The pressure is always intense when a singer goes solo, but for George Michael, the stakes were sky-high. Michael, who died on Christmas Day at age 53, was only 23 when he announced the split from Wham!, the wildly successful British duo he had with his childhood friend, Andrew Ridgeley. They said goodbye with a star-studded farewell concert in June 1986 at Wembley Stadium in London, with an elaborate fireworks display. Both men were multimillionaires and could have easily retired; Ridgeley dabbled in motor racing and acting. But Michael felt an urge to keep singing.
While Wham! was known for escapist pop fluff, most famously “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Michael was eager to show the world he had matured as he embarked on a solo career. “I can’t pretend I’m a young man with no problems any more,” he told the press. In a 1986 interview with United Press International, Michael described Wham! as “built on a careless, upbeat image of fair-haired, suntanned boys singing about love without pain,” which presented him a challenge in the next phase: “The test is now to come across much more as a real person,” he said.
Any concerns about Michael’s solo aspirations were shut down over the next two years as he shattered all expectations. His first solo album, “Faith,” was released in October 1987, and spent much of the next year at the top of Billboard chart; he became the first singer in nearly two decades to have the top-selling album and single (also “Faith”) of the year. At the height of the music video era, he used his sex appeal to cement his status as an international pop star, starring in the steamy “I Want Your Sex”; brooding behind dark sunglasses among the parade of models in “Father Figure”; and shaking his hips in tight jeans and a leather jacket in “Faith.”
“Some of my new music is more abrasive and sexual, much more real,” Michael said in the UPI interview.
Michael launched the “Faith” era in the smartest way possible: a major controversy. In summer 1987, he released “I Want Your Sex,” which started as a single on the “Beverly Hills Cop II” soundtrack. Some entertainment executives had a collective panic attack, to put it mildly, fearing the “explicit” lyrics glorified casual sex in a time of the AIDS epidemic. (“Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should/Sex is natural, sex is fun/Sex is best when it’s one on one.”) Later, Michael said in a statement that the lyrics were “an endorsement of monogamy,” according to the Toronto Star.
Some radio stations refused to play the track, and the BBC reportedly wouldn’t spin it until after 9 p.m. The head of a music watchdog group, the Parents Resource Music Center, fretted, “We’re getting several distressed calls a day on the song,” and said the production company “should have placed a parental advisory warning on the record.”
Even with less radio play, the song sold 1.5 million copies and fueled even more interest in Michael’s solo career. In October, “Faith” was released to reviews that ranged from positive to solidly mediocre. “The first solo album by George Michael ... should go a long way toward dispelling the public perception of the 24-year-old alumnus of Wham! as just another pretty-boy pop star from England,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. The St. Petersburg Times declared it “a respectable though uneven solo effort brimming with blue-eyed soul appeal and a surprisingly mature outlook.”
The album rocketed up the charts, eventually selling 15 million copies worldwide and 5 million in the U.S., spawning multiple hit singles. The title track, “Faith,” became a pop culture staple, thanks to the infectious beat and inescapable music video.
Michael’s first solo world tour in 1988 only reinforced his sex symbol status, or as one Australian newspaper dubbed it, his “sex-on-legs” persona. “It wasn’t a show, it was an attempted seduction,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “Michael combines the instincts of a soul singer with the moves of a male go-go dancer. While wailing away on such sizzling dance tunes as ‘Monkey,’ ‘Faith’ and ‘I’m Your Man,’ he was bumping, grinding and strutting like one of those hunks on the runway at Chippendale’s.” The Miami Herald went with, “George Michael turned the Orange Bowl into a steaming, bubbling caldron of horniness Saturday night.”
In his music videos, Michael portrayed heterosexual protagonists; his girlfriend, make-up artist Kathy Jeung, was featured in “I Want Your Sex.” A decade later, he came out publicly as gay in 1998 during an interview with CNN, though there had been previously rumors about his sexuality.
In early 1988, the Telegraph reported that Michael “lashed out bitterly at continual rumors claiming he is gay” in an interview with Rolling Stone. Michael blamed the rumors on his celebrity status – though he reiterated that people should simply be who they are no matter what, a concept he embraced as he went forward as a solo act.
“I’ve never been concerned with who was doing what with who in bed, you know,” he said. “I’ve always thought that people ought to get on with what they’re doing in their own beds.”