September 3 (2020) was the 30th anniversary of the release of George Michael’s sophomore album “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”. I am painfully aware of being over a week late with this album retrospective but I figured better late than never. “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1” is an odd album title for an artist that was experiencing the diametric opposite of prejudice at the time of the album’s release. He had successfully managed the transition from teeny bopper as one half of pop duo Wham (with his childhood best friend Andrew Ridgeley) to a successful solo megastar with his debut solo album “Faith” – which sold 20 million copies worldwide. His impeccable knack for hook-laden melodies, crisp songwriting, and goose-bump inducing production combined with his Greek God looks made him an irresistible and unstoppable force to be reckoned with on a global scale. To say he was music royalty would be quite the understatement. Hence, the notion of “prejudice” seems rather strange. That being said, there was something almost prophetic about the use of that word – especially as it applied to what his future relationship with the US music scene would be characterized by. A stylistic reinvention post the breakup of Wham was key to his success with the “Faith” album. With “Listen Without Prejudice”, he began to lay the foundation for his distinguishing brand attributes – those that he would be remembered by long after he had left this world.
A] A fearless propensity towards challenging conventional wisdom in an endeavor to unapologetically showcase this authenticity.
Despite the dizzying success of the “Faith” album and the highly profitable world tour that followed to promote the album, George Michael seemed disillusioned with the idea that he was not being taken seriously as a songwriter and that his status as an international sex symbol eclipsed his gift as a songwriter and vocalist. It is unlikely that his record label, Sony Music, shared this concern. Commercially, their investment in George Michael had paid rich dividends and the long-term prospects with him looked promising too. Most artists at the time would have capitalized on a tailor-made look for the MTV generation and repeated at least some elements of the formula that made them successful to begin with. It is unclear if it was naivete or unbridled confidence (I believe it was a mix of both) that prompted George Michael to embark on a pattern of rule-breaking that began with his decision to decouple his image and inherent celebrity factor from the music – a decision that undoubtedly left the executives at Sony Music puzzled beyond belief. He did this by refusing to appear in the music videos for singles released from the “Listen Without Prejudice” album. He did this in an endeavor to facilitate the singular focus on his music rather than on its ancillary aspects. This was a bold decision to say the least and an experiment that probably had its fair share of critics and naysayers at Sony Music. That being said, it brought to the forefront the much-needed conversation around the extent to which the image of a musician influences the commercial viability and mass acceptance of that musician. In a radio world, the image should be irrelevant but in the heyday of MTV, image probably played an outsize role in shaping the commercial fortunes of an artist. From a US perspective, George Michael probably learned this the hard way (the fact that he started to appear prominently in his music videos from the “Older” album onward would suggest this) but I applaud his courage to voluntarily be the guinea pig in this experiment of decoupling celebrity from art. It is not a decision very many artists at the zeniths of their careers would make. This audacious (and rather commendable) decision will be one of the defining and most enduring tenets of his legacy.
In a live interview (during Advertising Week 2014 in New York City) with Pandora.com founder Tim Westergren, hit producer Nile Rodgers indicated that an album’s lead single should NOT be its most artistically credible. It should be the sonic appetizer that generates maximum interest in the album – and a musical gateway to the finest that an album has to offer. It appears that George Michael had a firm grasp on this philosophy given his decision to release “I Want your sex” as the lead single for his previous album “Faith”. After all, nothing drums up interest for an album like controversy does. The sizzling hot music video (which featured his then girlfriend Kathy Jeung ) was a perfect visual for the song. Admittedly, George did not have a sonic parallel to “I want your sex” on “Listen without prejudice” but the album’s uptempo sixth single “Soul Free” would have made a worthy lead single. Instead, George led with “Praying for time”, a downtempo track about social ills and injustice. He did score a US #1 hit with it. That being said, the anticipation for new material from George Michael combined with the remnant good-will he had generated from the “Faith” album alone would have given him a #1 hit in the US with any song that he had released – but momentum only goes so far and it was unlikely to be sufficient to give him the bump that “I want your sex” gave “Faith”. Interestingly enough, he did have another US top 10 hit with “Freedom 90” – the album’s third single. This too, would have made a worthy lead single. It appeared that George Michael had stopped being calculative about his singles strategy. This approach seems to have continued with his 1996 album “Older” wherein he chose to lead with the downtempo and somber “Jesus to a child” (an ode to his dead romantic partner Anselmo) while “Fast Love” (an ode to one night stands and the album’s stylistic red herring) would have laid the groundwork for a stellar and potent comeback in the US for George. This approach proved to be unproblematic in the UK and rest of the world but it did hinder his commercial prospects in the US. In fact, “Fast Love” single-handedly broke George Michael to a new generation of fans outside the US. This might explain why the age demographic composition of the audience at George’s 25Live concert tour in the US and rest of the world was so dramatically different. I am guessing this did not appear to bother him as much as it should have – given that the US is the single largest consumer market for recorded music. His prioritization of his personal interests as an artist clearly took precedence over a reverence for conventional wisdom around the business aspects of his art. It wasn’t until his final studio album “Patience” that George re-embraced a conventional singles strategy by leading with his hit single “Amazing” (Ironically, “Patience” also marked his return to Sony Music’s artist roster despite having parted ways a decade earlier after a highly publicized court battle).
