George Michael: The Careless Whisperer
Just when we thought 2016 was done swallowing up celebrities, with just a week left in the year, we lose another. Then another. George Michael and Carrie Fisher. I can’t remember another year where more major musical figures exited the stage of life taking their final bows.
I mean David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, and George Michael—Four of the most well known musicians on the planet. George Michael sold over 100 million albums which is even “more” considering he recorded far fewer studio albums in his career than the others listed. Whether you’re a fan or not, that’s a lot of albums and fans. That’s in league with acts like The Eagles, Queen, Chicago, Whitney Houston, The Rolling Stones and Mariah Carey and nearing fabled Beatles and Elvis territory. George Michael’s numbers will no doubt increase in the coming weeks as it did with Prince posthumously even causing an unreleased track on the 1986 album Parade, “Sometimes It Snows In April” to chart in several countries in Europe peaking at #14 in France.
The death of George Michael came as a surprise to me as it did many others. I was visiting my brother later in the afternoon and saw it on my Twitter feed. I said to him George Michael just died. He didn’t believe it either. With all the recent talk about fake news stories on Facebook and Twitter like “Donald Trump Summits Everest” as well as discussion of verifying the accuracy of Tweets, at first I thought this was just another social media sucker punch celebrity death click bait. Then I googled and found a BBC article. George Michael gone too early at just 53 years old. Which means there’s songs not released yet and songs and projects unfinished.
George Michael won two Grammys: one for his debut album Faith (Album Of The Year) and one for his amazing duet with Queen Of Soul Aretha Franklin. He achieved eight #1 singles on Billboard charts during his solo career. He began his foray into pop culture with high school friend Andrew Ridgeley in the 80’s British pop group Wham!. The historical fun fact about Wham! was they were the first western musical act to perform in China. Make that allowed to perform in China as many types of music was still banned there at the time. That was 1985 and Chinese police were worried there’d be riots. Being trampled by teenage girls can be an occupational hazard. I know the feeling. A few years back, I went an Ingrid Michaelson concert and it was me surrounded by 400–500 teenage girls. I hung out back near the soundman until the end of the show then talked to friends of mine in her band when it was safe. I lived to tell about it.
I’m going to disregard the American Idol admonition “You shouldn’t have picked a George Michael song” and pick several of my favorites. Some were released as singles, some not. All showcase his incredible voice and adeptness at singing. It’s blatantly evident George Michael was far from a base model vocalist—with him our ears get the deluxe package with all the bells and whistles. There’s none of smoke and mirrors of autotune numerous pop stars depend on and which newer generations of music fans have become tone deaf to people who wield greater mastery of the art of singing like George Michael.
Last Christmas (Single 1984, included on Music from the Edge of Heaven 1986)
Last Christmas for George Michael. The bittersweet irony of George Michael dying on Christmas Day was not lost on Captain Obvious. It was another bizarre coincidence like Prince dying in an elevator after mentioning one in “Let’s Go Crazy.” Both occurrences with greater odds against them than if Elton John, a member of Chicago or the Bay City Rollers died on a Saturday.
George Michael and Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley released “Last Christmas” on the heels of the massive success of their second album Make It Big. “Last Christmas” is one of those fun pop holiday songs that invites you, some would say addictively beckons you to sing along. Special. See? You know you love doing the backing vocal to it. And of all the Yuletide assaults on our ear canals in retail stores from November 24th til December 31st, I was always glad when the satellite radio roulette landed on “Last Christmas” when I was in a store. Just like when Michael Jackson died, MJ merchandise was everywhere only a day or so later and shop owners were moonwalking all the way to the bank. So don’t be surprised if you see Last Christmas or CHOOSE GEORGE apparel in stores soon.
Careless Whisper (Make It Big 1984)
Although Wham! was marketed as an early boy band (or more aptly a boy duo), when I got older, I could see how George Michael displayed a compositional maturity beyond his years. Case in point: “Careless Whisper.” I was even more impressed when I learned he wrote that famous haunting sax line when he was still a teenager. This was the first official solo from George Michael even though it was included on Make It Big. He and Andrew Ridgeley started writing this track several years prior and it’s the only one on the album where Ridgeley has a writing credit. The rest of Make It Big was all George Michael compositions.
Father Figure (Faith 1987)
George Michael had devastating nuances like Sade. “Father Figure” demonstrates how he could maneuver inside whispers. It’s one of the most believable love songs I’ve ever heard. It’s not surface pretty pop lyrics, it’s not idealized, it’s not some teenage or 20 something year old lamenting about love with miniscule life perspective—it’s a naked vulnerable exposure beyond what teeneyboppers and young pop stars could pull off. I listen to this track and see how George Michael is actually living inside these lyrics and delivers fine point precision singing with a degree of authenticity they cannot replicate. Put another way, I highly doubt even if they could write lyrics as piercingly honest and revealing, they couldn’t sell the performance vocally as genuinely as George Michael does on “Father Figure.”
