The article was written by Gary Graff, a Free Press Music Writer and published on August 21, 1988. It is the longer version of the article Keeping the ‘Faith:’ George Michael Battles Suspicion to Make the Kind of Music He Enjoys (1988) published on October 11, 1988.
ON STAGE: George Michael and Deon Estus will perform at 8 p.m. Aug. 29-30 at the Palace, M-24 at 1-75, Auburn Hills. The shows are sold out. Call 377-8200 anytime.
NEW YORK — George Michael doesn’t start an interview in the same way he starts his concerts. I There’s no white-gray smoke or, red and green lasers, no arena-shaking hymnal overtures on an organ.
But there is The Entrance. First, a manager checks out the suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, worrying over an air-conditioner that isn’t working. Then a bodyguard with a walkie-talkie checks the closets and bathrooms and even peers underneath a dresser.
When everything is deemed OK, the star himself enters, preceded by another manager, followed by another bodyguard. Sunglasses on, shoulder bag slung to one side, even the British pop star smirks at the ceremony.
“Touring is not very much a real-life situation,” says Michael, 25, whose voice is strong despite throat surgery five weeks ago. “I don’t think I’m connected very much with real life at all right now. When I’m at home, I can live my life pretty much the way I want to. I can drive about on my own, walk about on my own.
“And I don’t have bodyguards at all.”
Home, Michael hastens to add, is in north London. And only north London. “Supposedly I have various habitats,” he says with a grin, “but I don’t. I only have one. I don’t fly from house to house.”
During the last year, Michael has become something of an expert on false reports and inaccurate perceptions. That’s what happens when you become the latest hottest pop star on the face of the earth. Between 1982 and 1986, for instance, he sold more than 38 million records and had three consecutive No. 1 hits in America as leader of the group Wham!
His post-Wham! career, however, makes those figures look modest. “Faith,” his solo debut, has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and 6.5 million in America. He’s the first white solo performer in history to have an album atop the Billboard black charts. He’s riding a record string of six consecutive hit singles, five from “Faith” and “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” his duet with Aretha Franklin. And his tour has been a sold-out sensation all over the world.
That kind of mass success often breeds distrust and derision, as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince can attest. Because of Whaml’s lightweight pop songs and his video-pretty looks, many regard Michael as nothing more than the proto typical pop star. Sexy and superficial. Fashionable and flighty. And, because he generally turns down interview requests, perhaps a bit arrogant.
Those are perceptions Michael is keen on bashing. Were he prone to raucous outbursts, he might see fit to lean back in his chair and bellow out the demand once voiced by his idol and duet mate Franklin – R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
“I’ve come to accept that people are very suspicious of me,” says Michael. Dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans torn at the knee and black boots with steel tips and heels, he seems earnest, aware and thoughtful. “He leans to introspection,” Andrew Ridgeley, Michael’s former Wham! partner, has told Rolling Stone magazine. “He’s very analytical, and he screws himself up on that a lot. I don’t think his attitude to life is very carefree.”
Michael says he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but the writer of such dance-floor favorites as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “I Want Your Sex” and “Monkey” is hardly happy-go-lucky. Sipping a Diet Coke, he leans on the front edge of his chair, looking dead ahead with a confident, “ask me what you will” gaze. But there’s no chip to knock off his shoulder.
“So many people take what you do on a cynical level for so long, and after awhile you go through a process of asking, ‘Why do people think this?’ Why do people believe that when I make the music I make, when I write my songs, that they’re not genuine? How can somebody listen to, say, ‘One More Try,’ and think that I’m bull— ?
“When you meet that real wall of cynicism and you know that what you put in is 100 percent real … you get really p off about it. But I’m not anymore. I’ve reached that point where you start to understand it. You have to sit down and analyze it and say, ‘OK, so they have this problem with your age and your image next to what you do musically.’ And you have to accept it.”
What makes that easier is that Michael often feels the same way. He admits he feels a dichotomy between the musician and the pop star. The pop star, of course, wants to sell his records. But the musician loathes videos, hates the sleazy tabloid press which recently has filled its pages with speculation about Michael’s sexual preference and isn’t particularly crazy about interviews, claiming that he prefers to have the music sell itself. “I love playing live, and I love hearing a finished song,” he says. “But I do pretty much hate all the stuff in between, all the” — he spits out the word — “selling.
“So I can understand that people have the same trouble with the projection of image at the same time as they’re trying to believe in the music. There is a certain dichotomy that’s really out there, but if people can try to understand it as opposed to being suspicious of it, maybe they can appreciate the music a bit more.”
There’s increasing evidence that they’re doing that. In a story saluting him for having “the golden touch,” the New York Times said Michael “is the most talented heir to the tradition of pop craft that embraces Paul McCartney, Elton John and the Bee Gees.” Rolling Stone gushed over the solo debut album, calling it “Michael’s quantum leap from Whamlhood to manhood.” The Times of London dubbed him “the new Paul McCartney.”
Respect also is coming from peers. Members of the glitzy hard rock band Poison, hardly the kind of guys you’d expect to favor Michael’s slick, dance-able pop, are prone to play “Faith” at post-concert parties. “Everyone asks us, ‘Why are you playing something like that ” says singer Bret Michaels. “I think it’s a great album. These are great songs.”
