Winter 2009

George Michael: TwentyFive Years of Faith, Freedom and FastLove

Let’s begin with a favorite who made a very welcome comeback to live concerts last summer. George Michael, a man who dominated the 1980’s, started out with his childhood friend, Andrew Ridgeley and formed the duo Wham! The record was a knockout, spawning hit after hit, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Everything She Wants,” and the classic “Careless Whisper” that Michael penned at the age of 16.

Here are the facts: George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963. He has sold over 80 million records worldwide. He had six Number One singles from his solo debut album, Faith. He fought his record company in 1993 and lost. George was arrested for lewd conduct in 1998. In the past decade, George’s tabloid headlines were overshadowing his musical output.

George Michael’s blue-eyed soul captured the hearts and ears of millions. He had a string of successes including his 1986 Number One monster hit “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” a duet with Aretha Franklin. As a matter of fact, George was the first white male vocalist ever to record with the legend. Aretha brought a love gift to the studio for George; a huge rack of barbecued ribs. Rumor has it that George turned them down and she ate all the ribs herself!

His 1991 hit “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” a duet with Elton John, also topped the charts around the globe and further cemented George Michael as a star to be reckoned with. But it was his 1988 smash album Faith, turning out six Number One singles including “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex,” “Kissing A Fool,” and the title cut, that won the Album of the Year at the Grammy’s and made George Michael a bonafide superstar.

During this time, George found himself feuding with his record company, Sony Records, over royalties. In 1993, he sued Sony attempting to free him of his contract. The court ruled in favor of Sony. The two finally parted company and George began recording for Steven Spielberg’s label Dreamworks in 1996. The album, Older was a critical and financial success. The album earned multi-platinum and gold status in 34 countries and went five times platinum in the UK. It did well in America, but apparently it didn’t impress the American suits. What’s a girl gotta do?!

He had several successes following, but it was his 1998 arrest in a public Men’s Room in Beverly Hills that not only outed the star, but put him in a dangerous category with the public. He wasn’t just the man who wanted your sex, it seemed he wanted the sex of a male stranger…heavens! It may not sound like a shock for most of the gay community, but it ran shockwaves throughout his faithful straight fan base.

Soon after the scandal, Michael used the incident to his advantage and released the single “Outside.” The accompanying video depicted Michael in a police uniform standing next to another uniformed officer in a public restroom. At the end of the video, it captures Michael and the anonymous officer in a hot lip lock. While it may have amused his gay following, it did little to make amends with his straight audience. Put it this way, the video was hardly in heavy rotation over at MTV and VH-1. It fared much better at Hunters, Revolver, Midnight Sun and the rest of the gay clubs across America and around the world. Typically, the incident hardly affected sales of his records in Europe and the rest of the world, just here in the “civilized” US of A!

The single “Outside” was included on a stunning two set CD, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Very Best of George Michael. And very best it was. CD 1 was over a dozen of George’s ballads while CD 2 included his many uptempo hits. The album sold over 8 million copies.

If you feel it’s been a while since you’ve heard the name George Michael, you’re not alone. In 2003, he released the single “FREEEK!” in Europe and it was a huge success, going to Number One in six countries. At that time, George returned to his record label Sony, his roots, and his superb music that made him a star in the first place. After an eight-year wait, he came back with an outstanding CD aptly titled Patience.

I’ve always said that real honest-to-God talent will stand the test of time. If you’ve really got what it takes, your career will have longevity, or as they say in Hollywood, your career will have “legs.” George Michael has proven to his devoted fans and to the world in general that he’s got great legs and he definitely knows how to use them.

Fast-forward to the present. Over the past year, Michael has gone back out on the road, touring in Europe for over a million and a half fans. After the great success across the pond, he wondered how America would respond to his latest tour. Last summer, he kicked off his 25 Live Tour in San Diego and went on to wow audiences in many North American cities that included Vanouver, B.C., Toronto, Ontario, Dallas, Miami, Boston and several more. To his pleasure and fans alike, he achieved enormous success.

I caught up with him in the midst of the tour. I could tell you so much more about Michael, but I thought it best for it to come directly from the star himself. Ladies and Gentlemen, George Michael…

Why are you on tour for the first time in 17 years?

