Retrospectives on songs that formed the soundtrack for key phases or milestones in our lives have the ability to evoke nostalgia, longing, and an uncomfortable realization that time has flown by too soon. Today, we could not be more painfully aware of the passage of time as we realize that it has been exactly 20 years since international superstar George Michael debuted at #1 on the UK singles chart with his hit single “Fastlove“. My introduction to this song was on MTV Asia. I remember my eyes being glued to the television as someone at home was yelling at me for something. All I could think is “George Michael is truly back and is not going anywhere for a very long time”. No words can do justice to the flawless and seductive brilliance of the song. Hence, we are not going to attempt to review it 20 years later – but it is worth looking back at its significance and what it revealed about George Michael. Our fascination with the song goes beyond its inherent musical merit. There is more to the song and it sheds light on the multi-layered personality and musical versatility of George Michael.
The repositioning from soulboy to popstar:
George Michael‘s exit from pop duo Wham in the mid-80s was marked by a dramatic shift in his image and sound. His teeny-bopper years felt ancient just a few years later when he re-emerged with his ground-breaking album “Faith“. In an interview for VH1’s “Behind The Music”, he said that “I wanted to move away from this idea that parents could buy my records for their kids..and I think I did that quite well”. That statement could not be truer. “Faith” was decidedly adult in its sound and its lyrical content – which enjoyed a light sprinkle of sexual innuendo. The album married R&B, funk, jazz, and soul making it a sonic treat and George Michael a highly respected musician. While the album had its uptempo moments on tracks such as “Faith“, “I want your sex“, and “Monkey“, it is the ballads such as “Father Figure“, “One more try“, and “Kissing a fool” that resonated on a far deeper level with music connoisseurs and those songs together became the defining thread of association with George Michael. These songs have also aged far better than the up-tempos from “Faith” – which might sound somewhat dated in 2016. His positioning in the mainstream (especially in the US) had become that of a soulboy. He expanded on this sound even further with his sophomore album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1” (Volume 2 never saw the light of day). The album was far more downbeat, introspective, and somber. George Michael has always been the “boy ahead of his years” and nothing quite captured that idea better than “Listen without prejudice” did. Unlike this megastar pop contemporaries such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, he was starting to feel less like the contributor to a party and more like a man begging to be taken seriously. In fact, in September 1990, he was on the cover of LA Times’ Calendar Magazine and the tagline was “reluctant pop star”.
George Michael‘s first legitimate overture to the dance party animal was with his infectiously sexy hit single “Too Funky” in 1992. The song was a breath of fresh air after what many thought was a heavy affair (i.e. his sophomore album). He indulged his upbeat streak even further with “Killer/Papa was a rolling stone” in 1993. But with “Fastlove“, he hit the uptempo jackpot. Blending a modern dance groove, his velvety vocals, sparsely (but effectively) deployed jazzy saxophone throughout the song, and a clever sampling of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget me nots”, George Michael had created something whose sonic luster has not yet been eroded by time. The fact that we still listen to this song today with the same sense of euphoria that we did back in the day is evidence of that. In a music scene in which hit singles matter, George Michael had just revealed this third stylistic reincarnation – and had started to lay the foundation for a timeless solo legacy as a popstar in addition to being a soulboy. This was a massive achievement at a time when many of his contemporaries were turning into fading starts of yesteryear. A new generation of listeners in the 90s had started to associate George Michael with fun pop as opposed to the brooding and darker image he had started to nurture for himself in the late 80s. It seemed like the older he got, the more comfortable he seemed with lightening up and being the soundtrack to unbridled fun.
George Michael – the mysterious dichotomy
“Fastlove” is a celebratory ode to one night stands and the joy of being free from a committed relationship. Thematically, it is at odds with the reality of George Michael’s life in the years leading to up to the release of “Fastlove“. After the sophomore slump of “Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1“, George Michael engaged in a bitter court battle with Sony – the record label he was signed to. He wanted to be released from his record deal after what he considered poor promotion of his “Listen Without Prejudice” album by Sony. Unfortunately, for him, he lost the court case and was held hostage to his record deal until it was bought out by Steven Spielberg for his fledgling (but now defunct) record label Dreamworks Records. During this period, George Michael also lost his partner Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa to an Aids-related complication. This sent Michael into a downward spiral of despair and dejection. To say that “Fastlove” did not even remotely mirror the years leading up to its release would be quite the understatement.
