The Number Ones

December 12, 1987

The Number Ones: George Michael’s “Faith”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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George Michael could’ve probably taught a graduate-level course about his own iconography. Some pop stars clearly think hard about the ways that they present themselves to the world. George Michael went beyond that. For Michael, it was a passion and an obsession. You can see just how completely he understood matters of image manipulation in the first minute of the video for “Faith,” which is both Michael’s biggest hit and his most enduring contribution to our shared cultural imagination.

Andy Monahan, director of the “Faith” video, was a longtime Michael collaborator. Monahan had made most of the videos for Wham!’s biggest hits, and Michael kept working with Monahan even as he consciously and explicitly worked to distance himself from the Wham! stuff that had made him famous in the first place. In the “Faith” video, Michael positions himself away from past hits twice, before the song itself even kicks in.

The “Faith” video opens with the image of a jukebox and a 14-second chunk of Michael’s previous single “I Want Your Sex.” Michael had released “I Want Your Sex” four months before “Faith,” attaching it to the cultural steamroller of the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack. It’s a frisky, silly pop-funk track with a pronounced Prince influence, and it became a culture-war football as soon as it came out. “I Want Your Sex” was a hit, and it peaked at #2. (It’s a 9.) But the song probably would’ve gotten to #1 if not for all the radio stations that refused to play it. MTV demanded a bunch of edits to the video before putting it in rotation. Casey Kasem wouldn’t say the song’s title on American Top 40. In the UK, Michael’s homeland, the BBC outright banned “I Want Your Sex,” and the single stalled out at #3.

Michael knew “I Want Your Sex” was a provocative song, but he seemed a little taken aback at the reaction: “It seemed like, for a month, I was a sex spokesman for young people.” For the video to air on MTV, Michael had to add a disclaimer that the song was about monogamous sex. If he was sick of that whole conversation by the time “Faith” dropped, nobody could blame him. In the opening of the “Faith” video, “I Want Your Sex” sounds muffled and faraway as the camera zooms in on the jukebox. In the middle of the word “sex,” the song abruptly cuts off, and another record begins.

But the next thing we hear isn’t really “Faith” either. It’s silence, and then it’s a slow-rising drone. By the time we really register that there’s sound coming out of the speakers, George Michael’s ass fills up the entire screen. By then, the soundtrack is devotional organ music, as if we’re being invited to behold a sacred object. That organ plays a familiar melody, and you might not immediately recognize it, but it’s deeply tied in with the whole George Michael thing. It’s “Freedom,” the Wham! single that reached #3 in 1985. (That one is an 8.) Played on that organ, the “Freedom” melody sounds like a dirge — a funereal elegy for the entire Wham! narrative.

Wham! had played their final show at Wembley in 1986, and Michael had immediately started plotting out his solo career. Michael was worried about the teeny-bop image that had served Wham! so well at the pop marketplace, and he’d resolved to go in an entirely different direction. Earlier in 1987, Michael and Aretha Franklin had released the duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and it had been a #1 hit. But Michael still evidently felt insecure about his recent past. With that organ-drone, Michael found a way to reference Wham! while still clearly putting the duo in his rearview mirror. Then, within seconds, he replaced that whole image with another one that he’d spend years living down.

The George Michael of the “Faith” video is the George Michael that the world will always remember: The stubble, the leather jacket, the jeans so vivid that they’re somehow in color even when everything else is in black-and-white. The “Faith” video is literally just Michael striking Elvis poses against a white background, gesticulating with a guitar that he didn’t know how to play. The video can’t have cost a lot to make. Its simplicity is a weapon. That image immediately wiggles its way directly into your frontal cortex, and then it stays there forever. If anything, George Michael played the self-reinvention game a little too well with “Faith.”

Like so many of 1987’s biggest hits, “Faith” itself is pure retro pastiche. Michael wrote and produced “Faith,” just as he wrote and produced all the songs on the Faith album. Michael’s publisher had suggested a rock ‘n’ roll revivalist song, and Michael threw himself into the task, coming up with a playful homage to American rockabilly. The song, like so many oldies-radio classics, is built on the time-honored push-pulling Bo Diddley beat, and its mechanistic instrumentation is sleek and stark. “Faith” doesn’t sound like musicians playing together in a studio; it’s clearly the result of digital production and drum-machine precision. But in its use of echo and open space — and especially in the solo from veteran session guitarist Hugh Burns — “Faith” dials into ’50s signifiers so hard that the song might as well be a chrome-plated diner with roller-skating waitresses.

