Lessons modern pop stars can learn from George Michael
It is hard to imagine that over a month has passed since the shocking and untimely demise of international superstar George Michael. To those that loved and respected him (me included), his passing feels like a prolonged bad dream that many hope they will snap out of. Furthermore, one cannot help but acknowledge the irony of Christmas day being the day that George Michael left this world. This irony is underscored by the fact that one of his biggest hits is the Christmas favorite titled “Last Christmas” – a song that is unlikely to disappear from the radio airwaves in the foreseeable future thus cementing George Michael’s musical immortality in pop culture. Yet, despite this seeming immortality, his admirers could not be any more aware of his mortality now more than ever. To those that tune in to our 24/7 online radio broadcast, they know that George Michael is one of the most played artists on our station. We also cover him extensively on our radio blog. Hence, it was inevitable that we would publish something about him in the wake of his tragic demise.
In our article commemorating 30 years of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” reaching #1 in the UK singles chart, we referred to George Michael as the “boy beyond his years” and a bold visionary. Interestingly enough, his penchant for bold (and sometimes unconventional )decisions became a defining theme throughout his professional and personal life. His choices (both good and ill-conceived) can serve as lessons for modern pop stars that seek to become brands that represent authenticity and a difference – and are likely to leave an indelible stamp in the history of music. Becoming a brand today might be the only way for a pop star to truly bubble up to the surface in a sea of homogeneity in modern pop music’s mainstream.
I would like to begin with what pop stars could learn from the positive choices that George Michael made as an artist.
1] Do not be afraid to hold the production reins for your music
This lesson is a highly debatable one. The general consensus in the music community is that producers bring a level of artistic objectivity to the creative process – especially in the context of the treatment of music in its most embryonic form. This objectivity is something that artists lack when it comes to their own music. That being said, riding exclusively on the coat-tails of a producer (however well-reputed he may be) at the cost of ignoring your own musical instincts can be a significant mistake. Nothing exemplifies this better than George Michael’s decision to re-record his timeless hit classic “Careless Whisper“. The version we hear today is NOT the original version – which was recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio in Sheffield (Alabama) under the supervision of music journalist-turned-producer Jerry Wexler. Most people that have heard this version would agree that it sounds incredibly dated and lacks the cloak of timelessness that George Michael carefully wrapped around this sonic gem called “Careless Whisper”. George Michael trusted his instincts at the time and made the unconventional decision to produce the song himself. At the time, some may have thought of this move as stemming from arrogance (especially from a boy who was barely out of his teens). We believe it was George Michael’s faith in his own vision. We need more young artists to challenge the status quo in the producer-artist dynamic and make decisions like these.
2] There is a sanctity to philanthropy. Do not make a self-serving promotional stunt out of it.
In interviews from his early days as a solo artist, George Michael demonstrated an obvious awareness of the instrumental role that the media played in nurturing his superstar status and making him a household name globally – especially in the 80s. He understood that being in the news and feeding the insatiable appetite of the media for stories about him played a pivotal role in him being sealed in the consciousness of pop culture consumers. That being said, he never advertised or publicly discussed specifics around his philanthropic efforts. He would acknowledge that popstars being charitably inclined was one of the oldest cliches – but he said that it was necessary regardless. He believed he had a responsibility as an individual whose innate gift of music had allowed him to become incredibly wealthy fairly early in life. For some reason, we barely ever heard about these endeavors in the news. One can only believe that his choice to maintain a healthy silence about it was a conscious decision that he made. Some his contemporaries (most casual pop music aficionados know who these people are) made media splashes that highlighted their charitable endeavors – and one cannot help but think that it also served to enhance their own public image. There is place for both arrogance and humility in a pop star. Philanthropy is one part of a pop star’s life where humility is the preferable virtue between the two. It breeds a goodwill and respect that is priceless and lasts beyond one’s lifetime – as many George Michael fans would agree.
3] Reinvention is they key to a successful solo transition from a band
“I wanted to move away from the idea that parents could buy my records for their kids and I think I did that very well with Faith” – said superstar George Michael in a “VH1″ Behind The Music” episode about his first stint as a solo artist after a highly successful career as one half of the pop duo that launched him into stardom. With his debut solo album “Faith”, George Michael created a whole new persona for himself through a new musical style and visual aesthetic. The album was the perfect cocktail of accessible pop (e.g. “Monkey“), soul (“One More Try“), jazz (“Kissing a fool“), middle eastern embellishments (“Father Figure“) and controversy (“I want your sex“) to become one of the albums that defined the 1980s. More importantly, the album contained all the sonic and visual attributes that became core George Michael brand attributes through the length of this career. He had successfully drawn the line that differentiated Wham from George Michael as two distinct musical entities. Interestingly enough, he pulled off yet another stylistic reinvention in the 90s – although none of it truly manifested itself within the realms of a single album. He went from being a soul-boy to an uptempo pop entertainer. The fruits of this reinvention can be heard on fantastic tracks such as “Too Funky“, “Killer/Papa Was A Rolling Stone“, “Fast Love“, and “Outside“. These uptempo tracks have also aged far better than his few uptempo forays as a solo artist in the 80s. In the 2000s, it appeared that George Michael was on the verge of making another reinvention – shedding his trademark sonic template for something a lot more dance-pop oriented. Noteworthy examples include songs such as “Precious Box“, “Flawless“, “White Light” and the unreleased “Every other lover“.