I don’t think I’m saying anything other than “thank you” really to people because I sat in my front room one day about a year and a half ago and thought ‘You know, apart from the fact that you probably wish you had done it while you could still stand without help (laughs) there is going to be a day you regret not having done this thing you’re so afraid of, which is repeating the experience of the 80’s of are you going out on tour and living in the eye of the storm.’ Those people that I’m going to play for know exactly why it’s been a twenty-five year-career, they know exactly why I’m going to sing to them, and they know exactly why they’re coming to see me.

Can you describe your musical arc over the last 25 years?

I think funnily enough, one of the great successes of my career musically is that its intent hasn’t really changed very much. I have the same intent now that I had when I started. The difficulty, artistically, is in learning your craft and learning about life and changing as a person and yet holding on to the basic elements of what made you and gave you your appeal in the first place.

Do you need the live feedback from an audience or is it enough for you to record in a studio?

As a musician, you need people to tell you, you need people to respond to what you’re doing and know that they like it, so I need an audience. So, Absolutely yes!

Have you been nervous about this North American tour? I understand it's the first time in almost two decades?

I think I’ve probably needed to perform a lot more than I’ve wanted to admit. I haven’t performed for many, many years and I think it’s something I’ve not done through fear and it’s a shame because all fear does is waste time. I’m delighted I’ve decided to do it again because it’s gone so well and makes me realize I should’ve done it a long time ago, but you can only do what you’re capable of at the time. I mean, I think it’s a way better show than I’ve ever performed before.

Are there any songs you’ve officially retired?

Not really, but there are only a couple of Wham! songs I can still get away with—“Everything She Wants” and “I’m Your Man.” Other than that, there’s nothing that I have a real objection to.

Did you feel a special connection with gay fans even before you came out in 1998? Surely you must’ve known it wasn’t just girls eyeing your ass in the Faith days.

Oh God, yeah, I knew that. With all those number one club records and stuff, I really have had a great amount of support from the gay community in America in the last 15 years, so absolutely that’s special. I actually write about my real experience now, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it easier for gay people to listen to.

Did you get any positive feedback from gay fans that made coming out professionally worth the drama?

Quite a few people have written to me over the years on that basis. From the moment I outed myself, when I wrote “Outside,” immediately I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make a video for all those kids that are now where you were 25 years ago, with your only experience being cruising—and feeling terrible about it because you’re 16 or whatever?’ If someone had made a video like that for my entertainment when I was a young guy, I would’ve loved it.

Can a gay artist succeed if he’s out from the beginning?

It’s happening in Europe—Will Young was out from day one and it didn’t hurt him at all—but it’s still very tricky in America, where you’re so categorized as soon as people realize you’re gay.

Would you advise a closeted performer in America to stay in the closet?

Absolutely not. There is no career that’s worth that. I’d just say, “Come out and accept that you’ll lose some of your audience.”

How did you feel about Carrie Underwood’s cover of “Praying For Time” on American Idol’s Idol Gives Back?

I thought it was very flattering. She really sung her heart out, didn’t she? I’m going to find some opportunity to thank her. That’s probably why they invited me on to the American Idol finale last season.

Do you wish more Idol contestants sung George Michael songs?

Well, normally Simon Cowell tells them, “You just don’t touch a George Michael song,” which I thought was quite complimentary.

Last year you made your American acting debut on the ABC series Eli Stone. How did that come about?

The story apparently goes is that that Greg [Berlanti] wrote the initial draft, the idea for the series and I was included in that original draft. Apparently, the studio didn’t think that I would say yes, so they wrote it again and I think they went for Phil Collins or somebody else but they didn’t realize I’m a telly addict so I love American TV drama, so I said yes the minute I heard and I wanted to know what the concept was. Of course, when they told me they wanted to name every episode after a song of mine it was very flattering to the ego. I prefer watching TV. I don’t think I’d like a career in it. It was just a remarkable thing because they wanted to name all of the episodes after my songs and write me into the actual storyline, but the music was the main reason I did it. People think because I did Extras and Eli Stone that maybe I’m trying to make a foray into acting, but I’m not.

How do you maintain such a good sense of humor about your mishaps?

Well, with the stuff that I get up to, if I didn’t have a sense of humor I’d really be up shit creek, as they say. I can always see the funny side, especially if it’s about sex.

© 2009 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.