The Number Ones

February 27, 1988

The Number Ones: George Michael’s “Father Figure”

Stayed at #1:

2 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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In the ’80s, pop music made noise. In the middle part of the decade, most of the biggest hits sounded big — bright, sleek, maximalist. Advances in technology like Fairlight synths and gated drums allowed musicians to conjure vast, overwhelming, larger-than-life sounds. To match those sounds, songwriters piled on histrionic drama. In videos, singers would be backlit, silhouetted against dry-ice steam, giant hair blowing in all directions. The music sounded the way the videos looked. Grandeur was the point.

Grandeur had always played role in pop music, and the people who made- ’80s pop saw themselves within a historic lineage. Talking about his work on Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” for instance, the producer Narada Michael Walden described the song as “my big chance to impress the world with my Phil Spector imitation.” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” sounds absolutely nothing like a Phil Spector production, but Walden was going for that same sense of sensory and emotional overload. Walden, it bears mentioning, was one of that era’s best dance-pop producers. He knew how to make that sound work. But not everyone did. The sheer scope of so many of that era’s hits, at least to my ears, could be oppressive.

George Michael could play that pop-maximalism game when he wanted to. Working with Aretha Franklin on the Walden-produced chart-topper “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” for instance, Michael did his part, emoting over the track’s whole synthetic joy-onslaught. But when he became a dominant solo star, Michael pushed back against all that sound. Writing and producing his own songs, Michael stripped things back, building skeletal, insinuating tracks. “Father Figure,” the second #1 hit from Michael’s blockbuster Faith album, is one of his best.

Michael was already stripping things back before “Father Figure.” In the summer of 1987, months before Faith, Michael came out with “I Want Your Sex,” a skeletal dance-pop track that was clearly built on the strutting minimalism that Prince had perfected. (“I Want Your Sex” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.) Michael followed “I Want Your Sex” with “Faith,” which was even more audacious in its construction — made up of little but empty space, rockabilly guitar, and Michael’s own hiccuping coo.

But “Father Figure” goes further than “Faith.” The track works as an elaborate drawn-out sigh. The arrival of every new element — the echoing fingersnaps, the fluttery acoustic guitar solo, the little Middle Eastern-ish synth riff — feels like an event. “Father Figure” works as pop music, and it’s full of sharp and shivery melodies, but it never forces those hooks. It lets them breathe.

Michael didn’t originally intend to make “Father Figure” sound like that. When he was writing “Father Figure,” Michael thought of it as a dance song. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Michael describes the lightbulb moment behind the song:

I wanted to hear something in my mix, so I happened to cut out the snare on the board, and suddenly it changed the whole entire mood of the track. Suddenly, it seemed really dreamy… I just thought, well, hey, this is actually much better! So I worked the rest of the feel of the track around this spacey type sound.

If Michael hadn’t been producing himself, then, he wouldn’t have come up with the sound and the texture that best fit “Father Figure.” If he hadn’t already been a massive pop star, maybe Michael wouldn’t have had the confidence to come up with a track that bucked trends so decisively. But Michael had big ideas about how to present himself. Before the rest of the world took George Michael seriously as a pop auteur, George Michael took George Michael seriously.

“Father Figure” works as a soft-drifting reverie, a liminal-space seduction. In a lot of ways, it’s a soul song, and it draws on gospel in the ways that soul songs like the Michael/Aretha Franklin duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” so often do. On the “Father Figure” chorus, the backup vocals that come crashing in sound a lot like a gospel choir, partly because of all the quiet around them. (Really, it’s just two singers, Chris Cameron and Shirley Lewis.) The organ suggests worship spaces. The drums and guitars are muted and gentle. Even Michael’s voice is tender and reassuring.

George Michael was a white British soul singer, and that’s a pretty fraught category. Most other white British soul singers existed on full overdrive, rasping and howling and testifying, doing a pantomime version of the Black American music that they loved so much. Michael could indulge in those theatrics, and he sometimes did, but that’s not what he does on “Father Figure.” Instead, he’s breathy and controlled. He gets louder as the song goes on, but through much of “Father Figure,” Michael is half-whispering. He never pushes too hard, never overextends himself. Instead, he aims for the emotional clarity of his Motown heroes, like his onetime duet partner Smokey Robinson. Maybe that’s why Black American audiences embraced Michael more readily than they did some of his peers. “Father Figure,” for instance, made it to #6 on Billboard‘s R&B charts. (It also got to #3 on Adult Contemporary and #13 on Dance Club Songs. It’s not really a dance song, but I bet “Father Figure” sounded cool as fuck in the club.)

