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.
Early in 1988, George Michael reached #1 with “Father Figure,” a delicately percolating seduction-song. On “Father Figure,” George Michael assumed the dominant role. He was the guide and the elder. He promised to be your father figure, your preacher, your teacher. A few months later, with his next single, Michael returned to the #1 spot with another R&B ballad. This time, though, the roles switched around. On “One More Try,” Michael is the lost, lonely naif, pleading for someone else to stop stringing him along and sobbing over the “teacher” who has told him goodbye.
George Michael hadn’t publicly come out as a gay man when he made Faith, his career-defining blockbuster, but there are queer codes all over the album. Michael could be a teacher on one song and a student on another. The songs on Faith aren’t about power dynamics. They’re about loss and need and consolation. But those power dynamics are built into the songs. Michael had the soft, understated ability to tease those dynamics out, to fully sell them, without fully revealing the sides of himself that he didn’t yet want to reveal.
Michael said that he wrote and recorded “One More Try,” just finished the whole thing from nothing, in eight hours — a pretty productive day at the office. He also said that the song was his favorite thing that he’d ever done. Usually, when you learn that someone bashed a track out quickly, you can hear some speed and excitement in the song. That’s not the case on “One More Try.” Instead, “One More Try” is a slow and stately ballad that sprawls elegantly over nearly six minutes. But it’s also a simple song, built on a churchy organ and a heartbeat-thump drum pattern. The lyrics don’t try to be clever, and Michael doesn’t try to sing them in a clever way. Instead, he belts them out, and there’s urgency in his heartbreak and in his hunger.
“One More Try” is a soul song. It’s George Michael doing his best to transform himself into Al Green. Michael was a student of pop music, especially Black American pop music, and the sound of “One More Try,” which Michael produced himself, is a far cry from the cluttered and and hectic tracks that were all over the pop charts at that point. Michael and his studio-musician collaborators knock out a stark, simple slow-dance beat, and the song’s keyboards echo the churchy opening of “Faith,” as well as entire generations of gospel-influenced R&B. The bass and the keyboards take some nice, subtle melodic turns, but the whole emphasis is clearly on Michael’s voice.
As a singer, George Michael was not Al Green, but he came closer than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. Michael saw himself as an R&B singer first and foremost, and unlike most of his white British peers, he approached the genre without any overbearing rasp-howl pantomime. Instead, Michael sang with a soft and simple sweetness, rarely putting too much mustard on his delivery. “One More Try” is one of the rare moments on Faith where I feel like George Michael is playing dress-up.
It’s not that Michael couldn’t sing. He could. Michael hits some notes on “One More Try.” The way he pulls out the falsetto on the “hold you, touch yoooooouuuuu” bits? That’s the good shit. He annihilates that. Michael also knew how to construct a song. There are subtle, tender hooks all through “One More Try,” and they build up the grand catharsis of the finale, which is how a soul ballad should build. But there’s a disconnect between the polite reserve of the verses and the emotional bloodletting of the choruses, and it throws me off a bit. It’s long, too. On the radio or even in the context of Faith itself, six minutes of “One More Try” is a lot of “One More Try.” It drags a bit. (Michael declined to shorten the song for a single edit. A single edit would’ve thrown the song’s structure off, and since “One More Try” hit #1 anyway, Michael apparently didn’t need the single edit.)
But if “One More Try” is pastiche, that’s fine. “Faith” was pastiche, too. Michael was good at pastiche. On “One More Try,” he sounds like he’s messing around with the soul-ballad blueprint because that’s the most effective way he can communicate the song’s feeling. Michael opens “One More Try” by sighing that he’s “had enough of danger,” and he presents himself as a fragile young man who’s still learning this whole love thing: “When you were just a stranger and I was at your feet/ I didn’t feel the danger/ Now I feel the heat.” The “heat” is exciting, but it’s perilous, too.
There ain’t no joy for an uptown boy whose teacher has told him goodbye, and the whiplash of gaining and losing love is too much for Michael’s narrator. At the end of the song, Michael gives in and admits that he’ll give this other person another shot: “I’m so cold inside/ Maybe just one more try.” The last line of the song is the only point where Michael sings the title phrase. Maybe it’s hindsight doing what hindsight does, but it’s hard for me to believe anyone thought Michael was singing “One More Try” to a woman. People must’ve known, right? They must’ve had some idea?
For the “One More Try” video, Michael didn’t work with his usual collaborator, the director Andy Morahan. Instead, Michael brought in a ringer: A-list auteur Tony Scott, who’d already made bona fide blockbusters Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II. There’s Tony Scott shit all through the “One More Try” video: Michael silhouetted against slanting sunbeams coming through a dusty window, curtains billowing ecstatically, languidly slow dissolves. The whole thing looks like the dang Top Gun sex scene, even though George Michael is the only person in the clip. Still, “One More Try” is a strikingly simple video. The opening shot lasts a full two minutes, and Michael spends much of the clip emoting at the camera, in close-up. Tony Scott didn’t need to use too many theatrics in the “One More Try” video. George Michael was an effect in and of himself.
“One More Try” feels like a classic pop-artist indulgence, the one-for-me after the massive successes of “Faith” and “Father Figure.” But “One More Try” turned out to be huge on its own. Along with the Hot 100, “One More Try” was also a #1 hit in Adult Contemporary and, more significantly, in R&B. That was big for George Michael.
Michael always felt that Black American audiences understood him and accepted him better than any others, that they didn’t hold Wham!’s teen-pop image against him the way white audiences did. “Careless Whisper” and “Father Figure” had both been top-10 hits on the R&B chart, as had the Aretha Franklin duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” But “One More Try” topping that chart was a rare form of validation, an honor bestowed upon very few white singers. It would be nearly two decades before another white male solo artist landed another #1 hit on the R&B chart. (That artist was Robin Thicke, who got there with 2007’s “Lost Without U.” On the Hot 100, “Lost Without U” peaked at #14. Robin Thicke will eventually appear in this column.)
Months into the Faith album cycle, George Michael was on a ridiculous roll. If “One More Try” had been someone’s debut single, there is basically zero chance that it would’ve reached #1. But when an artist is in full imperial phase, the public is ready to follow that artist anywhere. “One More Try” is evidence of that: A slow and stately soul ballad that became a cross-platform smash, at least in part because it arrived in the midst of so many other huge hits. The George Michael imperial phase did not end with “One More Try.” We’ll see George Michael in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: Divine — the ’90s R&B girl group, not the John Waters star — released a cover of “One More Try” as a single in 1999. Here’s the video:
(The Divine version of “One More Try” peaked at #29. Divine will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from the 2007 movie Hot Rod where Jorma Taccone sings a karaoke version of “One More Try”:
(The highest-charting single from Jorma Taccone and Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island is the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” which peaked at #30.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In a 2011 installment of the AV Club’s sadly departed AV Undercover video series, Iron & Wine sings a beard-folk cover of “One More Try.” Beam also seemingly claims that the George Michael original is a great song, “masked by production,” as if his whole early-’10s middlebrow NPR-ass style would age like either iron or wine. Here’s that video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the impressively, extravagantly run-happy version of “One More Try” that Mariah Carey included on her 2014 album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.:
(Mariah Carey will appear in this column a great many times. For the purposes of The Number Ones, this chanteuse will not be elusive.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the part of the 2016 movie Keanu where Keegan-Michael Key and friends enthusiastically sing along with “One More Try”: