I've known George Michael, on and off for twenty years or so, and I still can't quite work out what makes him tick. On the surface, it's a classic rags to riches story. The son of an immigrant, leaves school with nothing, and forms one of the most succesful bands of the eighties. Then he gracefully abandons his partner, and sets off on a solo career, becoming one of the richest and most sophisticated singers in the world.
Sixty seven million albums, that's how many George Michael has sold worldwide. And if you've ever seen him live, you'll know that he is, on stage, that indefinable thing, a star. Go to the small village in southern England where he lives, and you won't hear a word against him. When he picks up the Sunday newspapers, he stands in line like everybody else. Someone said to me, "he's a gentleman". When he's in London, or Los Angeles, he leads, by his own admission, a rather more colourful life. Like any star, he can be pretty difficult if it looks like he isn't getting his own way. Remember years ago, when he fought his record company in court, saying that he wouldn't make a record again until he was free of them? Even when he lost that case, George stuck to his guns until a legal compromise made him master of his own musical destiny. These days, it isn't the music that gets him talking, it's something in his personal life. That incident in Los Angeles for example. Or the present spat over "Shoot The Dog". Bear with me, there might be some people who haven't heard his new record, or seen the video that goes with it. In the video, which is animated in more senses than one, a cartoon George, in a leopardskin thong, tries to get into bed with the British Prime Minister's wife. OK, it's not in very good taste, but good taste and rock and roll have never been synonymous, and in this country, most people think that anyone in politics is fair game for satire. The record is another thing. The lyrics are pretty oblique, though they seemed to be against armed conflict of any kind, and our Prime Minister and your President in particular. They don't have the clarity or the punch of Woody Guthrie, or Bob Dylan. But neither did Isaac Hayes. George has produced a record that's meant to shock an adult generation. That's not a bad thing. Pop music from the bobbysoxers, through Bill Hayley, Elvis, The Stones, Punk and Rap has always set out to do that. And in the process, sell a few million to rebellious kids. And that's where George may have got it wrong.
You see when a pop star has all the material things, there's only one measure of his value that is left. His record sales. I remember watching Mick Jagger pace the floor when the sales figures were due in on one of his singles. For a man like George Michael, who controls every detail of his life, criticism doesn't matter that much, sales do. Only they will be proof that he can still cut it ...and hasn't misjudged the situation.
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.