George Michael is not the only artist for whom reinvention has been the key to a successful solo transition. Other noteworthy examples include Sting, Robbie Williams, and Justin Timberlake. All these artists distinguished themselves from the band in which they first found fame and success.
4] Stay true to your convictions even if it is highly inconvenient. You just might become a catalyst for larger change.
George Michael’s high profile and well documented court battle with Sony Music in the early 90s definitely triggered a re-evaluation of the relationship between the musician and his or her record label. If an artist/band is compared to a startup, that would make the record label analogous to the venture capitalist for the startup. In theory, this is not a problematic dynamic. Where it gets tricky is when the venture capitalist starts to think of the the creative entity (i.e. the artist) as an assembly line that manufactures products and also claims ownership to that creative entity. George Michael lost the court case to Sony in which he tried to extricate himself from his contract with the record label. But the case did open the door to options for artists that were stuck in long record deals that were not mutually beneficial to the parties involved. In the case of George Michael, his contract was bought by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeff Katzenberg for their fledgling (but now defunct) record label Dreamworks records. The decision to battle Sony was a highly inconvenient one as it put him in a 6-year gap between studio albums – which is considered a long hiatus in the music business. On the positive side, he did become a catalyst for change. In an industry that continues to be plagued by antiquated laws and dynamics, more artists that challenge the status quo are needed so that all parties involved in a recording contract can thrive both creatively and commercially. Fair contracts are critical to the sustenance of the music business.
5] Do not feel the need to cater to a specific demographic through the lyrical themes you explore in your music. There is value in universality.
In the mid-2000s, George Michael was asked in an interview as to why women identified with him through his music. His response was that he did not write from a place of pride and narcissism that had become fairly commonplace among heterosexual male pop artists. It might also explain why his music resonated with gay males too. Contrary to popular belief, George Michael had plenty to offer straight males (me included) through his lyrics too. In particular, his sonic interpretation of extended periods of grief, mourning, and loss on songs such as “Jesus to a child” touched on universal emotions that are not intrinsically linked to a gender or sexual orientation. His ability to touch on various emotions in a person’s emotional journey through life via his music was impeccable. Artists would benefit from creating a body of work that resonates across standard demographic boundaries.
6] Use self-deprecating humor, your charisma, and your musical legacy to turn your ship around when things go badly
This lesson is centered around George Michael’s fading star power in the US in the 90s. His court case spelled the end of his reign over American radio airwaves. The last songs of his to get any mainstream broadcast radio play were “Freedom 90” and perhaps “Don’t let the sun go down on me“. The average American listener has not heard songs such as “Jesus to a child” and “Fast Love” – even though both these songs topped the global singles charts (thus countering any assertion that George Michael’s popularity in the 90s was region-specific). Hence, when George Michael came out of the closet as homosexual in the least flattering way at a public restroom trying to proposition an undercover cop, he stopped being taken seriously as an artist in the US. In the rest of the world outside of the US, people got over the shock fairly quickly and continued to acknowledge George Michael as a potent force to be reckoned with since he was still churning out chart-topping hits (albeit with a lower frequency than he did in the 80s). In the US, he was constantly being referred to as “washed up perv” or “yesteryear’s star”. During one of the Grammy Award ceremonies that Jon Stewart was hosting, he went as far as making a snide comment about George Michael while trying to compliment hit rapper Eminem. It did not seem to matter one bit that George Michael was still a massive superstar outside of the US.
Things changed dramatically in 2008 for George Michael in the US. He toured the US for the first time in 18 years. He did not scale down his arena tour relative to what he had staged in Europe during the prior year. His concerts met with some of the best reviews of his career. Furthermore, he indulged in his self-deprecating humor with high-profile radio hosts such as Ryan Seacrest when asked about his 1998 bathroom incident. He would leave his hosts in fits of laughter. He oozed charisma, charm, and intelligence and slowly won the hearts of his skeptics in America all over again. One cannot help wish that he had done this as early as 1998. That was his opportunity to refocus the attention on his music and his indisputable talent – and away from the scandal that he had embroiled himself in through the unflattering bathroom incident. Fortunately, the snide and condescending remarks about George Michael are a thing of the past. While George Michael has been blessed with the innate ability to do damage control effortlessly, I just wish he had done this earlier. He would have been able to cross over to a younger generation just like he did in other parts of the world in the 90s.
George Michael was just as human as any one of us – and hence made mistakes just like we all do. Modern pop stars can learn from these mistakes too. I feel the need to highlight these below.
1] Extract more value from your musical experiments. There is an infinite appetite for it.
