George Michael was not exactly what he seemed to many of his fans, writes music historian John Covach
He was a teen heart-throb but also an exceptional musician, producer, and songwriter, Covach says
Editor’s Note: John Covach is director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music and professor of music at both Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History” and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
George Michael was not exactly what he seemed to many of his fans. Michael, who died on Christmas Day, was of course the charismatic performer with the fantastic voice that propelled “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” to the top of the charts in the US and Britain in 1984. The infectious song, with a Motown-drenched energy, made Wham! (Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) into international stars, as their album “Make It Big” raced to the top of the charts, yielding three additional top hit singles.
Considering his status at the time as a teen heartthrob, it might surprise some fans to learn that George Michael served as producer of the “Make It Big” album and that he also wrote all but one of the songs on that record (the exception being a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “If You Were There”).
While Michael acknowledged an admiration for 1970s bubblegum star David Cassidy, he was also someone who sought to go beyond his celebrity, seeing much more in the music he created than an opportunity to dazzle the masses – though he was certainly well-equipped to do that.
After dissolving Wham!, Michael continued his chart-topping success with a debut solo album. Released in late 1987, “Faith” once again featured Michael’s production and songwriting, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and containing six top-5 hit singles.
While many will remember the controversial “I Want Your Sex” and the catchy “Faith”, other singles revealed something of Michael’s stylistic range as a performer. “One More Try” seems influenced by the gospel-tinged expressive soul ballads of Otis Redding, while “Kissing a Fool” evokes the R&B styles of Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson.
Viewed from an American perspective, Wham! in the mid-1980s seemed to have a lot in common with Hall and Oates, who had been enjoying the success of their blue-eyed soul since “Sara Smile” in 1976. And the catchiest of Michael’s up-tempo hits clearly share a lot with Prince’s music: “I Want Your Sex” seems to owe something to “Lady Cab Driver.”
In fact, the comparison with Prince is most apt: both musicians wrote, produced, and performed their music, frequently playing the other parts as well.
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Pop-music historians tend to focus on an artist’s first years of significant impact, and for George Michael it will be the late 1980s, when “Make It Big” and “Faith” topped the charts. Michael’s follow-up to “Faith” was “Listening Without Prejudice Vol. 1”, released in 1990 in a clear effort to move in a more serious songwriting direction. This shift was better received in the UK than the US, though the album reached the number-two chart position in the States.
Still, the enormity of Michael’s previous commercial success sealed his fate in terms of history: for most fans he will always be defined as the buoyant singer of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Faith.” Scholars will likely also note that he was an exceptional musician, producer, and songwriter.
In the first shot of the official video for “Wake Me Up”, a youthful George Michael appears dancing in a white shirt and pants. On his shirt is written in big letters: “Choose life.” As we remember him in the wake of his passing, I have a sense he would encourage us to focus on the joy and celebration that were so often an integral part of his music. You gotta have faith.