George Michael: notes on a brilliant career

I’m happy with how my George Michael essay for Billboard turned out. I’ve had time to think about him since my first reevaluation in October. Because of space and thematic limitations I couldn’t fit a few other points.

First, the “producer” part of George Michael’s list of talents gets short shrift. Genre hopping is impossible without mixing board sympathy. Michael’s ear for harmonies and shrewd use of acoustic players complementing his own electronics remained unerring until the end. However, it’s a pity he never wrote much for others. I think of “Heaven Help Me,” a pillowy sophisti-pop track he donated to bassist Deon Estus in spring ’89, a top five hit aided by its release during Michael’s imperial phase. Two years earlier, he’d co-written “Learn to Say No,” a slice of Power Station-influenced rock on Jody Watley’ debut which, audiences may recall, was released at the same time as “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me.” Already Michael was positioning himself as an R&B crossover possibility.

Next, I thought of Pet Shop Boys, kindred spirits and fellow travels who wrote a takedown of socially conscious pop stars called “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously” that Neil Tennant has hinted was about George Michael; after today’s revelations the arrow missed the mark. I suspect Tennant and Chris Lowe watched him with bemusement and envy, for he was a hundred times the global superstar they were (and forget bemusement: his American chart success must have eaten them alive). Chris Heath’s Pet Shop Boys, Literally includes an anecdote from their ’89 homecoming concert in which Michael gets ushered to the sound board, from which he watches the show with a lynx’s eye, nodding as if taking notes. Then he loses it to “It’s Alright” like the rest of the crowd.

Finally, I want to meet people who dislike “Too Funky.” Point them to me. Thanks to his magpie instincts and respect for every genre in which he showed interest, Michael was able to accommodate himself to house tropes with uncommon facility.

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