A lot of people hate him. He knows this. He is, it seems, too perfect, too prefab, too blatantly pop to take seriously. He made his name, and his fortune, writing insanely catchy songs; he was an English pretty boy with the commercial instincts to come up with radio-ready material, the good looks to attract squealing teenage girls, the marketing savvy to hit that target audience. He danced through his first videos in carefully tailored black leather; then in gleaming white suits, bottle-blond hair and glittering gold earrings that perfectly set off that Saint-Tropez tan; and finally in immaculately groomed stubble.
He even has a perfect pop name: George Michael, Naturally, it isn’t real. He is only 24–three years younger than Prince, five years younger than Michael Jackson, and outselling both of them. He is ridiculously famous; he has more money than he can spend. And for most of his brief career, he has had virtually no artistic credibility.
He knows this, he says that it doesn’t bother him, and by all appearances he is telling the truth. He is sitting at a quiet table in a small, elegant French restaurant in London, looking rather adult and low-key. His hair is its natural dark brown and carefully styled; his stubble is a few days the far side of Don Johnson’s. He is wearing a black sweater, a black blazer, black slacks, black loafers, white shocks and a thick gold ring that bears his family nickname: Yog. No earrings.
He is eating chicken and drinking red wine, and he is laughing a lot. He can afford to laugh. He is still beset by fans: he’s half an hour late for dinner because when he walked out his front door, he was set upon by a young woman who let her two huge dogs jump all over him, though she was too nervous to talk to him herself.
And he has an ace in the hole. His new solo album, Faith, is a startling state-of-the-art dance album, a collection of potential hit singles, an emotionally open look at his life an concerns. With Faith, the pop star grows up. And it is forcing many of those who scoffed at him during his Wham! days to take him seriously. “I think it says something for the power of the music,” he says, “that I’ve managed to change the perception of what I do to the degree that I have in this short a time. Because it’s something that a lot of people thought wasn’t possible.”
George Michael sets his jaw. “I really think that anyone who doesn’t like anything on my new album has no right to say they like pop music,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music.”
How do they get that sound?” He is driving down London’s Piccadilly, turning heads in nearby cars as he marvels at the thunderous basson the Janet Jackson remix album that’s playing on the CD player in his black Mercedes sedan. The record is a favorite, but his real passion of late is a 1964 album by Stan Getz and João Gilberto; when he climbed behind the wheel, he popped in “The Girl from Ipanema.”
He has spent the last few hours talking about his astonishing fame; about the gossipy British tabloids (“They write about me in the same way that they write about Joan Collins and the royal family”); about the sad fact that Brits are becoming more and more like Americans, always looking out for number one; about his commercial expectations for Faith (he hopes it will be Number One in the United States at Christmas, when he knows the Billboard charts don’t change for two weeks); and about pop music.
He is an open, engaging, frank conversationalist, a friendly dinner companion–though it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s being open and engaging and frank and friendly because it’s good for business. Call him self-assured if you like him; arrogant if you don’t.
“George is very, very single-minded in his approach,” says his former Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley, who now lives in Monaco. “And I think a lot of the things that he has said and done have been misconstrued as arrogant rather than the single-mindedness they really are. People get very put out when someone is as forceful in their views and in their methods as George is.”
He supervises his business affairs himself. He has, since the first days of Wham!, written (or on rare occasions co-written), produced, sung and played a variety of instruments on his records. And still, he says, “people have the perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it’s because that’s all you can do. Not because it’s all you choose to do, and not because it’s the area you love.
“If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
His Mercedes is stuck in the heavy midnight traffic alongside the giant Tower Records store on Piccadilly Circus. He peers at the stores large display windows: places of honor in a big pop supermarket. “I always like to see what records have the window displays here,” he says, then shakes his head. “I was supposed to have one of those window displays, but I don’t.”
Maybe his window is on the other side of the store? “No,” he says without missing a beat. “I drove by and looked the other night.”
George Michael laughs at himself. “No, I’m one of those artists who checks these things.”