T-Bone Wolk, longtime bassist for Darryl Hall & John Oates, praised Michael for his “amazing blend of urban and British pop sensibilities.’ He’s going to be around a long time. He’s not just the flavor of the year.”
Wolk’s observation particularly pleases Michael, a fan of black acts and dance music since he was a teenager. He enjoys pointing out that black audiences in America took to Wham! long before the mainstream pop market did. “To me, that was a very big justification to what I was doing,” he says. “It was consolation for the fact that I had kind of zero credibility. I was much happier with (‘Faith’) being the No. 1 black album than I was when it became the No. 1 pop album. There was much more of a sense of achievement.”
Black music was an early influence on Michael (real name: Georgios Kyriacos Panayioutoum), the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur and an English mother in London. His first records were his parents’ old Su-premes and Tom Jones albums. “I’d play them on this little wind-up gramophone I had,” he says. “They were broken, but I could make out what they were saying.”
Young Georgios decided when he was seven that he wanted to be a pop star, after teaming he could never be a pilot because of red-green color-blindness. He played drums and sang in the school choir, but admits he “didn’t show any particularly strong ability. I was just convinced I was going to be a famous musician.” His tastes favored British pop stars like Elton John and Queen; he didn’t like punk rock, but he did fancy the mid-’70s disco movement. “It was melody and rhythm, all in one package,” he says. “I’d never seen that before.”
Pushed by later Wham! partner Ridgeley, a friend since age 11, Michael fronted a short-lived group called the Executive, which almost was signed to a recording contract before it broke up. The duo kept writing, however, and came up with diverse pop material including a parody called “Whamlrap” and the love song “Careless Whisper” that netted them a contract while still in their tender teens.
From a commercial standpoint, Wham! went along very well. But there was, as Michael says, no credibility. He still defends the music, particularly the 1984 album “Make It Big,” but the image was a disaster in stereotyping. He places chief blame on the videos, in which he and Ridgeley pranced about in shorts and smiles, looking like jet-setting brats who could break into “Put on a Happy Face” any second.
“I do look at some of the old stuff and wonder who the hell that is,” Michael says. “I feel that a lot of the music I wrote then was overlooked simply because people found (the image) so repugnant. They couldn’t actually see what was going on underneath it.”
Even Ridgeley who’s racing cars in Monaco and contemplating his own solo career admits that “Wham! was very much an artificial image. George’s image (now) is a lot closer to what he is as a person.”
Rob Kahane felt the same way. He was Wham!’s agent for its 1985 stadium tour of America, but left that job to co-manage Michael’s solo career with partner Michael Lippman. “He’s got this sixth sense; that’s what attracted me,” says Kahane, sitting cross-legged in his suite at the same hotel. “It’s not just being able to write a great song or sing really well or looking good in a video. It’s knowing where you want to go, what you want to be. That’s the mark of a superstar.”
Michael’s journey from teen idol was gradual, however. It started with “A Different Corner,” a wrenching lost-love ballad from the final Wham! album inspired by Michael’s break-up with a girlfriend. “I had done ‘Careless Whisper, but that didn’t really come from any heart-wrenching experience,” Michael explains. “A Different Corner” “was written from strong experience, which is what I think makes the song more than just a nice ballad on the radio.”
Subsequent projects boosted Michael’s artistic credibility. His duet with Franklin, the Queen of Soul, gave him strong footing in heady company, as did his appearance on the “Motown Returns to the Apollo” TV special, in which he sang alongside Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. He also scored points by singing with Elton John at Live Aid.
Then came “I Want Your Sex,” as perfect a lead-in as any artist could hope to have for an upcoming album. Used for a steamy bar scene in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” the song raised the ire of fundamentalists and the apprehension of radio programmers, many, of whom banned or edited the song despite its monogamous lyrics. Michael was able to do interviews in which he expressed indignation at what he felt was close-mindedness, but the controversy fanned interest in him several months before “Faith” was due out.
“That was a break,” co-manager Lippman says. “We thought it would be as controversial as ‘Sexual Healing’ or ‘Sugar Walls’ or ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ Who knew that radio would ban it?”
Kahane, however, disputes assertions that these developments from the duets to “I Want Your Sex” were contrived moves to build -up “Faith.” “A lot of things people think were calculated were not,” he says. “All these things happened like, a freight train. There’s been a whole evolution of things, but there’s no bull to George and his career.”
Perhaps not, but Michael knows he won’t be able to maintain his career on “Faith” alone. Even the converted, he feels, are ready to take their dancing feet elsewhere if he doesn’t deliver.
To that end, he promises there will be more music soon, though he avoids specific details. He’s started four songs for his next album, and he criticizes his peers even friends like Elton John and Franklin who release an album every two or three years and milk the singles for as long as they can. “It’s not enough music, just 10 or 12 songs every two years,” he says. “Musicians should be writing all the time and making music all the time.
“I don’t feel I’ve done that, to be honest. I haven’t made enough music in the past five years, and I feel guilty about that. I want to be more prolific. It’s got nothing to do with what I feel my position is with the public I just want to spend more time being a musician, because that’s what I actually get the most pleasure out of.”
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- George Michael on ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ (1990)