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.
George Michael tried reinventing himself once. It wasn’t enough. When Michael dissolved Wham! and came out with his solo album Faith in 1987, he made a conscious decision to present himself in a new light. He wasn’t going to be the winky, flirty boy-band kid anymore. Instead, he would be a serious soul singer and a less-serious rock ‘n’ roller. When Michael grew the stubble and put on the leather jacket for the “Faith” video, he intentionally set out to depict himself as a whole new cultural figure. It worked too well. In his quest to move beyond his teen-idol past, Michael became a bigger teen idol than he’d ever been.
The success of Faith was outsized, absurd. Four #1 singles, along with another two that made the top five. 10 million copies sold in the US alone. The Grammy for Album Of The Year. The Video Vanguard Award. Dana Carvey impersonating Michael on Saturday Night Live. It was all too much. George Michael couldn’t handle it. All that success didn’t make him happy.
Talking to USA Today, Michael said, “I’d set my sights on American superstardom and getting up there with Michael Jackson and Madonna and Prince, simply because my ego and my ambition needed a new challenge. Once I was getting into that bracket… I realized I didn’t want to be there. There was financial reward but no spiritual reward.” So George Michael took the next natural step. He recorded a howling hymn of despair for a rapacious, predatory world, and he refused to make a video for that song. He sent a clear message to the world that he no longer wanted all that adulation. The song still made it to #1, almost despite itself.
Talking to The Los Angeles Times, George Michael said that he could pinpoint “the exact moment that I decided I must change my life.” Michael was heading out on a global Faith tour, and the excitement of his fans drove him to despondence: “We [opened] the Faith tour in Japan, which was fine because they are reasonably quiet and they listened to the music. But then we went to Australia, and the roof came off the first place we came to. The screaming. I thought, ‘God, it is happening all over again… I’m not going to have a chance to really sing.’ And I realized I had to do it for 10 months.”
George Michael wanted to keep recording, but he didn’t want to go through all of this. He didn’t want to tour. He didn’t want to constantly appear in public. He especially didn’t want to make more music videos. Wham! had come along at the exact moment that MTV became a cultural force, and George Michael had become practically synonymous with the network, but he didn’t think his new songs would make sense when paired with videos: “When you are trying to express things with metaphors and much more subtlety, that’s when you are doing yourself a disservice by making a video. I don’t want to say I won’t do another video ever, but I won’t do one for the foreseeable future. If my life goes the way I want it to, I would like to never step in front of a camera again.” His life did not go the way he wanted it to.
George Michael actually thought videos were hampering creativity for himself and everyone else. They had lengthened the album cycle, and all the promotional duties meant that he could put less of his energy into writing and recording songs, which was what he wanted to do. Talking to The New York Times, Michael said, “Ultimately, I feel video has made artists very nonprolific. Today, the whole process of making and selling an album is something that takes up to three years. To me, coming out with only 10 songs every three years is ludicrous. I’m embarrassed that I’ve released only four albums, and I’m going to change that. I want to get at least one album out every 18 months.”
In fact, George Michael was finding ways to be creative that didn’t revolve around the traditional album-release model. In 1989, just as the Faith album cycle was ending, Michael co-wrote, produced, and sang backup vocals on his bassist Deon Estus’ single “Heaven Help Me,” which peaked at #5. (Deon Estus died two days ago at the age of 65. “Heaven Help Me” is a 7.) Maybe George Michael could’ve become a Prince-style human hit factory, cranking out songs for his friends. But he had other things in mind.
George Michael didn’t give many interviews in 1990, but when he did, he explained exactly why he was making all the moves that he was making. Michael had recorded a new album called Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, and everything from the title on down made Michael’s own anxiety plain and obvious. He didn’t appear on the album’s cover, using a ’40s-era photo of a crowd at Coney Island instead. He didn’t make a video for lead single “Praying For Time,” either. As a compromise, Michael allowed Columbia, his label, to put out a “Praying For Time” video in which the song’s words simply appeared in classy fonts against a black background — a pre-internet prototype for the now-inescapable lyric video.
Talking to the LA Times, Columbia head Tommy Mottola tried to sound guardedly optimistic about Michael’s decision: “I think you’ll have a lot of disappointed fans because there is no video, but when they get to understand his point of view and hear the record, I don’t think there will be any problem.” In the time since Faith, Sony had absorbed Columbia, and the label’s new corporate bosses wanted a return on their investment. If Mottola was stressed about George Michael’s move away from the spotlight, he had reason to be.
Some reactions were less reserved. Shortly after the LA Times ran its George Michael profile, former Number Ones artist Frank Sinatra wrote a letter to the editor, telling Michael to stop bellyaching: “Come on, George. Loosen up. Swing, man… No more of that talk about ‘the tragedy of fame.’ The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you’re singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint that hasn’t seen a paying customer since Saint Switin’s day. And you’re nowhere near that; you’re top dog on the top rung of the ladder called Stardom, which in Latin means thanks-to-the-fans who were there when it’s lonely.” (It’s amazing that Frank Sinatra’s writing style was “Frank Sinatra impersonator.”)
Maybe Sinatra wouldn’t have cared, but “Praying For Time” has a whole context that the world didn’t necessarily know at the time. George Michael had become one of the most famous people on the planet, a man with no real privacy, in a time when he still had some secrets that he needed to keep. If George Michael had come out of the closet, even at his Faith apex, his career would’ve been over. The ’80s and ’90s were not a time when gay entertainers could live openly in public, and so George Michael remained closeted until his arrest in a Los Angeles public bathroom years later.
