It is difficult to fathom that 25 years have passed since the release of George Michael’s career masterpiece “Older”. It feels like yesterday when my jaw hit the floor as I watched the music video for “Fast Love” (the second single from George Michael’s third studio album “Older”) for the first time thinking that George Michael had put a whole new spin on the word “comeback” after a studio album hiatus of six years. To say “Fast Love” whetted the appetite for the album release of “Older” would be an understatement. In addition to being a stellar comeback (outside the US), the “Older” album was the foundation for many “first times” for George Michael – both artistically and in the context of his relationship with the music industry. It was also symbolic of lost opportunities – something that become somewhat of a central theme in the life of George Michael after the 80s. In this 25th anniversary retrospective, we examine the various facets of this album both from an artistic and commercial perspective.
The album of many firsts – artistically speaking
Sonically, the album’s lead single “Jesus to a child” (an achingly beautiful tribute delivered with a poignant earnestness to his deceased lover Anselmo Feleppa) was far more representative of the album’s soundscape than the album’s second single “Fast Love” (an unapologetic ode to one-night stands) – which was undoubtedly the album’s stylistic and thematic red herring. After indulging the cheesiness of bubble gum pop in his Wham years, embracing his status as international sex symbol with his Faith-era image, nurturing his inner bland soul-boy on Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, and unleashing the dancefloor pied piper in him with bangers such as “Too Funky” and “Killer/Papa was a rolling stone”, he showcased yet another strand of musical versatility on “Older”. “Older” marked the birth of a new sonic avatar – that of the cocktail lounge crooner. Songs such as “Move On” and the hauntingly beautiful title track of the “Older” album epitomized this new facet of George Michael. The husky vocals of the Faith era (most prominent on tracks such as “Faith”, “Monkey”, and “I want your sex”) had been replaced with velvety vocals that seemed to melt on the surface of a soundscape that was dreamy, melancholic, and yet quite escapist. In fact, Simon K from Sputnikmusic (an American community music website) describes this the best:
There’s a much darker tone set here, an aesthetic that’s chiseled out of various string and horn arrangements, subtly and thematically nodding to the warm humanity Older is offering here, and its jazz-y undertones become a perfect marriage with its production and dour vocal work.
Thematically, the lyrics were shrouded in mystery and were delivered with a sense of vulnerability and longing. The pride and narcissism in a song’s lyrics typically associated with a straight man were conspicuous by their absence on this album. This undoubtedly fueled the line of questioning around George Michael’s sexual orientation. It was not until the subsequent album “Patience” (released 8 years later – almost six years after he came out as gay through the unflattering public restroom entrapment incident in Beverly Hills) that George Michael would jettison the restraint and mystery in his lyrics and be overt about his sexuality. Needless to say, “Older” was the first hint that George Michael’s public image in the 80s may have been at odds with where his heart was.
The album of many firsts – in the context of the music industry
“Older” was the result of one of the first high-profile expensive buy-outs of a recording contract. George Michael’s contract from Sony Music had been purchased for a princely sum of $52 million by the fledgling (but now defunct) Dreamworks Records – a business venture between Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeff Katzenberg. George’s release from Sony Music after an ill-fated and highly publicized court battle that he lost was meant to give him the creative freedom he desperately craved.
The new commercial arrangement involved George being signed to Dreamworks in the US and to Virgin Records internationally. It is safe to say that Virgin’s commercial fortunes from the “Older” album far eclipsed those of Dreamworks. This was one of many manifestations of the start of a diverging narrative around George Michael in the US versus the narrative around him internationally.
“Older” peaked at #6 on the Billboard album chart while hitting the #1 spot in 12 countries including George’s homeland (the UK). The album’s first two singles topped the World singles charts. The album met with glowing reviews outside the US but the response from critics in the US was lukewarm at best. Here are a few excerpts of some key American reviews:
Entertainment weekly was merciless in their criticism of the album:
Even more so than its predecessor, Older is Michael’s bid for positioning as a mature, adult pop tunesmith — which, in his definition of the term, means dropping the frivolity along with Andrew Ridgeley. Older is one of the most downbeat, low-key comebacks ever made. With only a few exceptions, the arrangements percolate at mid-tempo, gently nudged along by mild synthesizers; it’s as if he pressed the ”bossa nova” button on his keyboard and left it on for an hour.
