record label, Sony/Epic, with the artist blaming the company for less-than-expected sales, claiming they failed to properly promote the album, and the company countering that poor sales were due to Michael’s own resistance to appear in his videos. The battle eventually killed the possibility of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, which was rumored to be more dance-oriented, un-socially conscious pop, and to have included his 1992 hit, “Too Funky,” (#10) as well as three other songs, which eventually appeared in conjunction with the AIDS benefit album, Red, Hot, & Dance, that same year, “Do You Really Want To Know,” “Happy,” and “Crazyman Dance,” the B-side to the aforementioned single.
And then six years of silence followed, a time period extended, no doubt, by the death of his longtime companion. Michael’s next studio album, the funereal, Older, was released in 1996 to a pop environment steeped in his brand of R&B-pop (i.e., Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” R. Kelly’s, “Down Low,” etc.), priming the album to be the biggest seller of the year, but instead, it quietly tip-toed onto the scene in the spring of that year, reaching a disappointing #6 on the U.S. album charts and boasting only two top-ten hits, “Jesus To A Child,” (#7) and “Fastlove,” (#8). The only other subsequent studio album to date, the aptly-titled, Patience, came eight years later, and while it offered glimmers of his immense gifts with the single, “Amazing,” it proved to be, overall, a disappointing affair.
And speaking of “affairs,” after the disappointing performance of Listen, Vol. 1, Michael’s hit-streak primarily included a series of very public, very embarrassing incidents involving sex, drugs, binge drinking, etc. In fact, it seemed as if he embodied the lyrics to many of his depraved, disco hits from two decades before. Worst of all, his immense talent and expertly-crafted pop music, which he so aptly sang, “…is the one good thing that I’ve got,” took a back seat to these bad-boy antics, leaving himself and his fans confounded or having moved-on in the wake of his clichéd, celebrity excesses. But as demonstrated by another wayward pop genius, Brian Wilson, who released his masterful, long-awaited, magnum-opus album, Smile, in 2004, over 30 years after it was shelved, sometimes the end result can be well-worth the wait. And I’m guessing I’m not alone in thinking George Michael’s got another great album in him. Call it “blind,” but I’m still holding out faith (ugh, sorry) for another extraordinary George Michael album.