In the worst moments of the AIDS crisis, when a preventable disease was wiping out entire generations of gay men and when world leaders were putting zero effort into helping to stop the spread, George Michael felt that he couldn’t say a word. The worst was still to come. In 1990, Michael was still living with his partner Anselmo Feleppa. A year later, Feleppa would tell Michael that he was HIV positive. Two years after that, Feleppa would be dead. “Praying For Time” almost sounds like Michael looking into the future and seeing what was coming for him and his loved ones.
In the moment, a lot of critics heard the strummy guitar and piano and strings and slight vocal echo on “Praying For Time,” and they compared it to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (“Imagine” peaked at #3 in 1971. It’s a 4.) But “Praying For Time” had nothing to do with “Imagine,” and Michael wasn’t shy about saying it: “It’s not like ‘Imagine’ at all. It’s much more negative. I’d like to say things are bound to get better, but I don’t really believe it. The song is my own way of trying to justify people’s actions and their selfishness, I suppose.”
“Praying For Time” is heavy. The song is gorgeous. Michael, producing himself, surrounds himself with comforting sounds, with reverb and soft instrumentation. He’s in his lower range, staying in a graceful and contemplative place. On paper, though, “Praying For Time” almost qualifies as a despairing poetic rant. The song has no real chorus. Instead, it’s just Michael bemoaning the inhumanity around him: “The rich declare themselves poor/ And most of us are not sure/ If we have too much, but we’ll take our chances/ ‘Cause God’s stopped keeping score.”
On “Praying For Time,” there is no hope to speak of. There’s only the certainty that things are bad and that they’re going to get worse. With a song like “Praying For Time,” most of George Michael’s pop peers would’ve at least raised the possibility that things could get better if people could find some sense of shared empathy. Michael doesn’t even entertain that idea. He only sees a constant, frantic, zero-sum game of all against all: “You scream from behind your door/ Say, ‘What’s mine is mine and not yours’/ I may have too, much but I’ll take my chances ’cause God’s stopped keeping score.” History has proven Michael right. Two decades later, we’re all still clinging to the things they sold us.
Funny thing about “Praying For Time,” though: It still works as a pop song. George Michael was a born pop star, and so even his bleak chorus-free acoustic lament for man’s inhumanity to man could work as a romantic slow-dance prom ballad. Michael sings in a hiccuping whisper, and he still sounds smooth even when he’s clearly emotionally wrecked. The wounded skies above say that it’s much, much too late, but George Michael still can’t get out of seductive-purr territory, and that’s probably why “Praying For Time” never comes off as a whiny dirge. With Michael’s voice floating above those guitars and strings and cymbal-crashes, the song is just too fucking pretty.
Maybe the chart triumph of “Praying For Time” is just a measure of how hungry the world was for more George Michael music. Eventually, though, Michael’s attempts to move away from his own overwhelming pop stardom were too successful. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 sold two million copies in the US — a dismal failure after Faith did five times that number. The album stalled out at #2 on the album charts, unable to get past the juggernaut that was MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. Michael followed “Praying For Time” with “Waiting For That Day,” a song that used the James Brown “Funky Drummer” loop to ruminative ends. “Waiting For That Day” peaked at #27.
The most obviously commercial song on Listen Without Prejudice was the one where Michael directly addressed his own disillusionment. “Freedom ’90” is a glorious pop anthem, equal parts house and gospel and Madchester shuffle, and it’s also the one where Michael announces that he no longer wants to come up with a brand new face for the boys at MTV. Instead, the boys at MTV got a masterpiece. George Michael didn’t appear in the “Freedom ’90” video, but David Fincher filmed the world’s most famous supermodels as they lip-synced to the song. Fincher’s camera also lingered on the artifacts from the Faith era being destroyed — the leather jacket burning, the jukebox exploding. (Faith was only three years old! It’s like if Drake was out there talking about “fuck Scorpion” right now!) “Freedom ’90” was a hit, but it wasn’t the hit that it deserved to be. The song peaked at #8. (It’s a 10.)
There was supposed to be a Vol. 2. When George Michael made Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, the initial plan was to come out with one album of introspective songs and to follow it, shortly thereafter, with a second album of more dance-friendly material. But when the first album tanked, Michael changed those plans. In 1992, he sued Sony to get out of his contract. (Michael later said that he was despondent at the time over his partner’s illness and that this went into his decision to sue.) Sony won the case, and the company got a reported $100 million payout when Michael signed to Virgin a few years later. As a result, Michael scrapped all his plans for Vol. 2, and he contributed the few tracks that he’d completed to the benefit compilation Red Hot + Dance. Those songs could’ve definitely been smashes. One of them still became a hit; “Too Funky” peaked at #10 in 1992. (It’s an 8.)
Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 turned out to be the decisive end of George Michael’s imperial era. That vast Faith audience just wasn’t willing to hang with a whole image deconstruction. “Praying For Time” ended up as Michael’s last #1 hit as a solo artist. But George Michael will still appear in this column one more time, and we won’t have to wait too long to see him.
BONUS BEATS: At American Idol‘s Idol Gives Back special in 2008, former winner Carrie Underwood returned to sing a pretty nice cover of “Praying For Time.” Here’s her performance:
At the end of the season, the various Idol contestants sang a medley of George Michael hits, and then Michael himself came out and sang “Praying For Time” himself. He fucking killed it. After Michael died in 2016, I wrote about it:
The gulf between what all these kids were trying to do and what this old pro was able to do, so easily and casually, was enough to make you stop watching televised singing-competition shows forever. Because no TV producer is ever going to train a young singer to be able to do this. A performance like that requires genuine genius. George Michael had that.
Here’s Michael’s performance:
(Carrie Underwood’s “Praying For Time” cover peaked at #27. She’ll eventually appear in this column.)