George Michael talked of his songs “Praying for Time” and “Freedom 90” in this New York Times article “Recordings: George Michael on Fame and Freedom” published on September 16, 1990.
George Michael’s hit single, ”Praying for Time,” evokes a 1970’s anthem by an ex-Beatle but turned emotionally upside down. Against a funereal beat of the sort George Harrison used to favor in his devotional ballads, the 27-year-old English pop star sermonizes in a voice that deliberately seems to echo the fuzzed vocal texture of John Lennon’s ”Imagine.” But instead of exhorting religious mysticism or utopian dreams, Mr. Michael emits an extended yelp of despair: ”It’s hard to love when there’s so much to hate/ Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of.”
”Praying for Time” sets the troubled emotional tone of ”Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” (Columbia 46898; all three formats), Mr. Michael’s first album in three years and a record that sometimes sounds like a policy statement from a pop star who seems uncomfortable with celebrity. Another song on the album, ”Freedom 90,” is a declaration of independence from the image-making power of MTV. Several other songs chart the downward course of a still-unresolved love affair. The record’s music is much sparer and more acoustic than that of Mr. Michael’s last album, ”Faith.” Vocally and in the production, he also seems less interested in following the latest trends in pop-soul and dance music. In its diminished musical scale and downbeat sentiments, ”Listen Without Prejudice” amounts to a small act of rebellion.
”I think it’s against the tide in many ways,” Mr. Michael said recently in a rare interview. ”But I didn’t feel I had any choice. I’ve never made an album that sounded like the one before. If I’d made ‘Faith 2,’ it would have been unsatisfying for me.”
Making ”Faith 2” would have been a tall order. The 1987 blockbuster – his solo debut after four years as half of the pop duo Wham! – sold 15 million copies and won Mr. Michael a Grammy for Album of the Year. The record catapulted his artistic reputation from talented teen-age heartthrob to budding pop genius and heir apparent to the English pop-rock tradition of Paul McCartney and Elton John. It also generated controversy when some American radio stations banned the single, ”I Want Your Sex,” for being too suggestive in the age of AIDS. The album’s several music videos, in which the star sported a carefully clipped field of facial stubble, helped turn him into one of the top male pinups of the late 1980’s.
In ”Freedom 90,” which will be the followup single to ”Praying for Time,” from the new album, Mr. Michael expresses his disgust with that image. ”I went back home got a brand new face/ For the boys on MTV,” the lyric scoffs. ”But today the way I play the game has got to change.” No video has been made to promote ”Praying for Time.” Although one will accompany the release of ”Freedom 90,” Mr. Michael said its content would be a joke. ”I decided to direct a video that will have some of the top models in the world lip-synching to my music, but I won’t be anywhere to be seen,” he said. ”The irony is that the video will probably be a huge success because of the way those people look.”
If there is a link between ”Praying for Time” and ”Freedom 90,” the two songs on the album that make the strongest statements, it is their lyrical connection to television. In ”Praying for Time,” Mr. Michael declares sarcastically, ”This is the year of the guilty man/ Your television will take a stand.” The gloomy lyric describes a world in which ”the rich declare themselves poor” and where ”charity is a coat you wear twice a year.” The song’s starkest lines imagine people huddled behind their doors, clinging to material possessions and screaming, ”What’s mine is mine and not yours.”
”No event inspired the song, just life in general,” Mr. Michael said. ”It’s my way of trying to figure out why it’s so hard for people to be good to each other. I believe the problem is conditional as opposed to being something inherent in mankind. The media has affected everybody’s consciousness much more than most people will admit. Because of the media, the way the world is perceived is as a place where resources and time are running out. We’re taught that you have to grab what you can before it’s gone. It’s almost as if there isn’t time for compassion.”
If Mr. Michael sees television as the enemy of hope and compassion by spreading more bad news than people can deal with, he also sees it as the enemy of his own musical creativity. ”Although for a long time I felt perfectly comfortable making videos,” he said, ”for me they have also been a large distraction from doing the one thing that makes me happy, which is writing songs and making records. Ultimately, I feel video has made artists very nonprolific. Today, the whole process of making and selling an album is something that takes up to three years. To me, coming out with only 10 songs every three years is ludicrous. I’m embarrassed that I’ve released only four albums, and I’m going to change that. I want to get at least one album out every 18 months.”
Mr. Michael, who was 7 years old when the Beatles broke up, said that lately he has been listening to pop and rock from the 1960’s and 70’s. ”I decided to listen a bit more closely to the music that had happened just before I began. I went back and analyzed a lot of 60’s stuff that was popular before the advent of the synthesizer – the Beatles, the Stones, Joni Mitchell and Brazilian music. It made me decide to strip everything down.”
Echoes of Mr. Michael’s studies can be heard all over the new album. In addition to ”Praying for Time,” which recalls the solo Beatles collaborations with the producer Phil Spector, the song ”Heal the Pain” looks back to the Fab Four’s ”Rubber Soul” album. The new record’s lushest moment, ”Cowboys and Angels,” is a wistful ballad that re-creates the throbbing atmosphere of Astrud Gilberto’s 1960’s records of Antonio Carlos Jobim songs.
The album’s only nonoriginal song is a strikingly spare voice-and-piano remake of the Stevie Wonder-Syreeta Wright ballad, ”They Won’t Go When I Go,” from Mr. Wonder’s 1974 album ”Fulfillingness’s First Finale.” Mr. Michael’s unadorned rendition of another songwriter’s declaration of independence (Mr. Wonder’s lyric rejects ”lying friends,” ”unclean minds” and ”the greed of man”) is the album’s purest and most passionate vocal performance.
The song is one of two cuts in which Mr. Michael – who held his own with Aretha Franklin on their No. 1 duet, 1987’s ”I Knew You Were Waiting” – ventures into pop-soul territory. The other, ”Soul Free,” is an engaging Latin-flavored dance tune.
Except for ”Mother’s Pride,” an antiwar song, the remaining cuts – ”Something to Save” and ”Waiting for That Day,” which is reprised at the end of the record – are part of a song cycle within the album in which Mr. Michael, reflecting on an unhappy relationship, flails about like a wounded puppy. Even though three years have passed since ”Faith,” in some places on the new album he sounds younger, more confused and more vulnerable.
That aura of ingenuousness may reflect Mr. Michael’s research into a recent past that, for now at least, he seems to find more appealing than mainstream pop in its present, hard-edged mode.
”The thing I envy about all those groups in the 60’s was their rivalry and the incentive it gave them,” he said. ”I’ve grown up in a period where the real incentive has been to have a bigger record and to be a bigger celebrity. All you have to do to have ever-increasing fame is to repeat what has been successful before. What’s obvious in those 60’s records is how those people all had a desperate desire to move ahead of each other. You can hear it in the way the Beatles at one point were obviously copying the Beach Boys and in the way Lennon would copy Dylan. Though it was kind of shameless, it must have been a fantastic period to be a songwriter, and I wish it were going on now. Today, if you want to progress in your work you have to do it in your own little world.”
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)
- George Michael and John Lennon’s Imagine Piano: Tracking the Journey through News Clippings
- George Michael on ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ (1990)
- BBC Hardtalk Interview with George Michael (2003)