I have some confessions to make. My first confession is that I used to say to people that my first ever concert I attended was New Order with Echo & the Bunnymen and opener Gene Loves Jezebel on September 11, 1987 at the San Diego Sports Arena. I said this to sound cool; in actuality, that was my second concert. The first was Wham! with Chaka Khan and Katrina and the Waves at Hollywood Park in 1985. My sister really wanted to go and my parents would only let her if the entire family went together. I eventually got over my “too cool” attitude and have since embraced and championed this event. I mean, I was ALL IN on Fantastic. My preteen brain dug the fashionable rebellion of “Young Guns (Go For It),” “Bad Boys,” and “Wham Rap.” By the time Make It Big was released, they had become a kind of heartthrob duo, appealing to teenage girls everywhere, and essentially making the album title a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was just a bit too bubblegum for my burgeoning sophisticated taste. This, of course, did not stop me from being mesmerized by George Michael’s incredible stage presence and dynamic voice that warm August night in Inglewood.
I still have chills thinking about the opening drums of “Everything She Wants” (still one of my favorites of theirs) and then seeing George entering the stage with a long fringe jacket to the screams of the entire crowd. My memory is now hazy on most everything else, especially that the concert only lasted for six Wham! songs. (Could that be right?) And the last song was a cover of “Good Times” by Chic? Regardless of the truth, my memory has forever shaped my view of George Michael. I will always see him as the consummate entertainer, albeit later a bit of a tortured one. In less than a year from that fateful night, Wham! would go their separate ways, relegating poor Andrew Ridgeley, unfairly or not, to the scrap heap of second fiddles, making for a bunch of jokes including Oates and Garfunkel.
And then, George Michael hit the stratosphere. Faith was a phenomenon that hit at just the right time. It was both MTV’s boon and curse, with “I Want Your Sex” being banned during the day and clamored for at night. The title track then became the image that most people had of George Michael, the jeans and leather jacket, Ray-Bans, five o’clock shadow, jukebox, and close-up shots of his shaking heinie. It was this, the symbols of his pinnacle of stardom, along with the fame, criticism, controversy, attention, and subsequent exhaustion that led to his retreat and arguably the best album of his career.
Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is as big of an about-face from Faith as Michael could have mustered. The title itself is a directive, an instruction for those who were coming into his music hot off the heels of what is now one of the top 50 selling albums of all time. “Don’t judge me on Faith” he seems to be saying, and the first track, also the lead single, is “Praying for Time,” a politically conscious ballad that wears its heart on its sleeve. “I Want Your Sex” this was not. From this moment, the listener knows that they are in for a different side of George Michael, one that is serious, meditative, and contemplative. This George has gravitas. He’s stripped down to bare acoustic instrumentation and not at all concerned with entering the charts on a banger. And whether it was still the momentum from Faith or a real recognition of a new perspective, the song did hit number one (the last solo chart-topper of his career).
However, “Freedom ‘90” is arguably the song with the most longevity. It is his “shot heard round the world” and his declaration of independence. Tacking on the ’90 to avoid confusion with the Wham song of the same name, this track is mostly new jack funk dipped in a healthy dose of gospel. The song tells the story of George making it big with Wham and then wanting to be free of that prison of “image.” Tangentially, this is the reason Michael refused to star in any of the music videos made for the album, and why he doesn’t appear on the album’s cover. This song’s video was the most memorable, the one that kept MTV relevant, and the one that made a household name of David Fincher. In it, Michael’s lyrics about fame are lip-synced by five of the world’s biggest supermodels at the time while the iconic images from his “Faith” video explode and are set on fire. He even cheekily tells his fans off the bat to “have some faith in the sound / it’s the one good thing that I’ve got.” But he shows his regret for his perceived missteps of his career throughout:
When you shake your ass
They notice fast
Some mistakes were built to last
Here is what I love about this song—it can be taken on one level as an indictment of fame and the music industry, and especially his own place within it, but it can also be taken as his “coming out” expression at a time when AIDS was a terrifying recent reality and not even Elton John was publicly “out.” Many of the lyrics are very specific to his experience with Wham and Faith, but some are powerfully ambiguous:
But today the way
I play the game is not the same
Think I’m gonna get myself happy
All we have to do now
Is take these lies and
Make them true somehow
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone I forgot to be
Take back your picture in a frame
Don’t think that I’ll be back again
It is clear that the George Michael with the scantily clad Asian model, the George Michael who had to say “girl” in his lyrics, the one who egged on his screaming female fans with his perfect hair and beaming smile is gone. The new George Michael had arrived and was ready to make his voice and his lyrics the stars of the show. The irony of course came with the line “I would really love to stick around” as Sony essentially said no to that particular hope, thus the “Volume 1” without a “Volume 2,” as was originally planned. Looking at the credits for LWP, one can see that the songs were written over a long time period of time, carefully curated into this format. This was no “contract obligation album” or time-filler. This was crafted and cultivated. I remember having the realization in looking at the dates of the songs (Michael puts these in the album liner notes for a reason) that this was a labor of love and the most intentioned album of his career.
And here’s my second confession: In the solitude of my car, I sing along to “Freedom ‘90” more than any other in my music library. It is joyful and empowering. It almost doesn’t fit on the album. The rest of the album is more like the opener—serious and stripped down. “Mother’s Pride” in a way feels like the elegy for the George Michael that was, a casualty of the war for fame and excess. “Waiting for that Day” is a whispery version of a rap track, a companion to what was then on the radio such as P.M. Dawn, the flipside of the elegy, being a longing for a previous life and love.
Sony and the pop music public ultimately did George Michael dirty. They were simply waiting for Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 2 which they were hoping was really Faith Pt. 2. They wanted the sex. They wanted the bubblegum. They wanted the emptiness, the façade, the construct. The world wasn’t ready for the real George Michael and wouldn’t be until it was likely too late. Most have now reassessed Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1 and deservedly so. It is the work of a true artist, one who had been both lauded and underestimated in equal measure for nearly a decade. The failure to reach the seemingly impossible sales standard set by Faith, along with a few years of self-reflection and scandal, would deprive us of his music for another six years, which makes me think that the world wasn’t capable of listening without prejudice and maybe never would be.
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