How George Michael transformed pop

When George Michael released his second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 in September 1990, he wasn’t asking fans to embrace a captivating new persona as equivalent pop giants like Madonna and David Bowie did during their imperial phases. But in a way, he was attempting something just as audacious: he wanted to shed the misleading image he had created for himself as one of the most recognizable stars of the 1980s. Now he wanted to show the world more, though not yet all, of who he really was. "Today the way I play the game has got to change," he sang on the album’s astonishing second single Freedom! ‘90, a song the producer Mark Ronson has described as a "funk groove masterpiece" and "the Mona Lisa".

In the same song, Michael delivered the rather pleading refrain "I just hope you understand sometimes the clothes do not make the man", then drove home his message in the accompanying music video by torching his signature leather jacket from the Faith album campaign three years earlier. However, in a typically contradictory artistic statement, the video in which he asked us to embrace the new, more authentic he featured five huge supermodels of the era  Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford, but not a single glimpse of the artist himself. As a singer-songwriter, Leo Kalyan notes wryly, Freedom! ‘90 has “one of the most iconic music videos of all time despite George Michael’s absence from it". Indeed, Michael refused to appear not only in Listen without Prejudice Vol 1’s music videos but even on its album cover. Though still only 27 years old, he already had the music industry clout to do exactly as he pleased.

As it turns 30 this month, Listen without Prejudice Vol 1 is now widely acknowledged as a modern pop classic. An October 2017 reissue released to coincide with George Michael: Freedom, a posthumous documentary film about the singer who had passed away 10 months earlier, returned the album to the top of the UK charts 27 years after it first made number one. With sophisticated pop songs influenced by The Beatles (Heal the Pain) and The Rolling Stones (Waiting for That Day) and a stripped-down cover of Stevie Wonder’s They Won’t Go When I Go that shows off Michael’s chops as a soul singer, it is seen in retrospect as the album that successfully cemented his position as a pop maestro, not a mere pop puppet. 

A huge gamble

But when it first came out in September 1990, this deeply introspective and mostly downbeat LP was a massive risk for a singer who had become a global superstar by crafting glittering, radio-friendly hits like 1984’s debut solo single Careless Whisper and 1998’s pop-soul gem Father Figure. It was also the first time that Michael, the north London-born son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur and an English dancer, allowed his personal happiness to impinge on his vaulting professional ambition.

After forming the exuberant duo Wham! in 1981, he and school friend Andrew Ridgeley scored a string of global hits that made them pin-ups and even pioneers: in 1985, Wham! made history by becoming the first Western group to visit China. A year later, Michael cannily called time on the two-piece before their fizzy pop confections like Club Tropicana and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go could become passé  Wham! bowed out in the most triumphant style imaginable, with a sell-out concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. In 1987, he released his debut solo album Faith a collection of state-of-the-art pop-R& B which sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, placing him up there with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston as an icon of the era. Alongside the music, he refined his pin-up status with an image that Paul Flynn, author of Good As You: 30 Years of Gay Britain, calls "straight drag". Flynn says that in 1987’s Faith video, Michael "dressed himself up very much like Tom Cruise in Top Gun", a style calculated to be as marketable as possible. Or, as Michael put it himself, knowingly, on Freedom! ‘90, after his band Wham! ended in 1986 and he began focusing on his solo career, he "went back home and got a brand new face for the boys at MTV"

Today, it's impossible not to view Michael's Faith image and his determination to shed it with Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, through the prism of his own repressed sexuality. By the late-1980s he knew he was far more attracted to men than women, but chose to keep it hidden for the sake of his family and career. "If your goal is to become the biggest-selling artist in America which was still my bizarre goal you’re not going to make life difficult for yourself, are you?" he told Gay Times in 2007. Michael didn’t come out until 1998 when he was arrested by an undercover officer for engaging in a "lewd act" in an LA public lavatory an incident he then sent up in that year’s disco banger Outside, taking the sting out of any embarrassment he might have felt. "I’d service the community," he sang with his tongue firmly in his cheek, "but I already have, you see."

But if Outside seemed to show fans a new, more liberated Michael, then it was a process that started eight years earlier with Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Flynn calls the album Michael’s "grand apologia for being in the closet" as well as "the album where he turns his back on fame". "It’s the album where he realizes where his hollow ambitions have led him to, and the compromises they have involved, which have so much to do with his sexuality," Flynn says. He points out that the poignant album track Mother’s Pride, on which Michael sings about a son going off to war, can be read as a metaphor for a son coming out of the closet. Certainly, Michael delivers lyrics such as "and in her heart the time has come to lose a son" with palpable pathos.