Rollingstone (US) was rather complimentary but in a rather back-handed way:
Although he occasionally sounds like the Prozac queen Elizabeth Wurtzel singing “It’s My Party” in an empty karaoke bar, for those who can get past Michael’s pretentious melancholy, Older is a surprisingly enjoyable record.
The review with the most obvious contradictions was that of Stephen Erwine’s from Allmusic (especially the excerpt below):
It’s an album that makes Listen Without Prejudice sound like Faith. Michael has dispensed with the catchy, frothy dance-pop numbers that brought him fame, concentrating on stately, pretentious ballads — even “Fastlove,” the album’s one dance track, lacks the carefree spark of his earlier work.
What is particularly puzzling about this excerpt above is that the songs by George Michael (not including his Wham material) that topped the US Billboard Hot 100 were NOT “frothy dance-pop numbers”. They were all downtempo tracks. Noteworthy examples include “Father Figure”, “One More Try’, and “Praying for time”. The only #1 single by George Michael (as a solo artist) that topped the Billboard Hot 100 that could be considered a dance-pop number is the song “Monkey” (from the “Faith” album) – a song that in my opinion, has not aged nearly as well as George Michael’s other material from the 80s. In fact, the songs NOT featured on full-length studio albums in the years leading up to the release of “Older” were bonafide dance-pop numbers (but they were virtually ignored in the US). The most noteworthy example of this was “Too Funky” – a song whose music video featured supermodels Linda Evangelista and Tyra Banks. George Michael’s positioning in the US was very much that of a soul-boy – so the criticism around the relatively downbeat nature of “Older” seems somewhat misplaced and inconsistent with history as it applies to George Michael’s fortunes in the US in the 80s.
Typically, albums are heaped with praise when they combine stylistic and thematic cohesion with artistic reinvention, authenticity, novelty, and progression. The lack of need to skip a track because it qualifies as “filler” is also traditionally a strong selling point. “Older” delivered on all of this and more and yet, American critics believed that the “boy beyond his years” (i.e. George Michael) should stop growing and maturing.
The divergence in narrative around George Michael in the US versus overseas was one of many symptoms of a myth that musical tastes in the US were somehow different from those overseas. The reality is that the careers of artists in the US were very much in the hands of conglomerate-owned terrestrial radio. Independent curators had been distanced from their playlist programming functions by central authorities at the parent companies that owned the radio stations at which they worked. As a result, artists such as George Michael stood no chance if central authorities at the three companies that owned 80% of the radio stations in the US did not embrace these artists. It did not help that US critics mirrored the radio dynamic that George Michael became a victim of as opposed to challenging the stubbornness of radio programmers that seemed hell bent on relegating George Michael to yesteryear star status. “Fast Love” was the final George Michael single to end up on the Billboard Hot 100.
Internationally, George Michael had crossed over to a new generation (I am a member of this generation) with “Older”. He was not thought of as an 80s pop star. He was viewed as one of the few artists that made the successful commercial transition from the 80s to the 90s along with a handful of artists such as Madonna, Janet Jackson, and U2. The “Older’ album also led to George Michael winning the ‘Best British Male” at the MTV Europe Awards and the Brits (the UK equivalent of the Grammy Awards). He also won the prestigious title of “Songwriter of the year” at the Ivor Novello Awards. Despite his international accolades, in America, the narrative around him overpowered the reality of George Michael’s resurgent star power.
The album’s lost opportunities:
One of the most painful elements of George Michael’s tragic and untimely demise on Christmas of 2016 was a realization among fans, and critics of the possibilities of what could have been – as it applied to George Michael’s creative and commercial highs. At the time of his death, George Michael was working on new material and seemed to be in a great headspace creatively speaking. Then again, lost opportunities seem to a recurring theme in his life ever since the early 90s. Some of these lost opportunities can be tied to the “Older” era.
While American critics accurately pointed out that the album was predominantly downbeat, the songs were undoubtedly radio-friendly and polished to perfection without overstaying their welcome in the ears of a fan or casual listener. There were two songs on the album that were worthy of being released as singles (and hence ripe for radio) but were sadly relegated to album-track status. The first of these gems was “The Strangest Thing” – haunting, atmospheric, and embellished with just enough electronica to make it delicately beautiful. In what might just be George Michael’s finest vocal performance of all time, he makes a plea to be extricated from the abyss of dejection and potential depression that he finds himself sinking into. The instrumentals brim with a sadness that is almost incongruent with the song’s mid-tempo percussion.