Unlike so many of the other big hits of its day, “Faith” doesn’t sound big. The drums go boom, but they go boom at very specific, planned-out intervals. There are no vrooming, wheedling guitars and no avalaches of synth-bleep. Instead, Michael keeps everything skeletal — that high-stepping guitar riff, those fake fingersnaps, Michael’s own halting and hiccuping delivery. But “Faith” sounds nothing like an actual ’50s song, either. It doesn’t even try for veracity. How could it? It’s got George Michael singing on it.

Michael’s vocal on “Faith” sounds a bit like he’s trying to imitate Prince, if Prince was trying to imitate Buddy Holly. Mostly, though, it just sounds like George Michael — the whoops, the playful growls, the exuberant high notes that show off a monster voice without seeming like they’re trying to show off a monster voice. There are no big notes on “Faith” other than maybe the perfectly-timed “bayyyyy-bay” at the beginning of the second verse. And yet every little vocal inflection matters. Michael simply rides the song, bringing such overstated superstar swagger that he can get away with practically panting for a couple of minutes.

Michael’s “Faith” lyrics are almost a rebuke to “I Want Your Sex.” “Faith” is a song about not having sex — about turning sex down, even. Michael’s narrator would really like to touch someone’s body, but he foresees trouble if he goes through with it. Michael knows all the games the the other person plays because he plays them too. (Now that I look at it, Michael never specifies the gender of the other person.) Michael’s narrator has been through heartbreak before — he brings up another who tied him down to the loverboy rules — so he reluctantly shows this other person the door. He doesn’t want another situation where it all comes down to love without devotion. He’s gotta have faith.

Until working on this piece, I don’t think I ever gave the lyrics of “Faith” a half-second of thought. All I ever heard on a conscious level was the way the song plays out like one long hook. “Faith” definitely doesn’t sound like a song about turning down sex. It just sounds like a playful little romp through America’s cultural flotsam. It’s weird to say this about a song so iconic, but “Faith” sounds small. Maybe that’s why it’s nowhere near my favorite of Michael’s songs. “Faith” is definitely an effective pop song — the pre-chorus “need some time off from that emotion” part is smooth — but it’s low-stakes. Michael’s music hits me the hardest when it really brings the drama.

But “Faith,” compact as it is, is the song that truly turned George Michael into a Michael Jackson-level star. “Faith” topped the charts for four weeks, and Billboard named it the #1 single of 1988. The Faith LP was also that year’s best-selling album. Faith came out a few weeks after the single, and it became a full-on cultural phenomenon, with double-diamond sales and a big stack of Grammys. Michael kept cranking out more singles from the album, and those singles kept hitting #1. We’ll see George Michael in this column again soon.

Jumping forward a couple of years, Michael’s “Faith” success became so overwhelming that he almost immediately looked for ways to distance himself from it, just as he’d distanced himself from Wham! at the beginning of the “Faith” video. For Michael’s next album, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Michael refused to pose for the album cover or to go into promotional overdrive for the album, the way he’d done for Faith. Michael also didn’t appear in the masterful video for the single “Freedom! 90,” an entirely different song from Wham!’s “Freedom.” Instead, director David Fincher filmed a series of supermodels lip-syncing lyrics about Michael’s discomfort with his own fame: “When you shake your ass, they notice fast/ And some mistakes were built to last.”

Fincher’s “Freedom! 90” clip also brought back some of the props from the “Faith” video: The guitar, the jukebox, the leather jacket. The guitar and jukebox both exploded. The leather jacket burned. Only George Michael’s offscreen ass survived. (“Freedom! 90” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s dancehall great Super Cat playing around with the “Faith” hook on his 1992 track “Must Be Bright”:

(Super Cat’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 1995’s “Girlstown,” peaked at #99. As a guest, Super Cat’s highest-charting single is the 1993 Kriss Kross track “Alright,” which peaked at #19. For incredibly stupid reasons that we’ll eventually have to address, Sugar Ray’s 1997 smash “Fly,” which features Super Cat, never made the Hot 100.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Limp Bizkit largely blew up on the strength of their mostly-ironic 1998 cover of “Faith,” a Buzz Bin staple in the early rap-metal era. I sincerely apologize to everyone who ever had to experience the Fred-Durst-singing-“Faith” impression that I used to love to do while high. Here’s Limp Bizkit’s video for their “Faith” cover:

(Limp Bizkit’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “Rollin (Air Raid Vehicle),” peaked at #65.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Estelle interpolated the “Faith” melody on her 2008 single “No Substitute Love.” Here’s the video, which heavily references the “Faith” clip:

(Estelle’s highest-charting single, the 2008 Kanye West collaboration “American Boy,” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2011 Community episode where we learn that Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger character once auditioned for The Real World with an impression of George Michael in the “Faith” video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2016 movie Keanu where Keegan-Michael Key hallucinates his way into the “Faith” video:

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