In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.
1988: George Michael’s Faith
Keanu, the 2016 action comedy by the duo Key and Peele, is a movie that’s been largely forgotten but as someone who saw it when it was out one thing that stuck with me was Keegan Michael-Key’s character specifically his obsession with George Michael. Michael’s music pops up a lot in the movie whether it’s a dream sequence where Key is transported into the “Faith” music video, Key and his friends singing along in the car, and in one scene Key makes an impassioned speech about Michael.
As funny as it is, Key’s character does get into a major aspect surrounding George Michael mainly that in 1988 when he had the biggest album and single of the year and was an all-around pop-cultural phenomenon, he was particularly big with Black audiences. To George Michael, this success was not an accident. The idea behind his first solo album Faith was to dispel the early image people had of him from his group Wham! as a lightweight teenybopper. Michael wanted to be seen as a serious artist and show his true artistic self with much of his musical influences being Black American soul and R&B.
In a 1988 interview with Jet, Michael points out that it was Black audiences who truly embraced him in Wham! when everyone else had dismissed him and was happy when Faith went to #1 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart which was then called the Top Black Albums chart, “I was much happier with Faith being the No. 1 Black chart album than I was when it became the No. 1 Pop album. There was much more of a sense of achievement. I knew this album would be a shock or a surprise to people in this country. The uptempo side of the new music is more overtly sexual, more black.”
To further prove his talent, George Michael takes a hugely self-contained route on Faith with Michael having sole writing and producing credits on all 10 songs as well as playing a lot of instruments. With this huge amount of artistic control, Michael accomplishes what he wanted on Faith with all 10 songs showing his versatility as a singer across various styles and genres. There are the uptempo dance-pop jams like the controversial “I Want Your Sex,” “Hard Day,” and “Monkey” but then he does Elvis style rockabilly on the title track, gospel on “Father Figure,” soulful balladry on “One More Try,” and even cabaret jazz on “Kissing A Fool.” These different genre exercises explain the diverse array of artists like Limp Bizkit, Michael Buble, and Mariah Carey that have covered George Michael songs. There’s a song for everyone here.
Like a lot of the big ‘80s albums, Faith has a very greatest hits quality with the six of the ten tracks being released as singles with four hitting #1 and the other two peaking in the Top 5, songs that are still well regarded and heard today. Part of the lasting appeal of Faith is that it’s an album of perfectly crafted pop songs from an artist who knew what he was doing. In his singing, Michael gets at the emotion of the songs. On the slow songs like “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Kissing A Fool” in particular, Michael shows off his soulful side sounding tender and soft while not overdoing it on the high notes the way many other singers in his position would. It’s the kind of thing that often gets forgotten in the larger legacy of George Michael but the man understood the importance of delivery in a song more than anyone else.
When George Michael released Faith, he had not publicly come out of the closet. This is not entirely a surprise as the late ‘80s were not a friendly time for gay artists to come out publicly about their sexuality especially amid the AIDS epidemic with gay men dying at frightening rates as the public and governments refused to recognize it. During the Faith era, Michael presented himself as straight as he could getting beautiful women to appear in the videos and adapting a straight masculine look with the leather jacket, jeans, stubble, slicked-back hair, guitar, and sunglasses. Clearly, Michael wouldn’t have become the biggest pop star in America if he was openly gay.
Yet listening to the songs today you can hear lots of hints all over Faith. The songs are all about love and relationships and even if they aren’t lyrically specific you can imagine Michael writing them about his relationships and conflicted feelings about his sexuality and public persona. One big hint that Tom Breihan brought up were the lines “I have had enough of crime” and “Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime” in “Father Figure.” That song specifically is about Michael being in a forbidden relationship and at that time being in a gay relationship was culturally forbidden for celebrities like him. When Michael finally came out as gay in 1998, it wasn’t on his own terms but due to his arrest for lewd conduct with an undercover officer in a public bathroom. After that incident, his hit-making career was basically over in America proving what Michael had been worried about his whole career.
Even if George Michael was struggling in private, he was publicly on top of the world with Faith spending 12 weeks at #1 eventually going diamond or 10 million copies sold. Like what he wanted, Faith helped George Michael escape his Wham! persona and join the Michael Jackson level of pop stardom. He went on a major worldwide tour, won the Grammy Album of the Year award, and the MTV VMA Video Vanguard Award. His image also became ripe for parody with Dana Carvey poking fun of Michael on Saturday Night Live.
Eventually, all that success was too much for Michael to handle and quickly turned away from it with his next release 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Unlike Faith, Michael didn’t appear in any videos or tour behind it to the dismay of Sony. It ultimately led to a big cooldown with Prejudice only getting to #2 behind MC Hammer selling only two million copies though it did launch two big hits the first being the beautiful sounding elegy “Praying For Time,” another #1 hit, and the most iconic song “Freedom ’90” which is mainly famous for its David Fincher directed video showing a bunch of supermodels lip-syncing Michael’s vocals and all of his Faith era images being blown to pieces.
As the Vol. 1 on the title indicates, Michael wanted to release a second volume of Listen Without Prejudice that would return him to more upbeat dance music but when Vol. 1 failed that idea was scrapped and Michael sued Sony to get out of his contract. During that time, Michael went on tour largely covering other people’s songs and through that landed his final US #1 with his cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” even getting his idol to sing on stage with him. After that, Michael’s lawsuit sidelined him for a few years but when he came back in 1996 he was still able to land big hits like the underrated dance jam “Fastlove,” a #8 hit and his final charting song in America.
Even though America was no longer into George Michael after his 1998 arrest, his later singles and albums were still hits in his home country and throughout Europe. For the rest of his life, Michael kept busy collaborating with Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston, releasing songs that protested the Iraq War, and continuing to perform including appearances on American Idol and at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Not long after, Michael would give his final public performance as he stayed out of the public eye for the next few years until Christmas Day 2016 when he died at the age of 53 due to complications from an enlarged heart and fatty liver.
George Michael is no longer with us but he has continued to remain relevant in one big way. His Christmas song with Wham! “Last Christmas” has remained in constant rotation every December and on the charts, it has gotten bigger thanks to streaming. “Last Christmas” went to #1 in the UK in 2020 and has broken into the Top 10 in the US currently peaking at #7. He’s also been overdue for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins shouting out Michael in his induction speech at the most recent ceremony among other artists he wants to see inducted. Given the Hall’s recent strive for inducting popular ‘80s acts, a George Michael induction seems bound to happen sooner than later.
Next time: Bobby Brown helps bring new jack swing to mainstream prominence with the blockbuster release Don’t Be Cruel