Sunday, December 25, 2016

George Michael - RIP

2016 can't even give us a reprieve on Christmas Day, as it was sadly announced that pop singer George Michael has died from an unknown cause. He was 53 years old.

Real name Georgios Panayiotou, Michael grew up in London and had a fateful meeting with Andrew Ridgeley at one of his schools. The two formed the group Wham! in 1981 and released their first album Fantastic in 1983. The album and its singles were only popular in their native England, drawing the band a fervent teenage fanbase.

It wasn't until a year later when they achieved global fame with the blunt titled Make It Big. They broke through with their first single "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go", which went to #1 here in the States due its ear-wormy musical direction and its infamous music video. The video in question chiefly featured Michael jumping and jiving in a baggy "CHOOSE LIFE" embroidered t-shirt before switching to luminously colored shirt with matching short-shorts and gloves.

The two had further #1 hits with the dark pop song "Everything She Wants" and the slow jam classic "Careless Whisper". The latter single prove to be a huge omen of things to come, as it was marketed as being sung by either Wham! featuring George Michael or just George Michael. Michael's profile continued to overshadow Ridgeley due to him being the sole writer and composer of Make It Big and his major contribution to the British charity song "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Wham!'s third album "Music From The Edge Of Heaven", released in 1986, ended up being their last. The rousing "I'm Your Man" and the future Christmas staple "Last Christmas" were the very big hits spawned from it. Michael and Ridgeley seemingly broke up on good terms, with Michael looking to move beyond the teenage market and become treated more as a serious singer. He really didn't need to, as proven by his immense charisma and musical prowess, but what came from these aspirations prove to be a major change in pop culture.

Michael started off his solo career in 1987 by teaming with one of his idols, Aretha Franklin, on the glowing duet "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)". It went straight to #1 and was a prelude for what he was about to unleash upon the world. The first appetizer off his new album, "I Want Your Sex", premiered on radio and MTV in June to coincide with the release of the film Beverly Hills Cop II, where it was included on the soundtrack. The song proved to be highly controversial, especially considering this was still the height of the AIDS epidemic and paranoia. Many radio stations banned it and MTV only allowed its music video to be aired late at night. Michael had to speak out about the song's message and film a new PSA-like intro in order to calm the commotion. Regardless of everything, the controversy helped as the song went to #2.

In late October, Faith was released to the public. The title track, which begins with some organ playing before switching to rock-n-roll, drew raves and quickly shot up to #1. Once again, the art of music videos helped its promotion, thanks to the sight of a masculine Michael flashing a leather jacket, sunglasses and tight Levi jeans, as he swings his guitar near a jukebox. His next three singles all went to #1: the gospel-infused "Father Figure, the slow romantic ballad "One More Try", and odd synthpop ditty "Monkey". He closed out his singles with the underrated jazz tune "Kissing a Fool", the sole song on the album not completely written and composed by Michael himself. With six singles all ending up in the Top Five, eventually earning Diamond certification from the RIAA for over 10 million album sales, massive critical acclaim, and the Grammy for Album of the Year, Faith let everybody in the world know that George Michael was king.

Unfortunately, Michael didn't want to wear the crown. Exhausted by a world tour and all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding his first solo album, Michael went against the wishes of Sony and outright refused to do any promotion for his next album. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was released in late 1990. The cover art of it outright shows his disgust at his image at the time, as it is just a photo of a crowd with no identification of the artist or album. The first single "Praying For Time", intended to show off his maturity as an artist and songwriter, went to #1 mainly due to the still popularity of Michael. Its music video continued the anti-promotion, as it features the lyrics in blue text over a black background. His following singles only suffered in sales and the charts from Michael's lack of visual exposure, save for "Freedom '90". This song is now immortalized thanks to its artful music video, directed by David Fincher. The video featured several big named supermodels, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington, lip-synching to the song all the while items representing George Michael's past fame, namely his leather jacket, guitar and jukebox, are destroyed. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 ultimately sold 2 million copies and was widely seen as a massive disappointment off the heels of Faith. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 was canceled amid the infighting between Michael and Sony; the three tunes produced during its development, most notably "Too Funky", were released and their royalties went to various charities.

Regardless of 1990 being a tumultuous time in his life, George Michael could still command a stage and have the world listen to his beautiful crooning. In 1991, he went on a global tour dubbed "Cover to Cover", where he spent more time on singing his renditions of his favorite songs instead of his own tracks. One of such favorites was "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", made famous by Elton John. At his concert at Wembley Stadium, Michael surprised the audience by bringing in John to sing it with him. The duet was recorded and released as a single, where it went to #1. Michael had another hit with a cover the next year, when he teamed up with the remaining members of Queen to belt out "Somebody To Love" at the Freddy Mercury Memorial Concert.

Michael began to lay low from the public eye. His musical career laid dormant, save for the song "Jesus to a Child" in 1994, until 1996 with the release of Older. A big hit in his native England, the album however was lukewarm at best in America and earned Platinum certification. The success came mainly from its sole charting single "Fastlove", a futuristic take on "friends with benefits" with the added touch of the chorus from Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots".

For a man who often sung songs about freedom, it wasn't until 1998 when George Michael could live truly as himself albeit through humiliating circumstances. Michael was arrested by an undercover cop for lewd activities in a bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. The arrest revealed what many believed: George Michael was gay. Michael took the arrest in stride, pleading no contest to the charge, and began to be more open about his sexuality and his current relationships. He greatly showed this, while also throwing a dig at the LAPD, with the controversial music video for his new song "Outside". The tune was the lead-off single for his greatest hits album Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.

From then on, Michael spent more time performing and being in the public eye than in the studio. His last major album Patience came out in 2004, which he surprisingly recorded it with his former nemesis Sony. He ran into some trouble due to his politics, several drug charges and another case of cruising but Michael continued to draw crowds and make major contributions to many charities.

George Michael's death is another stinging blow for myself. I grew up with the music video for "Freedom '90". I absolutely adore his covers of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", "Somebody To Love" and "I Can't Make You Love Me". And finally, I listen to tracks from Faith every time I need a pick-em-up or to sooth the soul.

He will sorely be missed.

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