The second lost opportunity from a single perspective was “You know that I want to” – a song featured on an expanded version of the “Older” album (called “Upper”). It sizzles with the sexual tension of two individuals (George being one of them) but George’s restraint works like an opposing polarity to this dynamic through the following lyrics:
I know you don’t care
What’s right or wrong
All that I know
Is that love don’t belong here
So it’s better to turn the page
Watch me walk away my dear
Watch me walk away
George Michael cleverly marries the sonic vibe of an innuendo-ridden R&B track with a lyric that proposes restraint. To say this was radio fodder would be an understatement. The song was practically begging for an accompanying music video but never got it.
As an American critic that got to experience the much celebrated (by the media and music aficionados) Older era while living overseas, I cannot help but wish that this album had received the same respect and adulation in the US. While it is convenient to the say that the album’s relative obscurity in America is America’s loss, I cannot help but wonder how much more pervasive George Michael’s influence would have been in the American mainstream – and the American music business would have been better off for it. Most of the criticism levelled at George Michael by American critics revolved around the album being downbeat, and based on that description alone, boring. George Michael has always been unapologetic for this desire for authenticity and when questioned about the somber tone of “Older” in a MTV interview with John Norris, he responded by saying “At the end of the day, you’ve got to write about what your experiences are, and my experiences for the last 5-6 years have not been particularly upbeat. I’ve got to be honest. You have to write about what you feel”. George Michael goes on to say “I am just writing about the way I feel. I will never put out an album that is made for other people’s tastes because the moment I do that, is the moment I start writing shit”. His commitment to being a true reflection of himself is admirable. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if there was a happy middle ground between authenticity and commercial acumen in the context of the US market – given that the US is still the world’s single largest consumer market for recorded music. What if he had led the album with “Fast Love” as opposed to “Jesus to a child”? In fact, in an interview with former Pandora.com CEO Tim Westergren during Advertising Week 2014, hit producer Nile Rodgers indicated that an album’s lead single should not be the most credible song on the album. It should be the one that gets people talking. “Fast Love” definitely got people talking but in the US, but probably not early as it needed to since it was NOT the album’s lead single. Is it possible “Fast Love” never really got the chance it deserved because the somber mood of “Jesus to a child” hurt its momentum? What if George Michael had released nothing between “Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1” and “Older” and included uptempo tracks such as “Too Funky”, “Do you really want to know”, and “Killer/Papa was a rolling stone” on “Older”? Surely, they would have collectively served as an emphatic counterpoint to any assertion of US critics that the album was joyless.
The critic in me does occasionally feel that despite being at his creative zenith in the mid-90s, George Michael was not as commercially calculative as he should have been in the context of the US. This inadequacy, however minor, is something I cannot help but think of as leading to a lost opportunity for “Older”. On the flip side, there was a silver lining to his inability to be commercially calculative in the context of the US. The success of his “Faith” album in the US had empowered him to look beyond short-term payoffs. In fact, it was becoming obvious by the time of the release of “Listen without prejudice Vol. 1” (this second solo album), that George Michael was playing the long game – a game that extended far into the future and even beyond his own lifetime. These albums that critics had written off as joyless and boring have stood the test of time better than celebrated albums of his such as “Faith” have. When the artist and his imagery cease to exist, all that remains is his artistry – and no cohesive unit of George Michael’s captures the best of that artistry the way “Older” does. It is his crowning glory.
George’s contribution to the great archive of contemporary music rests alongside the immortals. His is a legacy of unquestionable brilliance. One which continues to shine and resonate for generations to come. George has left for us in his songs and the transcendental beauty of his voice, and in the poetic expression of his soul, the very best of himself.
If Andrew had been talking specifically about the “Older” album (as opposed to George Michael’s overall back-catalog and legacy), every word that he said would have been a 100% true. “Older” is hands down George Michael’s career masterpiece. I look forward to revisiting this album and writing about its relevance and timelessness when the album turns 50. I hope George Michael is raising a glass of champagne in heaven to 25 years of the release of “Older”.