He'll need more than faith this time

He's back, he's serious, and he's calling the tunes. Can George Michael pull it off again? Jim White reports

The opening shot of the video that accompanies George Michael's new single, "Jesus to a Child", is of a pile of dust standing in front of a kitchen chair, which is suspended, Dali-style, in mid-air. A large pendulum swings and knocks the top off the pile.

Thereafter the camera runs, slowly, over the prostrate figure of a naked man lying on a damp limestone pavement, then past ballet dancers in flesh- coloured leotards packaged into crates. Then it takes in a woman flourishing a Venetian ball mask as she wanders along a corridor. Finally it catches up with the singer himself, filmed from the neck up, looking doe-eyed and contemplative, not moving. You can't help feeling, before he even opens his mouth, that George Michael has a message here that he wishes to convey.

The last time we saw the man whose face once graced a million teenagers' bedroom walls was outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in July 1994. He had just lost a lengthy and expensive case seeking to extricate himself from his recording contract with Sony. It wasn't the money that worried him: he already had more of that than he knew what to do with, he said. He was furious because the company didn't trust him, didn't back him, didn't treat him like a meaningful artist. It was an argument that the judge - his mind swayed by the little note George handed him during the proceedings giving details of his current account balance - couldn't quite grasp. He found in favour of the multinational.

A year later, Sony, finally realising that George was serious when he said he would never record for them again, let him go, transferring him, as a football club might a player in dispute, for $40m to Virgin and, in America, a conglomerate led by David Geffen called Dreamworks.

After five years in frustrating, money-sapping, morale-murdering exile you might have expected George Michael to make a bit of a song and dance about his return (he is a man eminently capable of both). Daringly, perhaps, he has chosen to do neither. "Jesus to a Child" is a beautifully modulated, beautifully constructed, beautifully arranged song, delivered in that tortured falsetto of his. But it is also downbeat, maudlin, depressed. There is no hint on the video of the astonishing George hip-swivel that has dampened a million stadium seats across the globe. We don't even get to see his legs.

George has made it known, moreover, that it is a song inspired by the lingering death of his friend and confidant Anselmo Feleppa: "When you've been loved, when you know it holds such bliss/Then the lover that you've kissed/ Will comfort you when there's no hope inside/With your last breath you saved my soul/You smiled at me like Jesus to a child." In the light of that knowledge, lyrics like that are pretty tricky for a female fan base groomed on the jaunty boy-meets-girl material of his early days.

What we have, in short, is a vigorous projection of the image he has wanted to set for himself for years: thinker, feeler, a man who has put the rhythms and fripperies of disco long behind him. George Michael grown up, that's what he wants us to see.

Like a comedian who yearns to play Hamlet, George has long wanted to be taken seriously, to be granted a touch of Linford Christie-style respect. He didn't get off to a great start: his first band, Wham, were critically mocked at the time of their pre-eminence. Since any objective analysis would place both "Careless Whisper" and "What She Wants" among the 10 best pop songs of the Eighties, such a response was absurd. But critics are not objective. Their reaction was forged by the comical desperation with which George sought stardom, the manner in which he would do anything - pose topless, spend the day under a sun lamp, work with Andrew Ridgely - to shortcut his way to it.

His decision as a teenager in Hertfordshire to go for fame via the quickest route - by conquering the little girlie market - was to colour judgement about George for years: who, it appeared, was prepared to take seriously a man who popped a shuttlecock down his shorts before appearing on stage? Even when his album Faith sold 14 million copies and earned him pounds 15.8m in 1988 alone, the judgement was by no means acclamatory. Worse, George found that the fame he had sought so assiduously was no consolation for the critical cold-shoulder.

His follow-up to Faith, in 1989, came with a built-in plea in its title: Listen Without Prejudice. Some of us did, and thought it the best album of the decade. But others, particularly the accountants who ran his record company, were less than thrilled when it sold a mere seven million units (although it outsold Faith in Britain), particularly when George seemed reluctant to do anything to help it - to tour, for instance, or make sexy videos. They couldn't understand his reluctance. He was, after all, brilliant at that stuff, the best showman of his generation. With such mutual incomprehension, divorce was the only option.

Now that George is free to pursue his own line (and, as importantly, is hitched to an organisation prepared to let him do so), the big question is whether record-buyers will follow it. Five years is a long time to be away. Things have changed out there. Members of the Live Aid generation of which he was the greatest talent are now cast as laughable has-beens, and for the first time in his professional life George Michael is way out of kilter with the prevailing fashion. Compared to Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker, the big players of the mid-Nineties, George is too slick, too well-coiffured, too concerned with his looks. His style is all cappuccino, glossy magazines and well-tailored suits; theirs is all lager, fanzines and sports labels. He's a soul boy; they're scallies. He's a gent; they're lads.

You can't see him achieving the new Britpop bands' universal appeal, in which five-year-olds are as word-perfect at "Wonderwall" and "Common People" as their parents; or, galling for George, the way they have the critics lining up to volunteer for shoe-shining duties.

It would be mistaken, however, to suggest that since the world has managed so well without him there is no point in George Michael any more. A $40m transfer fee plus a $25m advance for two albums suggests that Virgin feels there is. And since it has turned such an attractive penny out of the Rolling Stones recently, it cannot be regarded as naive in the talent- backing department. Though he might no longer be a mass-market player, the company believes that there is a big niche for the singer in the same adult arena as the Stones, a confidence which nicely coincides with George's own vision of himself.

To succeed there - as Paul Weller's recent reinvention has proved - George will need his strongest set of material yet. Not that that will worry him; one thing George Michael has never been short of is a belief in his own ability to turn out a good tune. And those of us who have kept the faith for five years will not be surprised if he pulls off this, the biggest hurdle of his career.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine