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Will “Last Christmas” force a re-evaluation of the legacy of George Michael in America

20 October 2019 3 Comments
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“Last Christmas”, a British romantic comedy (scheduled for release on November 8 2019) stars Emilia Clarke (of “Game of Thrones” fame), Henry Golding (of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame), Michelle Yeoh and the highly acclaimed Emma Thompson. The music of George Michael (including an unreleased track by the international superstar titled “This is How (We Want You To Get High)“) will provide the sonic backdrop for the movie. Outside of whether or not the movie will be a success, the question of consequence here is whether or not this movie will force a much-needed re-evaluation of George Michael’s musical legacy in America.

Before I dive into the question that lies at the heart of this article, it might be worth examining the pivotal role that movie soundtracks have played in guaranteeing the ubiquity of a song or an artist/band. Since the 90s, getting songs featured in a movie soundtrack has been a great way to circumvent the seemingly impenetrable barrier to popularity that is terrestrial radio’s propensity to “play it safe” and hubris around this weakness. There are several noteworthy examples of this that date back to the mid-90s – a time during which a lack of radio airplay guaranteed obscurity for a song. Artists such as Bryan Adams and Seal were the unlikely beneficiaries of having their songs featured on the soundtracks of “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves”, “Don Juan Demarco”, and “Batman Forever”. In doing so, Bryan Adams managed to shield himself from the dreaded “yesteryear’s popstar” tag – something that many of his contemporaries that rose to prominence in the 80s found themselves at the receiving end of. “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal and its commercial fortunes soared after its inclusion on the “Batman Forever” soundtrack. Given this reality, one can only wonder how George Michael’s stateside popularity in the 90s and beyond would have panned out had he embraced soundtracks or vice-versa.

In addition to the impact of soundtracks on popularity of a song or artists/band, it might also be worth considering the dramatically different perception of George Michael’s legacy in the US versus that in the rest of the world. “Don’t let the sun go down on me” (a duet with Elton John) was George Michael’s last US #1 hit and this was back in February 1992. After this, only three of his singles charted within the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart – “Too Funky” (peaked at #10), “Jesus to a child” (peaked at #7), and finally “Fast Love” (peaked at #8). It is interesting to see that “Fast Love” market the end for a presence on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart while it practically cemented George Michael as a potent force to be reckoned with in the 90s overseas. In this realm, comparisons to David Hasselhoff (known for his popularity as a music artist in Germany) are not only offensive but highly ill-informed and reek of a non-trivial dose of ignorance (and yes, I have heard these absurd comparisons being made). George Michael’s ubiquity overseas was universal and NOT regional.

There are many theories about why George Michael’s post-80s career in the US was far less successful than it was overseas. Some suggest that George Michael’s highly publicized court battle in the early 90s with Sony Music was career suicide in the US – even though the battle played out in the London High Court. The sonic backdrop in the US of the 90s also started to look quite different from that of the rest of the world. The overlap between the list of songs on singles charts overseas and the Billboard top 40 singles chart started to reduce progressively. It almost seemed like the genre of conventional pop outside of soundtracks did not exist in the US the way it did overseas. This was reflective of an increasingly geocentric bias of the playlist programmers at terrestrial radio in the US. Since DJs has been stripped of their playlist programming functions by the mid-90s, there was no mass market avenue via which the status quo could be challenged. This translated to a host of acts with large followings in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific that were relegated to relative obscurity in the US. Many artists that emerged in the 80s and continued to have hits overseas in the 90s were ignored by radio playlist programmers. George Michael undoubtedly leads this pack of artists. In fact, I remember a conversation in early 1997 with a family member (in her 20s) in New Jersey that claimed to be a George Michael fan. At one point, she said “I wonder what George Michael is up to these days. It has been ages since he has released any music”. I remember being flabbergasted when I heard this – especially since 1996 marked a career renaissance for George Michael overseas.  The question of the merit of George Michael’s music in the 90s is irrelevant if people that considered themselves fans of his music or average music listeners had no idea he was still a hit-maker.

George Michael’s relative obscurity in the US morphed into being a public mockery after his infamous outing as a gay man via his arrest for lewd conduct in a public restroom at Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills (California). The incident overshadowed his indisputable talent and solidified the narrative of the tag of the “fallen angel of yesteryear”.

The perception around George Michael started to change in 2004 after his promotion of the “Patience” album (his first in 8 years and marked by a return to Sony Music) on the Oprah Winfrey show. The jokes about George Michael’s lewd conduct incident came to an end after the US leg of his 25Live concert tour. His raw magnetism, on-stage charisma, vocal chops, and unadulterated charm and class during interviews silenced his detractors once and for all. His performance of his US #1 hit single “Praying for time” at the American Idol Season finale in 2008 was the first bit of mass market promotion he had received since the early 90s. Once again, his choice of song was safe and positioned him as a star of yesteryear. His international 2004 hit single “Amazing” would have been a better choice for the American Idol performance. Regardless, it undoubtedly led to almost sold out concerts (featuring two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City) for the US leg of the 25Live tour. Whether or not that led to a large scale re-evaluation of his musical legacy in the US is questionable.