Those that bought the album “Older” (whose release quickly followed that of “Fast Love“) in the hope of a dance-pop bonanza came to realize almost instantly that “Fastlove” was the album’s red herring – both stylistically and lyrically. “Fastlove” offered a dramatic contrast to the themes of mourning, longing, and introspection that dominate most of the album – which in our humble opinion, is George Michael’s “career masterpiece”. In fact, that album’s lead single “Jesus to a child” is a dedication to George’s deceased partner Anselmo. More importantly, there was a gender-less undercurrent that permeated through the lyrics on every song. Through most of the album (especially on the sublime “The Strangest Thing“) George Michael’s sonic demeanor was quite different from what one would expect of an international sex symbol. It lacked the narcissism and pride that one would expect from a heterosexual man at an artistic zenith. The contrasting messages of “Fastlove” and the rest of the songs on “Older” sowed the seeds for speculation around George’s sexual orientation. Prior to “Fastlove“, the music-buying public was not really holding their breath for new material by George Michael. Hence, when he “rose like a phoenix from the ashes” (a headline in the Bombay Times about George’s unexpected comeback), people realized just how shrouded in mystery George’s personal life was. More importantly, the fact that he refused to talk about it publicly only enhanced his mystique further.
George Michael’s continued propensity towards symbolism in music videos:
George Michael was the seminal music video artist. In fact, his videos often became visual milestones for the relatively new (at the time) escapist art form that MTV had laid the foundation for. The music videos from his solo years often featured hints that were symbolic of defining aspects of his life. The burning of his trademark jacket from the “Faith” era in his video for “Freedom 90” is one of the noteworthy examples of his penchant for symbolism. George Michael repeats this again in the video for “Fastlove“. In a close-up view of a large set of headphones being worn by one of the characters in the video is the unmissable trademark titled “Fony” – an obvious and overt dig at Sony Music by George Michael for locking him away in a court battle that kept him away on a forced hiatus from the music limelight.
George Michael – one of the faces and voices of the 80s that succeeded in the 90s:
While the measure of an artist or band is a body of work defined by a series of albums, the ability to stay lodged in the consciousness of a casual, fickle, and temperamental music consumer hinges almost exclusively around a string of hit singles. By 1996, many of George’s contemporaries that rose to prominence in the 80s were struggling to recreate their glory years. Many of them became victims of the “80s” label by the mainstream media. In the US, this phenomenon was exacerbated by the rising popularity of grunge and hip-hop to the point where they together eclipsed conventional pop music. Hence, to break a consumer market that was unlikely to remember the Wham years of George Michael is a monumental feat. Some might dispute this but George Michael would not have been able to sell out stadiums for concerts in 2007 in the absence of a highly successful (commercially speaking) 90s career – which was propelled by songs such as “Fastlove“. It would have been impossible for an “80s nostalgia act” that was popularly labeled as a “washed up perv” by the American media to sell out multiple dates at Madison Square Garden in 2008 after a 17-year long hiatus from touring in the US – in the absence of a glorious 90s chapter. While many would agree that George Michael was far from prolific in the 90s, he over-compensated on quality for his slim musical output during that period.
George Michael and the factoid of success that many overlook:
In the US, many average music listeners still refer to George Michael as an 80s artist – despite his stellar concert comeback to arenas across America in 2008. This assertion stems from ignorance and a rather geocentric view of the global music scene. The measure of a global superstar is his or her global commercial footprint – and not just an American footprint. Despite Fastlove’s” low peak position of #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the official singles chart of the US), its chart performance and sales overseas was enough to overcompensate and bring the single to top the Official World chart. Hence, any criticism around George Michael being a “star from the 80s” can be objectively refuted with this not-so-minor factoid.
In 2014, we published a post celebrating 30 years since George Michael topped the UK singles chart with his timeless classic “Careless Whisper“. Today, we congratulate George Michael on the 20th anniversary of his UK #1 chart debut with “Fastlove” – a dizzyingly high musical benchmark that most musicians only dream of. To create a timeless dance track is ambitious but George Michael rose to the occasion and has given us something to talk about all these years later.
Are there other elements around “Fastlove” that we have missed. Please free to share via our comments section below. Until then, here is a full-length music video of George Michael’s “Fast Love“:
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.
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