The article “George Michael: He’ll Last” was written by Stephen Holden and published by The New York Times on May 29, 1988.
If asked to nominate the one contemporary pop star most likely to be as successful 10 years from now as today, I’d cast my vote for George Michael. The 24-year-old English singer, songwriter and producer is currently enjoying his third consecutive No. 1 single, ”One More Try,” from a debut solo album, ”Faith,” that has already sold more than 5 million copies. When Mr. Michael’s current tour arrives in New York in August, we can expect the same kind of frenzy that greeted Michael Jackson’s ”Bad” tour. By the end of this year, I would wager, ”Faith” will have sold close to 10 million copies.
Mr. Michael has everything a pop star requires for longevity. An avid student of American pop-soul music, he possesses a strong enough white soul voice to have held his own in a duet with Aretha Franklin (the No. 1 single ”I Knew You Were Waiting”) and to deliver a Stevie Wonder ballad (”Love’s in Need of Love Today” on the television special ”Motown Returns to the Apollo”) with compelling clout. At the same time, his voice has a vestigial teen-idol sob that complements his furry-eyebrowed, pug-nosed good looks. For along with everything else, Mr. Michael is a sex symbol.
But the most important factors in Mr. Michael’s longevity are his extraordinary skills as a songwriter, arranger and producer. Able to write in almost any contemporary pop style, he is not reliant upon other songwriters for his material or upon outside producers for a sound.
”Faith” demonstrates that Mr. Michael’s stylistic range and skill at integrating invented new sounds into strong, well-shaped tunes is unequaled by any young pop craftsman with the possible exception of Prince. And while Mr. Michael’s more conventional songs bespeak a chilly, premeditated commerciality, there are ample signs on ”Faith” that as a songwriter he has only begun exploring his own artistic potential.
When he arrived on the pop scene several years ago as the dominant half of the pop duo Wham!, Mr. Michael appeared to be just another noisy English brat cranking out disposable teen-oriented pop by superficially ripping off American soul and funk styles. ”Faith,” however, is anything but the work of a brash, cynical copycat. Like certain Beatles albums and the best early Elton John records, its songs explore such a wide array of pop styles that no one cut resembles any other. The idioms range from vibrant metallic hip-hop (”Hard Day”) to gossamer ballads (”Father Figure”), from pleading pop-gospel (”One More Try”) to pop-rock with a Bo Diddley beat (”Faith”).
For Mr. Michael, as for so many other pop craftsmen under 35, songwriting, arranging and producing are all but indivisible parts of process in which rhythmic groove, melody, texture and message are all developed more or less simultaneously. Mr. Michael’s best work on ”Faith” displays an audacious balance between closed songwriting forms and ”through-composed” texture.
The gently percolating Latin funk number ”I Want Your Sex” is a masterly exercise in continuously changing soft-focus pop rhythm interwoven with half-submerged free-association pillow talk. More formal in its construction, the ghostly ballad ”Father Figure” is a half-whispered Latin-pop invocation in which the singer proposes to a lover a powerful but faintly sinister relationship of authority and dependence: ”I will be your father figure/ Put your tiny hand in mine/ I will be your preacher teacher/ Anything you have in mind/ I’ll be your daddy.” The seductive assurance of the lyric is seconded by voices whispering behind the narrator, enhancing the mood of hypnotic incantation. Punctuating the song is a Middle Eastern-sounding keyboard motif that suggests a snake charmer’s flute.
Equally enigmatic is the song ”Hand to Mouth,” in which the music fades in like ship’s bell tolling in the fog. Singing from inside this atmosphere, Mr. Michael opens the song with sad vignettes of underclass despair: a frustrated welfare recipient’s multiple murders, a prostitute leaving her baby on a doorstep. The narrator/witness muses bitterly, ”I believe in the Gods of America/ I believe in the land of the free/ But no one told me that the Gods believe in nothing.” The second verse talks of England’s ”new generation,” which he portrays as too busy and avaricious to forestall the dismantling of the British welfare state.
Drawn in pastel musical shades, ”Hand to Mouth” offers a subtle, allusive indictment of the economic climate of the Reagan-Thatcher era and its devastating effects on the poor. Instead of being combative, the music is dreamy and wistful. In its texture and Latin-inflected rhythms, the arrangement recalls the Bee Gees’ best recordings. But the message is much more thoughtful than the shorthand slogans of songs like ”Stayin’ Alive.” The album is rounded out by several other skillfully wrought exercises in hard-edged pop style. ”Kissing a Fool” shows Mr. Michael’s facility in a brittle, slinky piano-bar idiom. Two hard-rock numbers, ”Look at Your Hands” and ”Monkey” recall the lighter, more blaring side of the Rolling Stones.
Mr. Michael’s metamorphosis from journeyman to innovator has been so swift and dramatic that one can’t begin to imagine where he’ll go from ”Faith.” Will he widen his social outlook and write more pointedly about the state of the world? Or will the seductive insularity of pampered pop stardom ensnare him in a youthful narcissism that is already apparent in his fashion-conscious music videos.
The songs on ”Faith” all suggest that Mr. Michael, with all his success, is experiencing a crisis of belief in the saving grace of easily gotten romance and the social order. They still don’t strike a deep chord of social and spiritual concern. Vocally and in his songwriting, this diffident pop idol, who has been nicknamed ”the bearded one” for his scrupulously well-groomed stubble, lacks the oracular passion that has made Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Prince not only stars but populist sages. But look at what he’s already accomplished! At 24, Mr. Michael is the most talented heir to the tradition of pop craft that embraces Paul McCartney, Elton John and the Bee Gees. He’s got the golden touch.
- George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (June 1988)
- Wham! Interview: The Morals of Funk (Sounds, 1982)
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)