Reckoning with his sexuality

While writing Faith, Michael disguised any personal turmoil within flashy pop music that was designed to grab the zeitgeist through the music video for I Want Your Sex, the album’s self-consciously provocative lead single, featured his then-girlfriend Cathy Jeung, Michael later said it was written about a man who was playing hard to get. On Listen without Prejudice Vol 1, however, Michael’s complex private life fuelled music that was more subdued and nuanced, and which alluded to his sexuality without making anything explicit. Cowboys and Angels, a beautiful jazz-flavored ballad from the album, was inspired by the same unrequited love that Michael mined for I Want Your Sex. “He was the guy I was in love with when I was with Cathy (Jeung), who was definitely in love with me at that time,” he told Attitude magazine in 2004. "So it was very autobiographical."

There were also hints of Michael's inner conflict in Heal the Pain, a Beatles-influenced folk-pop song which he later recorded as a duet with Paul McCartney. Now, when Michael sings, "How can the outside world be a place that your heart can embrace? Be good to yourself because nobody else has the power to make you happy," it’s easy to hear him directing this sound advice at himself. Elsewhere, the house-flecked Soul Free besides Freedom! ‘90, the album’s only uptempo song  shimmered with the possibility of a semi-illicit thrill as Michael sang in an ecstatic falsetto: "When you touch me, baby, I don't have no choice, oh that sweet temptation in your voice!"

However, it would be reductive to suggest that Listen without Prejudice Vol 1 was solely about Michael processing his sexuality. It's also an album where he shook off any remnants of his teen-pop years. “Freedom! 90 is about breaking free of your past,” Kalyan says, "and for George Michael, this seems to be as much about making a point to his record label as about embracing his sexuality for the first time". The sublime, slow-burning Waiting for That Day placed Michael next to the big boys of British rock by borrowing from The Rolling Stones  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards get a co-writing credit for his nod to You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Praying for Time, a socially conscious ballad, has earned comparisons to John Lennon over the years. Released as the album’s lead single, it found Michael grappling with Western wealth inequality and the hypocrisy surrounding it. Even 30 years on, his dry observation that "charity is a coat you wear twice a year" still feels stingingly on the nose.

Underappreciated in its time

Though Listen without Prejudice Vol 1 sold eight million copies worldwide and won Michael a Brit Award for best British album, it was widely regarded as a commercial disappointment after Faith’s blockbuster success. Michael felt his record label, Sony Music, had failed to promote it properly in the US and subsequently took them to court, alleging that the company treated him as "no more than a piece of software". Because of this lawsuit, which Michael eventually lost, a planned follow-up album called Listen without Prejudice Vol 2 never materialized.

It’s fitting, though, that Michael gave three songs intended for the project – including the brilliant, hip-shaking hit single Too Funky –to Red Hot + Dance, an HIV/Aids charity album released in June 1992. Written by a closeted gay man at the height of the epidemic, Listen without Prejudice Vol 1 is an album steeped in the grief and confusion of the HIV/Aids era. Michael acknowledged in a 2007 Desert Island Discs interview that "Aids was the predominant feature of being gay in the 1980s and early 90s as far as any parent was concerned" and a major factor in his decision not to come out to his own family sooner. It’s little wonder that, as he became more emotionally honest in his music, he no longer sounded ready to party.

Now, nearly four years after Michael’s untimely death on 25 December 2016, Listen without Prejudice Vol 1 forms a cornerstone of his legacy along with his early Wham! hits, 1987’s more ostentatious Faith and 1996’s fascinating and reflective Older album. "His music connects with so many people because he wrote classic songs about universal human experiences, but he always told the story through his individual lens," says Kalyan.

Though he remained closeted and conflicted for another eight years following its release, Listen without Prejudice Vol 1’s steadfast rejection of pop star artifice is an important stepping stone in Michael’s journey to becoming the scrupulously honest man we now remember him as. He retained a certain mystique right up to his death, but Michael’s willingness to confront his public and private mistakes helped to pave the way for today’s more transparent pop landscape, where a superstar like Katy Perry feels comfortable discussing her depression in a radio interview, and other household names like Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa post apologies for tone-deaf moments and past faux pas.

After he came out in 1998, Michael became known for speaking with absolute candor about his recreational drug use, the depression he suffered in the 1990s after losing his lover Anselmo Feleppa to Aids then his mother Lesley to cancer, and his unapologetic attitude towards gay sex. Asked by The Guardian in 2006 why he enjoyed cruising on London’s Hampstead Heath when "he could get any man he wants", Michael replied matter-of-factly: "I do get anyone I want. But I like a bit of everything. I have friends up there, I have a laugh." Drag king and mega-fan Gorgeous Michael says that "as a queer person coming of age in the early 2000s, it felt really empowering to hear someone embrace those things publicly". 

So, when he sings "gotta have some faith in my sound it’s the one good thing that I’ve got," on Freedom! ‘90, Michael was only half right. His sound helped to make him the pre-eminent British pop star of his generation, but George Michael's profound humanity and successful battle to present himself authentically is what makes him a truly great artist. That battle wasn’t won by Listen without Prejudice Vol 1, but this incredible album is definitely the point at which he put his flag in the sand.


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