George Michael - Faith
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
1987 isn’t often cited by rock critics as a halcyon year for pop music—1988 usually gets the nod as the height of hip-hop’s first “Golden Age” (Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane and Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick) and as an early critical-mass period for “alternative rock,” when the major labels started sniffing around (Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation). And yet an astonishing amount of great music, in every genre, was released in ’87: Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. U2’s The Joshua Tree. The Beastie Boys’s Licensed to Ill. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, the best hard-rock album of the 80s, roared to life. Prince released Sign ‘O’ the Times, one of his greatest and certainly the most ambitious of his blinding ‘80s hit streak. Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was all over the place. Janet Jackson’s Control, which came in ’86, was still pretty much ruling everyone’s life. Hair-metal hit either its zenith (if you’re Chuck Klosterman) or its nadir (if you’re everyone else), with Def Leppard’s Hysteria.
And George Michael released Faith.
I was six in 1987. Clearly, I wasn’t paying much attention when Faith came out; I was playing with He-Man and muttering stories to myself (I was a weird child). “Pop music” was a vague noise that came from my older brother’s room, and he was 17, small for his age, and bitterly angry—I remember a lot of Metallica and Megadeth. I didn’t hear George Michael until my thirteen-year-old cousin Kristy, a bewildering, sometimes terrifying creature in the full vise-grip of hormones, taped it for me a few years later. My mother intervened at the last minute, so I ended up with a bowdlerized version, mostly because she wasn’t comfortable with my listening to a song called “I Want Your Sex” on my little tape player over and over again.
Nonetheless, I played the tape obsessively, and being a little kid’s first encounter with great pop music, it hit with tremendous force. As a result, the jaunty guitar-shuffle “Faith” became the quintessential guitar shuffle by which all future exhibits would be judged; “One More Try” was the first pleading soul song, blue-eyed or otherwise, that I ever heard. I listened to the album well past the point where I discovered that it wasn’t at all cool to like George Michael (around 7th grade; I made a lot of unpleasant discoveries that year.) I expected that re-listening to the album for this assignment would be a warm childhood-nostalgia bath.
But here’s the thing: George Michael’s Faith is great. Revisiting it, I was startled by how good it remains: in its sure-handed songwriting, which ranges across genres; its immaculate, state-of-the-art production; and most impressively, in Michael’s nuanced persona, full of adult shadings of regret, it’s in the running for the best mainstream pop album of the ‘80s—up there with Madonna’s Like A Prayer and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The 11 songs roam across the musical map, stealing smartly from funk, rock, country, and cocktail jazz, with a natural ear for those genres’ most ingratiating moments. Take the big first single “I Want Your Sex,” for instance. In its swaggering vocal, starched-stiff electronic backbeat, and bold come-on, the song is a deftly executed Prince knock-off, sung with enough gusto to hang with real Prince in an era when he was making stuff like “Housequake” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
Another example of first-class genre cribbing is the mournful, restrained sophisti-pop of “Kissing a Fool”; even at eight years old, I had absorbed enough rockist preconceptions to be baffled that someone like George Michael could write a song this—good. I’m pretty sure I operated under the assumption that it was a cover for years. Michael, who produced the entirety of the album and handled most of the instruments, decorates the song in murmuring jazzbo guitar and twinkling piano—signifiers he uses for their borrowed elegance the way one wields a cigarette holder or dons a smartly cocked hat. In a coolly resigned, velvety torch voice, Michael delivers an impressively mature relationship post-mortem. What’s most impressive here is the number of detours the melody takes, and how each new phrase feels like the song’s chorus. I hope this song is a cabaret standard somewhere; it deserves it.
There’s a lot more: “Faith,” whose exuberance is so complete that even Fred Durst couldn’t kill it (though he tried very, very hard); “Monkey,” in which Michael bitterly excoriates a drug-addicted lover: “Yes, your monkey’s back again / Do you want him now like you did back then?” And then there’s the soul ballad “One More Try,” my favorite song. When I was eight, I didn’t understand the devotional language—“You were just a stranger / And I was at your feet”—but the open-hearted pleading of the vocal communicated itself.
Why did this album sell 10 million copies? I have no idea. Ten million is a ridiculous number, completely inconceivable. There’s just no way to know how a “diamond” album happens, or to accurately predict what it will do to the artists who hit that mark. But I take comfort in the fact that no one else, least of all George Michael, understands how this phenomenon works either. For George Michael, who spent the early ‘80s cavorting in spandex in a group called Wham!, it’s difficult to fathom how it could have been anything other than the fulfillment of his wildest dreams. Somehow, it became a bane he spent the rest of his career escaping. Consider: George Michael had precious few hits after Faith ran out of singles (which took awhile; four songs went to number one and two more were Top Ten hits—fully half the album): the excellent “Freedom” and the plodding “Praying for Time” were the two biggest. But their parent album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, tanked so badly in comparison with Faith, selling a “mere” two million copies, that there never was a Vol. 2. After that, Michael more or less disappeared, releasing one album of contempo-club Euro-cheese in 1996 (self-consciously titled Older) and another in 2004 called Patience that I’ve heard not one note of.
Examined closely, Faith contained the seeds of a thousand different directions: the country-tinged folk-pop of the title track, the stately bedroom-pop of “Father Figure,” the hard-driving dance-rock of “Monkey.” It seemed, based on the evidence from this album, that Michael had several albums’ worth of hits in him. Why did they dry up so completely? Some of it can be attributed to label troubles, which delayed Listen Without Prejudice by three years. Still, three years isn’t exactly an eternity, especially for someone who rode his first album’s success for most of that time anyway. The bigger problem was that Michael seemed incapable of, or even unwilling to, write another tune as memorable as “Faith” or “I Want Your Sex.” After Faith blew up, he contracted a severe strain of Serious Artist Syndrome and began treating hooks like pathogens, a lamentable fate for a pop genius. Like almost anyone who’s experienced such an unfathomable level of mass approval, he freaked out.
The lyrics to his last great song, “Freedom ’90,” couldn’t make his feelings on his newfound stardom clearer. Having spent the ’80s baldly pursuing pop stardom and achieving that goal spectacularly, Michael then decided that it wasn't what he wanted at all. He admits it in the song’s opening lines: “Heaven knows I was just a young boy, didn’t know what I wanted to be / I was every little hungry school girl’s pride and joy, and I guess it was enough for me.” Then, later, he asserts: “There’s someone else I’ve got to be.” In the song’s video, he even sets his jacket from the Faith video on fire, a self-important bit of pop iconoclasm. It’s a pop-song-length rejection of everything he had worked so hard to get, and, fittingly, it was one of the last true pop songs he ever wrote. I don’t know whether or not George Michael has any more of those monster hooks living inside him, but I’d like to believe it. A new number one George Michael song would warm my eight-year-old’s heart.