Culture

George Michael and his unique talent for Making It Big

Time to listen to George Michael's hits without prejudice

BY John McKie   /  26 December 2016

Morrissey once famously sang “I wear black on the outside/’cause black is how I feel on the inside.”

It is to be accepted Morrissey is a singular figure in the world of modern music, but this claim does not make him stand out in his field. There are plenty of stars in popular music from Johnny Cash, The Stranglers, The Sisters of Mercy, The Cure and Westlife, who have dressed in black. There are plenty of stars who will tell you they feel black on the inside. This is possibly why a select few asked Lou Reed “How are you?” They lived in fear of hearing his answer.

Only one pop star wore white “CHOOSE LIFE” T-shirts, day-glo shorts from which he would throw shuttlecocks, a leather jacket in one video which would be ceremonially burned in another promo, and of course the same tracksuit as Smithy from Gavin & Stacey. This was for a Comic Relief clip, which would turn out to be the inspiration for 2016’s set of most-shared online music clips, James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.

George Michael, who would share a 1984 TV interview slot with Morrissey (only one man would namedrop Joy Division, and it wasn’t the gladioli-wielding vegetarian), had a gift so uncommon that it is only through his passing, and the inevitable deluge of obituaries and tributes, that we can truly appreciate it.

For years, George Michael wrote universally appreciated pop songs. To do so is not a feat to be dismissed lightly.

Very few have done it as consistently well, to his scale of global domination (100m+ records sold). Certain inhabitants of The Brill Building and 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit (“Hitsville USA”), the Gibb Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Anderson and Ulvaeus, The Carpenters, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Madonna, Max Martin, Diane Warren, Adele. They’ve done it. You may be able to think of others, but not that many.
George Michael did it too, and often “made the sun shine brighter than Doris Day” in the process.

He once said: “People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.”

The culture of music criticism favours mystery and hidden meaning. It does not always appreciate hitting the target.

And he sure did.

Deciphering many of his greatest hits is not too difficult. You Have Been Loved and Jesus to a Child are about an ex, in Michael’s case Anselmo Feleppa. Everything She Wants, arguably the best B-side in pop music since I Am The Walrus, deals with dating someone materialistic. Young Guns (Go For It!) and Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do) take on the subject of being broke and jobless. Club Tropicana is the soundtrack to a summer (even if it was recorded in a Peckham basement). Careless Whisper, One More Try, Last Christmas, A Different Corner, Heal the Pain are all about getting your heart broken. Star People sees the singer irritated by shallow celebs and wannabes. The themes of Praying for Time, an end-of-days lament on poverty, haven’t dated. These are fairly universal emotions.

The subject matter as well as the melodies and the singer’s blue-eyed soul voice were always destined to make him an international megastar. Once his schoolmate and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley gave him confidence to pursue his musical dreams, his progress would be inevitable. The success of Faith saw him become, in the US at least, the world’s biggest selling singles and albums act in 1988, a feat not pulled off since Simon and Garfunkel in 1970.

It is somewhat understandable that he retreated from public life and the pursuit of fame but this did not make him less interesting.

Acts of generosity are being revealed after his death which he asked to remain secret through his life. There were much-publicised screw-ups which have been documented elsewhere – doing a new one at the Olympics springs to mind – but he shouldn’t, and ultimately won’t be, defined by them. Many public figures screw up.

That isn’t that rare. Writing pop songs the way George Michael did was, and just got rarer.