By Clinton Dybing
He’s the reason half of my friends went berserk in November when it was announced he was touring. He’s responsible for giving us an irresistible urge to dance. He’s an entertainer who we felt for a long time was singing just to us.
Turns out he was. And now that the stature, talent and assertiveness have grown, it turns out he’s talking for us too. Most importantly, after 22 years, George Michael is coming to town.
It’s difficult to not overlook his achievements. As of this year, he’s sold over 100 million records worldwide. When his debut album, Faith, was released, he was described as “the Elton John of the ’80s and the Howard Hughes of pop” — he was 23.
He’s won, amongst other awards, three Grammys as well as four Ivor Novello Awards (presented by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters) for his composing. In 2004, Radio Academy, the British charity that fosters “encouragement, recognition and promotion of excellence in UK broadcasting and audio production”, named him the most played artist of the past 20 years.
He’s the first artist ever to have a number one hit that he wrote, sang, played, arranged and produced.
Not bad, considering he first popped onto the scene wearing day-glo colours.
His Greek Cypriot father was a restaurateur and his English mother was a dancer. As a child, he took violin lessons, and soon started being a local music identity, skipping school to go busk in London and DJing around the neighbourhood.
After faltering with a ska band called The Executive, he formed Wham! with friend Andrew Ridgeley. 1982 saw the release of their debut record, Wham Rap!, one of the first singles to use rap.
It wasn’t until a few months later, with the release of Young Guns (Go For It), that they hit the charts. Though shrouded in the ‘pop’ sound, the song actually said something — it’s a plea form one friend to another to not marry young. Wham!, the two young men with a cleancut — though slightly rebellious (they wore leather jackets) — look, and frighteningly perfect blow-dried hair.
Simon Napier-Bell, who stated that Wham! “televised better than anyone”, agreed to manage the pair. It was the age of music videos and being marketable in that medium was essential. This, in conjunction with Ridgeley’s belief that the group should constantly alter its image and sound, ensured their success.
But after a trailblazing tour of China (Wham! was the first Western pop group to tour there), Michael called it a day with the band. It’s generally regarded that he was already tired of being a teenage-oriented pop idol and sought a more sophisticated musical outlet. (One account from the All Music Guide online said that he dissolved the band in protest when Napier-Bell sold his share to a South African conglomerate — this, of course, was before apartheid ended.)
Completely changing tack so soon was a huge risk. But the George Michael phenomenon just became bigger. His music grew into a richer, more emotional sound, and his lyrics would occasionally stretch boundaries.
When I Want Your Sex was released in 1987, he faced bans from radio stations and general uproar from everyone else.
The whirlwind that followed included hit after hit, a fallout with his record label, the most public way of being outed anyone could imagine, and a few run-ins with the law. It’s a whirlwind which, apparently, he — and we — are still experiencing.
Nowadays, it seems Michael’s outspoken about everything, from his pot-smoking to calling Rupert Murdoch “the devil”. In a 2006 interview on ITV, he said, “I can deal with the fact that Murdoch wants to destroy me”. He then told the interviewer, “I can’t deal with the gleeful way that people like yourselves [sic] are dealing with it.”
His fury directed at the tabloid press was unshakeable. “At the moment, I have no legal protection against words like ‘depravity’ and ‘shame’.”
When pressed about his cruising on Hampstead Heath, he said, “I think your line of questioning is totally skewed towards the straight perspective. And I’m sorry, but I’m not a straight man.”
In 2004, when Oprah asked how he thought fans would react to the ‘new’ (i.e. recently out) George Michael, he said, “I’m not interested in selling records to people who are homophobic”.
The forthcoming Australian visit is an unofficial extension of the 25 Tour of a few years ago. It’s promised that he’ll be performing material from his entire career, which is a lot of ground.
As a friend of mine said, “He’s everything: teen pin-up, bona fide pop soloist, pure soul, funk, and disco artist.” It’s rumoured that after his scheduled performances in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, he’ll return to Sydney for Mardi Gras. I asked my ever-faithful editor for verification — he knows the word on the street, you see. His reply, I quote: “I would just acknowledge it as a rumour…”
For days now, the jaunty rhythm of Faith has been running through my mind — it’s probably my favourite (don’t we all have a song from an artist that we maintain was written just for us?). Whether it’ll be performed in concert or for Mardi Gras is a mystery.
But it’s good to know that both onstage and off, it’s not always just ‘my’ song he’s singing. It’s ours.