The best metaphor for a typical career arc in entertainment is the Etch A Sketch. Achievements, no matter how momentous, get shaken up, swept away, and replaced by whatever happens next with an unforgiving swiftness. It's a brutal process for all involved, but few have had it tougher than George Michael.
The pop singer was a good dozen or so Etch A Sketch shakes removed from his late-'80s heyday when he stood before reporters gathered outside a Vienna hospital three days before Christmas in 2011. George Michael had just survived a life-threatening bout with pneumonia, and he looked like it. He was gaunt and haunted, though still handsome by regular-person standards, with a salt-and-pepper goatee, an incongruously bronzed complexion, and dark glasses concealing eyes that must've radiated relief and lingering terror in equal doses. In a quivering voice he talked about moving on from "by far the worst month of my life," and, once again, rebuilding. "I'm a new man," he said.
George Michael has been many new men over the course of his 49 years; for a time, he dictated the terms for this personal rejiggering as skillfully as anybody in pop music. An overweight and nebbishy adolescent born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and raised by a Greek immigrant father and an English dancer mother, he transformed himself as George Michael in the cocky, lady-killing mold of his best friend, Andrew Ridgeley. Together they formed teen-pop duo Wham!, projecting a unified front of clean-cut, feather-haired, preppy-guy sexuality that seemed harmlessly silly to grown-ups but resonated with exactly the right non-grown-ups in exactly the right bodily regions. (They were more like The Wanted than One Direction, to speak in the parlance of our times.)
The idea from the beginning was, in the words of Wham!'s second album, to Make It Big. By 1986, Wham! had zoomed past big and straight to astronomical, growing rapidly into a multinational corporation so powerful it pried open the gates of communist China for a tour, the first for a Western pop group. Nevertheless, George Michael was ready to declare "I'm a new man" again the following year. With his first solo album, Faith — released a quarter century ago this month — he remade himself as an archetype of MTV cool, with Miami Vice stubble, an Andrew Dice Clay leather jacket, Bruce Springsteen's blue jeans, and an ass so culturally ubiquitous it inspired its own Saturday Night Live parody.
Somehow, George Michael had made it even bigger: Faith sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, spawned four no. 1 singles in the United States, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. But even if you cast all that aside, George Michael made his mark by changing the game for teen idols trying to transition from "a sex symbol to millions of virgins" (as Michael himself put it to Rolling Stone while he was making Faith) to adult stardom. This ability to shape his image to the whims of the marketplace was foregrounded into critical appraisals of his music; even writers who liked George Michael fed him a steady stream of backhanded compliments about how surprisingly talented he was. But Michael's canniness in creating a lasting blueprint deserves real praise. At the very least, the future Justins, Timberlake and Bieber, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Then there's this: At a time when pop music brontosauruses stomped across the cultural plain, unencumbered by an Internet-ravaged music industry and supported by monolithic, star-obsessed media outlets, George Michael stood toe-to-toe with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, and by the late '80s was selling more records than all of them. But is that how we remember him? Faith was as much a part of the pop landscape as Thriller or Purple Rain, but it's not really put in that class anymore. Watching the Vienna press conference on YouTube, George Michael is hardly anybody's idea of a larger-than-life icon. Rather, he seems like a person who has had many "worst" months in the past 15 years.
George Michael's most infamous low point came in spring 1998, when he was arrested on a charge of engaging in a lewd act inside a Beverly Hills public restroom while trying to solicit an undercover cop, which he parlayed into a self-mocking comeback video for "Outside." (Less infamous, at least in the United States, was Michael's second arrest in 2006 for ill-fated anonymous sex in a public square in the middle of London.) Then there are his numerous legal run-ins for drugs, including arrests in 2006 and 2008 for possession, and in 2010 for possession and driving under the influence of drugs, which led to an eight-week prison sentence.
In George Michael's career Etch A Sketch, the successes have disappeared while the failures accumulate. Which is why, in spite of a track record as dominant as practically any pop singer of his era, his process of becoming something new never stops.
I've played Faith at least once a day for the past week to assess how it holds up in 2012. Not that I'm entirely convinced this is relevant, at least for those of us who were alive, young, and exposed to pop music in the spring and summer of 1988 (when Faith spent six of its 12 weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart) primarily via PA systems at neighborhood swimming pools and roller rinks. If this is you, then Faith is one of those albums that are just part of the geography of your life. I've owned Faith on cassette, vinyl, and CD, but it lives on forever in my head.
So, does it hold up? The short answer: Yes, absolutely. The slightly longer answer: If you were born the year Faith came out or after, probably not. The dance tracks are a little limp, with clanking '80s bass sounds on loan from a Dick Wolf television production. The album's breakout single, "I Want Your Sex" — which at the time was a provocation akin to Punky Brewster shooting heroin into Nancy Reagan's right arm — sounds conservative now, with its Michelob-y horns and odd treatment of sex as a new concept that George Michael was revealing to listeners for the very first time. (Sex is natural! Sex is fun! You should try it!)
