A lot of people think that George Michael is a Wimp! and Wham! was nothing but a wimpy band that sold 36 million records. And for much of his career, it seemed they were right.
But there is more to George. There’s the George Michael born Georgios Panayiotou, the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur who, since he was a little kid, had no interest but music and who thought of nothing else but saving up for records and of someday being a star. There was Motown George, whose earliest records were by the Supremes, which he listened to (when his father let him) on a wind-up record player he kept in the garage, and Popstar George, who listened to Elton John, Queen, and the Sweet, the ultimate in pop for George. It was Disco George who listened to Chic and Saturday Night Fever, went dancing in clubs every night of the week, and wore denim overalls, turning his obsession into a lifestyle. He played in tube stations for change, which he spent in all-night dives before going back to Andrew Ridgely’s place to make Sugar Hill Gang-influenced demos. And then there was Romantic George, who at age 22 disbanded Wham! because his ideas didn’t include becoming another band cranking out another album and three or four hit singles every couple of years, and Tough Ass George, who said he fired his managers because they were going to sell shares in their company to a South African firm.
Now there’s another George, a misunderstood, vulnerable George, who suffers from painful relationships and slips into deep depressions. His new album’s called Faith, with complex, socially oriented lyrics about a mass murderer, a hooker, and a wife beater—stuff you wouldn’t expect from George. It’s a different George, who doesn’t want to grow up to be Paul McCartney, with a different kind of record, which experiments and doesn’t echo “I Want Your Sex.” This is new George.
When we did “Wham! Rap” we were trying to do a parody. We were trying to say dough is shit by saying dough is great. I was trying to say that just because you don’t have a job doesn’t mean you’re shit. There were a lot of elements that people took serious about Wham! when we were being totally tongue-in-cheek. We tried to do a parody of sexism with the guy that was rapping in “Young Guns.” He was supposed to be a real asshole and everyone thought that was supposed to be me. We were making out that he was a jerk thinking that girls were only good for fucking and getting married to. Then I got this sexist crap back. I’m used to being misunderstood. I’m totally used to people saying that I’m gay, even though I don’t think I’ve ever done anything lyrically to provoke that. But I’m used to being misinterpreted on that level. People used to say that the only reason Andy was there was because he’s gay, but that’s a laugh from day one. The press has tried to link me with my cousin and they’ve tried to link me with my friend David Austin. They’ve done the whole bit, but I don’t really care, I’ve never really cared. I’ve heard so many examples in pop history of that kind of rumor. What difference does it make? These days it’s not even an open question. In the ’70s it might have been open for debate. Now, if you want your career, it’s another story. Yet I don’t think anyone’s sexuality should get in the way of their talent or career—which it does. I have heard the most fantastic rumors about me in the past few years. There are all kind of orgiastic things; they’re not even subtle. They’re usually something horribly loud. If my life had been that much fun, perhaps I would have written about it. But I know what my life’s been like in the past five years, and compared to what people have said, it’s extremely dull sexually. I’m happy with it. Anyway, it suits me if people are talking about it.
Black radio would not play “I Want Your Sex.” It’s the worst reaction I’ve had on a record for years. For them it was too dirty. Don’t ask me why that is, when every good black song on the charts is full of innuendos. If there was a woman singing, they would have played it. I believe the slant on sex generally in the past several years has made it seem terrifying to kids. I’ve read that even though we’ve had huge campaigns about AIDS in my country, there hasn’t been a large increase of sale of condoms. The kind of lust in “I Want Your Sex” is all part of something good. At the same time I realize that the message that some people would get from the record would not be that. There was an opportunity for me to make a song about a relationship, so I compromised to the degree that I put in the line about monogamy. But I did so also because I genuinely believed in it. I’ve had my promiscuous times and though I look at them now as something that wasn’t necessary, I’ve learned from them. I just think if I had found the right relationship I would have been happier earlier.
I’m very proud of the pop music I’ve made, but it’s had very little to do with my personality. “Go Go” was not a reflection of my personality, it was a reflection on my craft. I built up this group sound which is really only a hint of who I am. I didn’t want people to know who I was at the time. I was just very much enjoying my craft. I have had to spend a lot of time in the past two years convincing people that just because the songs I made were pop, they weren’t necessarily disposable. I think some of those songs were a lot stronger than a lot of the pop that was made at the time and some of those Wham! records will be remembered for a long time. Just because they were lightweight, I’ve been having to spend a lot of time in the last three years trying to explain to people that I’m not brain dead.
I was really lucky that I had a stable upbringing. My parents never fought. There was very little aggression. When I went around to other people’s houses, and their mom and dad started screaming, I couldn’t handle it; I’d go home. I’m still very close to my family. Though my upbringing was very working-class when I began, by the time I was in my teens it was very middle-class and we were secure. My father’s restaurant business had done well. He went from being a waiter, then manager, then restaurant owner. We moved into a very middle-class area. It was an upwardly mobile childhood. My parents didn’t argue about money, and I knew they loved each other. Since I came from such a stable background, it gave me the room to be creative without having any distractions. It’s probably why I’m so mainstream in what I do ’cause I came from such a mainstream background. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. I find I’m very inspired by things that aren’t mainstream and I love the aggression in music; especially the aggression in black music. It’s fascinating to me.