I hear songs first on the level of emotional depth. So even if this song was in a different language it still would have connected with me. Though now, as an adult I can see how the lyrics could be interpreted as references to gay culture. Back then I wasn’t privy to this since this over a decade before George Michael officially came out. And during his Wham! days and early solo work, he was still bisexual (which was kept from the press) and still writing songs about women.
Nevertheless, I just heard “Father Figure” as a great love song with rare solemnness and sincerity. It really didn’t occur to me at the time that a guy who had women like Tyra Banks in his videos was gay. Back then, for George Michael, life was like a Robert Palmer video. He didn’t publicly come out until that incident in a Beverly Hills bathroom in 1998—his Pee Wee Herman moment—both men caught masturbating in public. Michael made fun of himself and the incident in the music video for the single “Outside” by wearing an LAPD uniform, holding a nightstick and dancing in a bathroom pimped out like a disco. He didn’t take himself seriously, which is a blessing when you meet famous persons who are like this, but George Michael always took his singing seriously which is preserved in the sublime softness of this moment carved in sound. Rest assured in the future, some work(s) by George Michael will be selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the United States National Recording Registry joining the Steely Dan album Aja. I have Faith on that.
I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) 1987, Duet, Grammy
What’s better than a song by Aretha Franklin? A song with Aretha AND George Michael. It was the only time it happened and fortunately it was awesome. George got to sing with one of his heroes, one of his favorite artists. He definitely picked a great example to emulate and develop his own style. The pairing was also the biggest hit for Aretha Franklin reaching #1 on Billboard charts. Earlier on in her career Aretha got Respect. Sharing a mic with George Michael got them a Grammy. Coincidentally the song has the word Faith in it as well.
This song proves it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what gender you are. It’s what’s inside you. George Michael had Motown and R&B coursing through his veins supplying his vocal chords with velvety richness and a buttery expressiveness. On the outside we saw a white British guy of Greek heritage. We heard something beyond all those temporary impermanent classifications when he sang. And this is such a beautiful contemporary spiritual/gospel flavored song disguised as pop tune with an infectious triumph and elation in the chorus hook.
Something To Save (Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 1990)
This song soars. It’s either a secular gospel song or a hymn in the First Church of George Michael. This track will bring tears to your eyes with it’s openheartedness. It was never released as a single but it’s definitely a George Michael track that deserves more attention that it got. His affectation, freedom, and expressiveness on this track show how George Michael could make singing into a religious experience. It’s like taking a glider ride on sighs.
Waiting (Reprise) Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 1990
This is another track which was never released as a single. Although it’s short it contains some brutally confessional lyrics. And George Michael doesn’t devolve into sappy which all too often undermines the realness of a song. He expertly matches the singing to these really personal lyrics. He’s wasn’t just a singer, he was a songwriter and you can hear the difference—he’s singing his own words and experiences. The intimacy of this song is a reflection of self discovery. It’s daring and not the juvenile shock value kind, it’s delicate shades of gray which don’t get obscured by clouds of anger. When he sings “Here I am” towards the end of the song, he paints so many more words than just those three.
Freedom! ’90 (Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 1990)
Man could George Michael sing. Listen to “Freedom! ’90” and he’ll blow your hair back on the chorus. It’s one of my favorite George Michael tracks. The outro is just pure astral emancipation. It’s danceable latin flavored groove is deceptively inviting onto a dancefloor of deliverance. “Freedom! ’90” is where we delightfully hear George Michael roar in celebratory victory. The resonant power of his chorus yells gives reverberating lift fanning the ignition of independence.
After Wham! George Michael explored songwriting further, stretching out from the common verse chorus restrictions. And that’s when he really showcased his vocal techniques and vocal range. It allowed him to employ a greater tonal palate with his singing and become more confessional with his material and singing. George Michael ranged from theatric to solemn, from sassiness to spiritual. His slower tempo songs really allowed him to stretch out and showcase his vocal flair.
For a vocalist to reach and apply higher level artistry, he or she has to sing more than just notes. and George Michael brought vocal ornamentation to the forefront. His sense of dynamics, use of nuance and inflection have made me go wow in my head numerous times. It’s in the tonality of his voice, the multi–textural vocal stylings, it’s not just his vocal range, it’s he could do so many cool things with his voice.
When your ear becomes educated you can Listen Without Prejudice and appreciate singers and styles you wouldn’t otherwise have listened to. Like Freddie Mercury (whom he was a fan of as was Freddie of him) George Michael was a one of a kind unique voice. He wrapped silver and gold tinsel around his melodies, fitting for someone with such a gifted voice.
So boom boom boom boom.
Remember, if you’re going do it, do it right, and wear your CHOOSE GEORGE shirt.
But I just hope you’ll understand, sometimes the clothes do not make the man.
© Composer Yoga