Wednesday, May 29, 2013


There are people who play Beatles records backwards, convinced there are hidden messages. Others have written theses on Don McLean’s “American Pie”. My greatest lyrical fascination involves George Michael’s Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1.

I never bought Michael’s more popular, Grammy-winning Faith which came out two years earlier. “I Want Your Sex” felt gimmicky and “Father Figure” came off as plain icky. But then came the 1990 release of Listen’s debut single “Praying for Time” and I dashed out to buy the album on cassette. (Yep, the music industry made a killing off me, first switching from vinyl to cassette, then to CD. Good thing I never had an 8-track contraption.)

Officially, George Michael publicly came out in 1998 after an embarrassing interaction in a Beverly Hills bathroom. But I was convinced he’d already attempted to step out of the closet eight years prior with the release of the Listen album. It’s just that no one really listened.

On the surface, one can say ”Listen without Prejudice” was George’s plea that the public not prejudge the album based on previous gimmicky/icky fare. No doubt, George felt he’d come a long way since Wham’s debut earworm, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” It seemed he wanted to scream, “I’m a real musician. I’m an artist. I’m more than a pretty face.”

But, in my mind at least, dear George was desperately dropping every possible clue without actually saying, “Yep, I’m gay.” I empathized with the man. So often in my own far more private life I longed for people to ask or simply conclude and accept that I am gay. Expressly coming out can involve way too much drama.

I knew from the first single that George Michael wanted to say something far deeper than “I Want Your Sex.” “Praying for Time” may be about people turning away from the downtrodden, the homeless, the destitute. But given that this was 1990 during the AIDS crisis when people found new reasons to spew hate toward homosexuals and use God’s wrath as retribution for a sinful “lifestyle choice”, the lyrics had to be viewed as a heartfelt attempt to create compassion for persons living with AIDS. In 1990, AIDS was still a death sentence, many dying within the first year of diagnosis. How could George be referring to anything else?

And it's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
...Maybe we should all be praying for time.

I contend that another song on the album, “Mother’s Pride”, continued to humanize the tragedy of AIDS. Many viewed the song as being about war and, indeed, it received considerable airplay in the U.S. during the Gulf War. This is the literal take, but it fails to consider the War on AIDS that activists and regular families waged against medical companies and governments.

And as he grows
He hears the band,
Takes the step from boy to man
And at the shore she waves her son goodbye...

Mothers pride
Just a boy...
He's a soldier waving at the shore
And in her heart the time has come
To lose a son.

So hurrah, George bravely sang out on behalf of PWAs. (He later contributed songs to Red Hot + Dance, an AIDS album fundraiser.) But the second cut on Listen was even more personal. “Freedom!‘90” focused on George desperately wanting to shed the pop idol image he’d first created with Wham and further enhanced with some eye-catching butt shaking for Faith. That image helped him achieve fame and fortune.

I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me

But George then dropped two lines to break up with this rabid fan base:

I don't belong to you
And you don't belong to me.

What struck me more was the rest of the song. All the thoughts expressed the struggles of someone playing it straight and wanting to come out.

I think there's something you should know,
I think it's time I told you so,
There's something deep inside of me,
There's someone else I've got to be.


All we have to do now
Is take these lies and make them true somehow.

I think there's something you should know
I think it's time I stopped the show
There's something deep inside of me
There's someone I forgot to be.

May not be what you want from me,
Just the way it's got to be;
Lose the face now
I've got to live, I've got to live.


How could this not be a coming out song?! I read interviews following the release of Listen without Prejudice and fully expected reporters to ask the obvious questions, with George providing the obvious answer.


George knew that coming out was the path to Freedom, but the starmakers would not have it. Indeed, George instead dove into an intense legal battle with his record company, seeking to sever ties for failing to actively promote the album. How could they not? Faith sold 25 million copies. While Listen may have been more introspective, it still had plenty of hooks. I contend the label did not want their artist of the moment to risk being shunned by many God-fearing Americans. Better to let the album and George’s attempt at artistic and personal honesty quietly pass.

So much for Freedom. Another dance song on the album, “SoulFree”, echoed the longing of being himself.

Won't you come with me?
Baby, gonna get my soul free.

Oh, if only.

While “Heal the Pain” is a love song at its core, George still opened with a hint about coming out:

Let me tell you a secret
Put it in your heart and then keep it
Something that I want you to know
Do something for me
Listen to my simple story.

This intro seemed to be an aside, much like the backwards Beatles messages, for the rest of the song focused on another person, someone whose love and trust George sought.

Other songs on the album spoke of a failed relationship and George’s desire to try to make it work again. George avoided gender pronouns, but playfully referred to a man (“Mister”) while later retreating to a woman (“Sister”) in “Cowboys and Angels”:

I know you think that you're safe,
Harmless deception
That keeps love at bay.
It's the ones who resist that we most want to kiss,
Wouldn't you say?
Cowboys and angels,
They all have the time for you.
Why should I imagine
That I'd be a find for you?

George let things “slip” and still nobody noticed. Except me.

I love this album. In my mind, at least, it will always be a Coming Out affair. Had people truly listened, perhaps things wouldn’t have gotten so messy for George. Perhaps his music career wouldn’t have fizzled so fast, suspended by the legal battle and further mired by substance abuse. Maybe he wouldn’t have needed to find temporary satisfaction in that Beverly Hills public space. Perhaps he’d be lauded as a gay leader who came out on his own terms. Consciously or subconsciously, it was all there in 1990.

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