At a point when marriage and other rights for sexual minorities finally seem inevitable in America (though still far out of reach in many parts of the world), there’s a mix of warmth and piquancy to getting two new albums this week from survivors of a period when such loves spoke their names only in long, painful stammers.
In the 1980s Boy George and George Michael represented two sides of the second wave of post-Stonewall pop—one the heir to David Bowie’s subculture-surfacing theatricality, the other the successor to Elton John’s more-than-mainstream appeal: queer vs. gay, if you will.
As Bowie did before him, Boy George, as the lead singer of Culture Club, presented a primal scene of sexual-identity confusion, with his flouncy robes and twine braids. It was the first time many kids my age saw gender fluidity in undeniable action, even if he played coy on the question for years.
Meanwhile, as half of the dance-pop duo Wham!, George Michael, like Elton John in the 1970s, was an idol whose allure to hetero teen girls was integral to his marketing. He fended off any other suggestions with vague disclaimers and threats of lawsuits, until the closet door collapsed with his 1998 arrest in an L.A. police sting for soliciting anonymous sex in a park restroom. Still, again like John, he went on to be an active, philanthropic player in the community.
All four were Englishmen singing soulfully under stage pseudonyms, who morphed through phases of fashion and musical style, and one more thing: Each careened into drug-fogged destructiveness (Boy George most of all). Mightn’t they have been spared some of it if they could have been born into the more embracing times they helped, in small ways, to bring about?
Instead, the two Georges have been trapped in-between—neither iconic pioneers nor liberated children of the revolution, but awkwardly secondary, transitional figures, always in peril of being laughed off as dated. George Michael’s very name has been rendered a punch line, swiped whole for Michael Cera’s sexually immature character on Arrested Development. Their hard-core fans justifiably will love these new records, but for the rest of us, I think, it’s a bit of a puzzle how and why to listen to new music from either George in 2014.
Both know this, and make game tries at solutions. Neither Michael’s Symphonica, his first new album in a decade, nor George’s This Is What I Do, arriving after nearly twice that long, is demure about hanging its hat on the back-from-jail-and-rehab narrative hook. The first words out of George’s mouth on his record are, “Put down the booze/ Let the demons win the fight.” And from Michael: “Is that enough? I think it’s over/ See, everything has changed.” Such moments of reckoning seem peppered deliberately through each album.
But their recovery tales come in very different strategic packages that combine “fan service” with a pitch to a broader audience. This Is What I Do is a collection of freshly penned songs that harks back to the genre-blurring sound of the Culture Club days, with elements of rock, country, dance, and especially reggae, albeit in a less breezy, more husky-voiced and earnest register than in George’s youth.
The second half in particular gets quite deep into George’s dancehall and dub influences, with guests Unknown MC and MC Spee, among others, occasionally to the verge of tedium but often with surprising credibility. The only cover is of Yoko Ono’s 1973 “Death of Samantha,” a dramatic monologue (the melody is little more than magnified spoken cadences) about the psychic cost of being a “cool chick, baby.” On one level, George delivers the song straight-up, as a confession that his scenester partying days betrayed his better self. But on another level, its very presence here—a song by Ono the scorned avant-gardist, a song from which an ’80s post-punk band took its name—is an assertion that George’s true, better self is still artistically hip, rejecting cool but having it too.
This is all part of the back-to-basics mission in the title: “This is what I do,” George is telling us—write catchy pop songs, make statements, harvest interesting ideas from the fringes, and express the one-of-a-kind personality that the world fell for with “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” in 1982. What he doesn’t do, this implies, is make trend-courting electro-house, as he did in the 1990s, not to mention shoot heroin, rant on reality TV shows, or constrain and threaten people in motel rooms.
“I’m glad I’m not crazy like I used to be,” he intimates on “Any Road.” And I am, too. A soberly wise, lively, musically engaging Boy George in the 21st century, even if he could use some editing? What an unexpected relief, and what pleasant company.
While George’s way of bidding for redemption is to nod back to his subculturalist credentials, Michael’s is to follow a dominant, mainstream script—that of the middle-aged pop star doing standards with an orchestra, in the manner of celebrities a generation ahead of him such as Rod Stewart. With his title, Symphonica, Michael, whose wayward years were not quite so devastating, isn’t reclaiming a lost identity—or he might have called it Danceteria—but offering to extend himself somewhere tonier, with a hint of exotica.
He made a stab at that in 1999 with the album Songs From the Last Century, one of his least popular records. This time it’s also a faux live album, another throwback (to 1970s-era industry conventions)—these are concert recordings from his 2011 Symphonica tour in which big parts have been redone partially or wholly in studio, permitting a sheen of perfection along with the roar of the crowd (see? people love it!), two goals that don’t naturally go together. But as co-produced by Michael and the late studio legend Phil Ramone, it carries off that hybrid with all the verisimilitude one could ask for, and I have no honest objection.
Only a third of these numbers, drawn from the ’99 album, are the kinds of standards that usually populate this sort of exercise. Let’s dispense with those: They’re dispensable. Michael sings them with some brio (particularly “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”), but in these unremarkable orchestrations all they do is make me wish I were hearing other people’s past, superior takes. In spots Michael comes off as a louche Tom Jones-style swinger, which seems not mature but decrepit. His embarrassing overarticulation of the “yankee doodle de-dum” line in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, for instance, has become a gnawing earworm for me.
Thankfully, most of the rest are not American Songbook standards but George Michael standards—ballads from his previous solo work, given the orchestral treatment. Where Boy George wrote new songs about his struggles, Michael has curated a series of selections (“Through,” “A Different Corner,” “Praying for Time,” “One More Try”) that outline his journey, and the rearrangements pluck them out of time in a way I find quite moving.
Oddly they often remind me of the recent work of Mark Eitzel, the singer from indie-rock band American Music Club who, solo, conveys a sad-clown, lounge-singer persona in part to evoke the incongruities of queer middle-aged sadness in the midst of a more macho-cool music scene.
That parallel is strongest on what I take as Symphonica’s centerpiece, a cover of the lesser-known Elton John song “Idol” from 1976’s Blue Moods, which paints a “tight-assed … highly prized in the wallet size/ Number-one crush in a schoolgirl’s eyes” star who ends up at “the very bottom.” Bernie Taupin’s idiosyncratic language enriches the crooner stance and makes for a very poignant, frank self-portrait from Michael.
In this way Symphonica makes a convincing case for Michael as a fine pop voice you want to hear more from, just as Boy George’s album does for him. The mea culpa rites have their boring sides, but they clear the way for potentially more vigorous steps to come: George has said he’s already recording new music with some old Culture Club colleagues, while Michael’s reported that his release from prison (for driving, and crashing, stoned in 2010) and sobriety have led to a burst of new songwriting—hopefully some of it with the dancier beats at which he’s excelled.
I don’t expect this will make either George essential artists ever again, but if these two can glide into dignified third acts after so much time stuck in messy intermissions, it’s a victory for also-rans, those who give their all to some necessary stage in the zeitgeist and then too often are left sputtering on fumes. There would be a grace to that, a note of debts balanced and better karma for all of pop culture’s chameleons, whether onstage or out here in the spectators’ seats.