The final element of George’s pushback against conventional wisdom stems from his ripping apart the sonic formula that propelled “Faith” to success. Instead, he opted for a soundscape dominated by acoustic instrumentation. He also jettisoned the moderately processed vocals that dominated the “Faith” album in favor of an unadulterated showcase of his achingly beautiful vocals. In my humble opinion, this decision has allowed “Listen without prejudice Vol 1” to age far better than its predecessor has (with the exceptions of the timeless “Kissing a fool” and “Father Figure”). It was also the first indication that he was not going to adopt a “rinse and repeat” formulaic approach from one album to the next.
B] A penchant for subtle symbolism
As a pop star, George Michael was quite the contradiction. His larger than life celebrity factor marked a stark contrast to his somewhat shy persona and aura of mystery (one that became more intense in the 90s) that he had successfully weaved around himself. By the time of the release of this album, he had become quite tight-lipped about his personal life and sexuality. While he might have been reticent about discussing this in interviews, he was more than willing to bare his soul through symbolism in his lyrics and visuals.
In a 2004 interview with Adam Mattera for UK magazine Attitude, George revealed that the jazzy song “Cowboys and Angels” (which in my humble opinion is the finest track on the album) was about a short-lived love triangle where he was in love with a man while a female friend was in love with him, but none knew of the others’ feelings: “She was in love with me because she couldn’t get me, and I was in love with him because I couldn’t get him… It’s a very personal lyric, but it’s about the ridiculousness of wanting what you can’t have”.
On the visual front, he demonstrated a desire to deconstruct the elements (his leather jacket, a Wurlitzer jukebox, and guitar) that had defined his public image for the “Faith” album via his music video for “Freedom 90”. In reality, he was making a conscious effort to distance himself from the image that propelled his commercial fortunes. This propensity towards symbolism became somewhat of a trademark for him even during the rest of his career. Fans will notice the word “Fony” (a thinly veiled dig at Sony Music) on giant headphones featured in the music video for his hit single “Fast Love”.
C] A pioneer for a new era in music videos
Just because George Michael had no desire to be in front of a camera again does not mean he had become opposed to the music video format. For the album’s third single “Freedom 90”, he prominently featured the following supermodels – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz. In the past, supermodels had only featured as the love interest for the male singer. This music video had them lip sync the lyrics for the song. They were front and center and not just “visual props” for the male singer. “Freedom 90” had essentially become a bridge between the worlds of fashion and music. His subsequent music video releases right up until the one for his single “White Light” (2012) brimmed with style, sophistication, symbolism, and slick production.
D] A rebel with a cause
It is impossible to disconnect “Listen without prejudice Volume 1” from the ugly court battle that ensued between George Michael and Sony Music because of the album’s relatively poor commercial performance in the US (the album sold 2 million copies in the US as opposed to the 8 million copies that “Faith” sold). George Michael sued Sony Music because of their refusal to release him from his contract. After the relatively lackluster sales of the album in the US, George decided he was not the right artist for Sony and asked to be released from their artist roster. Sony Music refused indicating that he was contractually committed to releasing a few more albums on their record label. While he lost the court battle, he definitely brought to the surface the issue of the deceptive lure of recording contracts, which in reality, can morph into long-run traps for an artist. “Professional slavery” was the term used rather often during the case. Taking on Sony was controversial to the say the least. It became the first of many instances in George’s career wherein he courted controversy with an almost reckless abandon even if it had the potential to affect him negatively – and yet, he was unperturbed by it and persevered.
E] A sad association with lost or missed opportunities
The inclusion of the words “Volume 1” in the album title suggest that a “Volume 2” was slated to follow. Sadly, that album never came to fruition even though George Michael had written enough material for it. Between the three songs (including the US top 10 single “Too Funky”) he gave away to the “Red Hot Plus Dance” compilation, the songs on the unfinished “Trojan Souls” album, and the cover versions featured on the “Five Live EP” ( a tribute to rock band Queen and Freddie Mercury), he had enough material for what could have been his single best album. More importantly, this album would have adequately showcased and struck the optimal balance between both his stylistic avatars – the soulboy and the dancefloor genius. None of his studio albums do a good job of this. Some of his spunkiest uptempo tracks do not feature on an actual studio album (“Fast Love” and “Amazing” are the noteworthy exceptions). This concept of missed opportunities seems to have become a recurring theme of his musical career. Nothing epitomizes this further than the unfinished music he left behind at the moment of his untimely demise on Christmas day of 2016.
Needless to say, “Listen without prejudice Vol 1” has aged far better than albums such as “Faith” and “Patience” have. It might not be George’s best album (that accolade, in my humble opinion goes to his 1996 career masterpiece “Older”) but it has endured the passage of time incredibly well and has played a pivotal role in shaping the musical brand that George Michael has become. There will be a day when George Michael becomes the subject of a case study devoted to the music industry and “Listen without prejudice Volume 1” will undoubtedly become the core component of that case study.
We play a LOT of music by George Michael on our internet radio station and you can listen to us from ANYWHERE in the world on ANY device. In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of George Michael (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. We don’t restrict ourselves solely to the singles. We also feature “rare for radio” George Michael songs such as “Edith And The Kingpin” and “Understand“. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
Give us a spin when you get a chance.
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