“I Want Your Sex” is perhaps the most successfully black-sounding record I’ve ever done. Having spent a lot of time listening to modern black music and dancing in clubs, that song is my reflection of my life at the moment. One of the reasons for making sure there is more funk-oriented material on this album, as part of my new career, is to get people to hear the other songs on this album. The most important songs for me are not the funk songs. There are some songs that transcend anything I could possibly do on some dance level. The stuff I’m most proud of are the ones based around my song-making as opposed to my record-making. My songs are not usually contemporary but are usually something that transcends a contemporary sound. People will hopefully remember them in five or ten years. I feel this is not a pop album. It has a far more earthier feel to it, more black-based, simpler, and more aggressive than anything I’ve done before. I’ve even added a jazz ballad. There’s a strange mix of influences here that gel together.
Now that I’ve worked with most of the people that were my childhood heroes, I’m not into collaboration anymore. Aretha was really great to work with, though I probably didn’t get much more of an idea of who she is as a person any more than you have. I just wanted to be a singer; I didn’t want to write or produce. But I was asked to do both. I just wanted to sing with her and see if I could stand up to it. But the real challenge was to make sure I didn’t sound competitive in a situation like that. Not to put Annie Lennox down, but I thought the most glaring thing about her collaboration with Aretha was the competition. Aretha was just singing—if anything, she underplayed it—and Annie was going haywire.
I wouldn’t say I’m anti-drugs. I’d say I’m anti certain drugs. They’re a very destructive thing to most people, because people only have a certain amount of perspective. There are some people I’ve seen handle drugs perfectly well in a moderate amount. Moderation with anything is okay but the effects of drugs on the nervous system are far more of a risk to your body. But I don’t condemn people for most things. I wouldn’t condemn people for taking drugs. I condemn encouraging anybody to take drugs because most people can’t handle them, it’s as simple as that. Put it this way, if we’re talking about moderate use of alcohol or moderate drug use, you should go for mild alcohol. I think alcohol is a far more clear-cut issue. Anyway, I’ve always been glad I was born too late for the psychedelic era, because I would have definitely been a hippie.
The rock business is one of the few ways in which young people can become rich very quickly without having to make the kind of tough decisions which push a person into a right-wing bracket. There are business decisions that are made by entrepreneurial types which are to other people’s disadvantage. When people want to make money, they have to step on each other. Only if you’re lucky enough to have the ability and talent which other people want to make money on can you become rich without having to walk over other people. Then you can turn a blind eye for an awfully long time to how people become rich. I’ve always thought I was really lucky that I managed to become wealthy without having to walk over others. There aren’t many opportunities where that can happen. There’s obviously a dichotomy in having money, yet seeing the things around you that are wrong. I’ve stayed in my own country, never left for the purpose of taxes, and yet, at the same time, I’m giving lots of money to a country I disapprove of strongly. Maybe I should leave the country. But what difference would that make? I’d only come to the United States. Your government and mine are becoming much the same entity anyway. What bothers me about American culture is it’s based on competition. If you don’t have a lot of status financially or in terms of celebrity, then you’re not much over here. On the other hand, when I go home, it depresses me how little ambition there is in England. People just don’t aspire to anything there because people feel they’re on a loser to begin with. But Margaret Thatcher’s trying to make things more like America anyhow. Margaret Thatcher has an incredible opportunity to do something no one’s ever had the opportunity to do before. She’s got her third term.
When you think of her actual ethics, you can’t help but admire her ability to turn ideas into reality. She wanted to put England back on the international industrial map and she’s done that. That’s why our pound’s getting stronger again; she’s brought money back to the country. But if she wants to be the best known and most respected prime minister ever, she’ll have to put some of the money from the top end back to the low end of the country to prevent the division from becoming so wide that the public, especially the middle class, becomes scared. I think a welfare state is absolutely necessary. I think it’s a shame the way the one in England is being chipped away to resemble the one here in the United States. I was asked to join campaigns of conservative and labor in the last election in England. It terrified me because I couldn’t believe they were sinking so low as to take a pop artist and to have them up on the hustings, as they call them. Though I understand how politics work, and I find it very hard to be in any political direction at the moment. It’s easier to apply myself to individual issues. I’ve given financial help to the AIDS cause. Anybody who has even vaguely long-term awareness will be able to see that if you’ve got kids, in ten or fifteen years time, things are still going to be way out of control. You’re going to think “Fuck, I could have done something.” I’m also very distressed about how the British national health system is deteriorating, equivalent to the one you have here. From the beginning of Wham! we took a tongue-in-cheek at people to get off their asses and not be intimidated. In my country they wouldn’t even call me left-wing because the left has become really left and the right has become really right, which makes people like me moderate. The trouble with moderates is that they’re a little too nice.