For an artist that has only released four full-length studio albums, George Michael sure has a lot of songs. Many of these other songs have either never been released or never ended up on actual albums. These unreleased tracks fall into two categories
a. Unreleased original tracks: A fair number of George Michael fans are aware of the “Trojan Souls” album – a sonic midpoint between the “Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1” and “Older” albums. There are some gems in this collection of tracks (some of which were left incomplete but did see the light of day on Youtube – at least temporarily). The musical highlight of this unreleased album is the achingly beautiful “You slipped away from me” (the sonic twin of George Michael’s hit single “Kissing a fool“). The overwhelmingly positive response to these songs on Youtube should have motivated some type of release strategy for these songs – either as b-sides or bonus tracks on reissued records. The release of these songs would have allowed for a larger showcase of the breadth of George Michael’s material in a way that this four studio albums alone do not quite accomplish.
b. Cover version of songs by other artists: George Michael has made no secret of the fact that he preferred singing other artists’ songs as opposed to his own. This was the premise of his “Cover to Cover” tour in the early 90s. I am generally skeptical of artists recording covers. To me, it feels somewhat lazy but in the context of George Michael, there is a difference. Not only did he have a knack of making the song his own, but he would go a step further and create a version of the song that eclipsed the original in terms of quality. Interestingly enough, his covers album “Songs from the last Century” (released in 1999) is not a particularly strong indicator of this enviable competency of his. In fact, it would be safe to say that some of his best cover versions were not on that album. Noteworthy examples include “For the love of you” (originally performed by the Isley Brothers), “Knocks me off my feet” (originally performed by Stevie Wonder), “Victims” (originally performed by Culture Club), and the brilliant live performance of Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown’s “F.E.A.R“. These songs are not available for purchase or download anywhere. “For the love of you” was only featured on the digital-only “John and Elvis EP“. This EP was not made legally available outside Europe.
George Michael’s UK #1 album “Symphonica” was a great opportunity to include some of the surprise cover versions that he performed during the Symphonica tour – which had him perform alongside orchestras across Europe. Songs like “Love is A Losing game” (originally performed by Amy Winehouse) and “F.E.A.R” did not end up the final tracklist of the album. This was a missed opportunity in my humble opinion. At the risk of voicing a potentially unpopular opinion, it felt at times that George Michael was rehashing “Songs from the last century” on “Symphonica“.
Access to this music through a legal channel would have allowed George Michael to extract far more value out of his music than he did. Those that read some of our other blog pieces know that we often highlight the business and monetary implications of artistic decisions. Hence, this assertion of ours should not come as a surprise to this group of readers.
Music has intrinsic value and all of it should be harnessed to the best of an artist’s ability – especially when there is a simmering appetite for it among music aficionados. This should be a lesson for talented new artists that indulge in musical experiments that propel the creative process forward.
2] Branch out into adjacent forms of entertainment when you expect a long musical hiatus between albums
This lesson, like an earlier one, is particularly relevant to George Michael’s star status in America. To the rest of the world, it did not matter that he had a six-year hiatus between his second and third studio album in the 90s. This hiatus was a direct consequence of his prolonged court battle with Sony Music. Unfortunately, a hiatus from music meant a hiatus from the pop culture for George Michael in America. It marked the beginning of the end for him in America. The occasional appearance as a television guest would have done wonders for him in America. By the mid-90s, he represented the past in America as opposed to the present. It did not matter that he returned in 1996 with his career masterpiece. Broadcast radio in America simply did not care to listen. In the mid-2000s, he proved on the American television show “Eli Stone” that he had a natural presence that was incredibly well-suited for television and that he absolutely could act very well. Exploring this talent earlier in his life would have definitely changed his public perception in America.
Newer artists are getting smarter about this and understand the value of morphing into entertainment brands as opposed to confining themselves to music. Justin Timberlake (who we do not consider new by any stretch) is a good example of an artist that understands the importance of diversification. Despite a six-year hiatus between his second and third album, no one thought of him as having disappeared for a long period of time.
In all fairness, George Michael did get wiser about this in recent years with hilarious appearances on British television. His “carpool karaoke” segment with James Corden was particularly funny – especially the line which James Corden snaps back at George Michael saying “I cannot walk into a Comic Relief single session with you. I will be the laughing stock. Comic relief is about helping people like you!!!”.
For all his wise decisions and some ill-conceived decisions (most of which had to do with not maximizing opportunity), George Michael’s career is the rare pop story. Very few artists aspire to have a career that spans three decades in which their singles continue to ascend to the top 40 charts in major music markets. I thought it would be another twenty years at least before I published an article in response to the demise of one of music’s greatest. I consider it to be a privilege to have been a child, young adolescent, teenager and young adult with a life soundtrack penned by someone as gifted as George Michael through each of these milestones of growth. In the 30 years and more that he gave us goose bumps through his music, videos, and live performances, he showcased a versatility that we rarely ever see in a musician through a series of artistic avatars. The soulboy, the dancefloor filler, and the cocktail lounge crooner are just a few worth mentioning. It is with a lump in my heart that I say that he will be sorely missed but his legacy will endure and so will he.
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.
We just might become your alternative of choice!