“Father Figure” is a long, stretched-out track — maybe a smidge too long, honestly. It sprawls for nearly six minutes, without a trimmed-down single edit. The song is subtle, both musically and lyrically. It’s also daring, and not just because its sonic sensibility was so far removed from that moment’s pop orthodoxy. “Father Figure” is a love song, but it’s a love song that hints at transgression, at role-play and shifting power dynamics. Michael sings about wanting to become the most important person in someone’s life. He’s a romantic, but he doesn’t sing about wanting to be a lover. Instead, he wants to be a father figure, a preacher, a teacher.

Michael kept his sexuality private when he wrote “Father Figure,” but lots of critics have written that it’s a pointedly queer love song, that it has codes built into it. Michael was only 24 when he released “Father Figure,” and there’s no indication that it’s about a relationship with a younger person. Instead, it’s about finding something religious and restorative in another person’s eyes. It’s about finding a refuge and about offering yourself up to be a refuge for someone else.

I can’t truly speak to the inherent queerness of “Father Figure.” Writers like Armond White and Barry Walters have written more eloquently than I could about what’s going on in the opening lines: “That’s all I wanted/ Something special, someone sacred in your eyes/ For just one moment, to be bold and naked at your side.” But even without grasping the subtext, that’s a remarkably poetic and approach to seduction. It’s sexual and mystical and reverent. There’s nothing tawdry or even playful about it. Instead, Michael sings about being with someone else as a route to transcendence.

Even if you’re the same age as someone else, there’s something forbidden about telling another person that you’ll be that person’s everything, the sea to their desert. That’s what Michael does here. He admits that this kind of communion might not be possible: “Sometimes, I think that you’ll never… understand me.” But he still sees it a possible salvation. That’s moving.

There’s a line on “Father Figure” that I’ve apparently heard wrong for decades. I thought Michael sang, “I have had enough of time” — as in, I want to find a place with you that exists outside of time and space. But that’s not it. Instead, the lyric is “I have had enough of crime.” Elsewhere, Michael sings, “Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime.” That’s another hint. Michael didn’t come out at the peak of his fame because he knew that it would end his career. Being gay was a crime, or at least it was treated as such. When Michael finally did come out a decade later, it happened against his will, after he’s been arrested for a public-bathroom hookup. Love really was a crime.

I’m guessing that many of the people who loved “Father Figure” had no idea about all that subtext on “Father Figure.” The song’s video, which Michael co-directed with longtime collaborator Andy Morahan, is a love story between Michael’s cabdriver and a model. (The very striking actress is Tania Coleridge, an actual model and also a British aristocrat.) The video is all billowing sheer curtains and backlit makeouts, and there’s at least some possibility that the whole thing is just Michael’s character’s fantasy. The video fits the song. “Father Figure” hits like a dream.

Releasing a song this soft and layered as a single, especially for someone still so tied up in his boy-band past, was a brave move. It paid off. We’ll see George Michael in this column again soon.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Jungle Brothers’ “J Beez Comin’ Through (Bonus Beats),” a 1989 B-side instrumental built from a brain-warping “Father Figure” loop:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: PM Dawn sampled “Father Figure” and used its melody on their 1993 hit “Looking Through Patient Eyes.” Here’s the video:

(“Looking Through Patient Eyes” peaked at #6. It’s a 9. PM Dawn will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: LL Cool J rapped over the Trackmasters’ “Father Figure” sample on his own heartfelt 1997 single “Father.” Here’s LL’s video:

(“Father” peaked at #18. LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles as lead artist, the 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’,” both peaked at #3. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin'” is a 6. As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a recording of Tori Amos playing her playfully rapturous “Father Figure” cover at a 2005 show:

(Tori Amos’ highest-charting single, 1998’s “Spark,” peaked at #49.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the truly great 2017 action movie Atomic Blonde where perfect human being Charlize Theron hits play on “Father Figure,” beats the absolute shit out of a whole bunch of cops, and then jumps out a window:

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