There were a few opportunities to reintroduce George Michael to a broader audience soon after. The first was Season 1 of the ABC television show “Eli Stone” starring Johnny Lee Miller, Natasha Henstridge, and Victor Garber. The show featured George Michael’s music prominently. Every episode in Season 1 was named after a song by George Michael.  Furthermore, George Michael played himself in a few of the episodes. His acting chops were showcased incredibly well in the episode titled “I Want your sex”. In our article titled “Lessons modern pop stars could learn from George Michael“, we highlighted this acting role as an example of what artists might want to leverage during a gap between albums to stay in the public consciousness. While Eli Stone received generally favorable reviews, and a second season, it did not become a cultural phenomenon that could break George Michael to a new audience and force a re-evaluation of his music in the minds of those that had written him off as yesteryear’s popstar.

The second and most recent opportunity to inject George Michael into the public consciousness of America was at the 2017 Grammy Awards. It had been only a few months since his tragic, and untimely demise. Rather unsurprisingly, there was a tribute to George Michael. Fortunately, the people that brought the tribute to life were British celebrities who were young at the time that George Michael was releasing hits in the 90s (and hence understood the 90s piece of his legacy). The show’s host James Corden introduced a performance of “Fast Love” by Adele. Adele was wise to pick a song that the masses were not familiar with. In a sense, it might have been one of the greatest gifts she could have given George Michael. Sadly, the version she performed was downtempo, tragic, and depressing. She could have easily pulled off a version similar to the studio original – one that was celebratory and fun.

The third time could be a charm and the movie “Last Christmas” could very well be the one to force a re-evaluation of George Michael’s back-catalog. In addition to an unreleased song by him being featured at the end of the movie, there will also be a cameo appearance by his Wham band-mate and best friend Andrew Ridgeley. This alone will ensure that die-hard fans (me included) will flock towards the movie theaters the day this movie releases. That being said, for the movie to be a vehicle for a George Michael rediscovery in the US, it has to fare well at the box office.  Star power, which the movie benefits from, is not enough to guarantee the success of the movie. Romantic comedies are not easy to pull off.  They can come across as thoughtful, heartwarming, and funny. They can also come across as cliché-ridden, contrived, and pointless. If the movie leans more towards the latter of the two scenarios, it might do George Michael’s musical legacy more harm than good in the US.

Fortunately, we do not have to wait too much longer to see if George Michael’s much-deserved posthumous glory will become a reality in the US. If the movie does well, it could mark the triumph that George Michael is not alive to see.  If the movie is a dud, there is always the inevitable biopic – one that will definitely have viewers at the edge of their seats. I just hope we do not have to rely on or wait for a George Michael biopic to see him receive the credit he deserves in America. Until then, here is the movie trailer for the movie “Last Christmas”.

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Broadcasting Worldwide

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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3 Responses to "Will “Last Christmas” force a re-evaluation of the legacy of George Michael in America"

  1. Deborah says:

    Lots of people in the US love George and believe his talent remains underrated… Though I take your point, that he fell off the radar here. I think the tendency in America is to measure an artist’s success by only looking at how they are perceived in America. Fortunately, that perception is slowly shifting. Many thanks and kudos to Radio Cream Bruleé for your continued devotion to George’s artistry and legacy.

  2. @Deborah: Thank you so much for the comment. I totally agree with you that our perception of an artist’s success is measured solely by their success and promotion in the US. It’s a very geo-centric view and frankly a rather arrogant one. Promotion is a pre-requisite to success for an artist. Relegating an artist to obscurity and constantly replaying the “yesteryear’s star” narrative does not help an artist. The argument that George Michael did not actively promote in the US and that worked against him is a weak one at best. I lived in Asia in the 90s and to the best of my knowledge George Michael did no promotion there for his “Older” album but between radio play and his music videos of the singles from that album, he was all set and was recognized as a legitimate hit-maker of the times versus a hit-maker of the 80s. Incidentally, this kind of musical isolation does not just apply to George Michael. It applies to an entire slew of artists/bands that had and have global followings outside the US. George Michael just happens to be the most noteworthy of this esteemed group of musicians. Incidentally, when this is brought up in conversation with casual music fans in the US, it is not received well and I’ve even heard people say things like “it probably wasn’t good enough for airplay in the US anyway”. The loss is ours! The launch of Radio Crème Brulee almost 13 years was ago was driven by this sense of isolation of the US from the broader global pop music landscape. While George Michael continues to be a regular staple on our playlists, our hope was that people that are NOT necessarily George Michael fans would be surprised by organically stumbling on to a song from the later years by him and allowing that to facilitate an exploratory journey through his catalog. Thank you once again for the comment!

  3. Cary says:

    Great article! I especially appreciate the historical context part, which can be applied to so many other artists–including some that never gained US chart success in the first place (and some of these may be American themselves). I am still confounded at the lack of difference the Internet has made in this way, especially amongst young people. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact this film will have.

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