There is one gateway to Faith that still works unequivocally, and that is "Father Figure." Actually, all of the ballads on Faith sound pretty great to me. George Michael was essentially a one-man '80s version of the Righteous Brothers. On "One More Try" and "Kissing a Fool," he gets on his knees and cries out a torturously sweet rapture. He was able to telegraph gospel influences without having to trot out an actual gospel choir (not yet, anyway); the counterpoint on "One More Try" is just a glacial synth and a slowly stuttering drum machine, which makes the emotive vocal that much more powerful in its isolation.
When heard against "Father Figure," "One More Try" is a house party. "Father Figure" is George Michael's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," only the protagonist is a closeted gay man who is probably crazy. When I hear "Father Figure" now, I find myself staring at the architecture: the way the song builds from a finger-snap pulse and a Hitchcockian circular piano lick, how the vocal stays at a whisper until the very moment it can no longer be restrained, that wonderful "If you are the desert, I'll be the sea" bridge, and finally the knife-through-the-shower-curtain climax. "Father Figure" is the sound of wanting what you can't have and deciding to take it anyway, and not in the usual fun, "greed is good" '80s sense.
When I first saw the Taxi Driver–inspired video for "Father Figure," I didn't even know what Taxi Driver was, so for a while George Michael was the closest media representation I had to pure alienation. Which is strange, because George Michael — for as long as I had actively paid attention to pop music at the time — had been the essence of whatever the opposite of pure alienation is. He seemed like a guy who got whatever he wanted. What I didn't know — and maybe he did — is that he wouldn't get to keep it.
Two stories from Rolling Stone published the year before and the year after Faith's release are telling snapshots of how George Michael was perceived in the media at the height of his success. The first story, from the October 20, 1986, issue and headlined "The Second Coming of George Michael," features a sizable black-and-white photo spread that captures Michael in a transitional phase from Wham! to his gestating solo career. The stubble is there, but his hair is still in the process of changing from drug-era Leif Garrett to pre-Army Elvis Presley.
George Michael is 23 and eager to present himself as a serious composer and record maker. Writer David Fricke does his best to comply, talking up the "grittier dance records" he's been making lately and likening "I Want Your Sex" to Prince's "Kiss." He describes Michael as "a rabid student of pop, avidly following the charts and rarely traveling without some kind of soundtrack." As for the George Michael solo record that's due out the following year, Fricke writes that the artist "will produce it himself, probably write all the songs and, in some cases, even play all the instruments." A real wunderkind, in other words.
The second story, from the January 28, 1988, issue and headlined "George Michael, Seriously," is presented as if the first story never existed. Steve Pond begins the article like this: "A lot of people hate him, he knows this. He is, it seems, too perfect, too prefab, too blatantly pop to take seriously … And for most of his brief career, he has had virtually no artistic credibility."
Pond spends the rest of the story trying to justify why George Michael deserves the credibility that Rolling Stone appeared to already give him a year and a half earlier. It's as if this George Michael is a totally different person. He calls Faith "a startling state-of-the-art dance album, a collection of potential hit singles, an emotionally open look at his life and concerns." He says "it is forcing many of those who scoffed at him during his Wham! days to take him seriously." Notice how the word "forcing" denotes a curmudgeonly lack of joy at the prospect of giving the man his props.
Michael, for his part, comes off as supremely confident in spite of the weird, arm's-length condescension. "If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music," he says at one point, which was more or less fact at the time. But George Michael eventually let the "can we really take this guy seriously?" narrative take over his career with Faith's follow-up, 1990's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. It was an album that spelled out its statement of purpose right in the title as plainly as Make It Big did, though with much muddier results.
At this point George Michael no longer appeared in his videos. He didn't tour. He later unsuccessfully sued Sony to be freed from his contract, which was partly to blame for his career being put on ice for six years. Not only did these choices make him a new man, they permanently divorced him from the pop star he once was.
The umpteenth coming of George Michael occurred this summer, with the release of a single, "White Light," inspired by his near-death experience, and a performance in front of an enormous international audience at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. He also revived his Symphonica tour, which had been halted due to his illness, performing standards like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" and revamped versions of his hits with the backing of an orchestra for sold-out audiences throughout Europe. He's also working on a new album, telling Wales Online that it "lies somewhere between Faith and [his 1996 album] Older in terms of content and it's probably the most radio-friendly album I've made in a long, long time."
Will this new record — which would be only his fourth collection of original material since Faith — restore George Michael to his proper place in the galaxy of bygone pop stars? I'd like to think so, though his latest iteration has already hit a snag: Earlier this month he announced the cancellation of more Symphonica dates because of "major anxiety" issues. In the realm of George Michael setbacks, this is minor stuff. George Michael will probably be back. It's just a question of who that George Michael will be.