The Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 13, 1985, was, among other things, a time capsule of British pop at its imperial peak. It fell during a heady era when the entire bill could be British (or, in the case of U2and Bob Geldof, Irish) without seeming parochial.
The evening’s lineup featured three rejuvenated giants of the 1970s — David Bowie, Elton John and Queen — and, for one song only, a young gun who had absorbed lessons from them all. Midway through John’s set, the singer introduced George Michael, “this guy I admire very much,” and let him run away with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Michael was modeling the riff on young American manhood that he would make iconic with 1987’s Faith — blue jeans, black leather jacket, sunglasses, stubble — while Andrew Ridgeley, his junior partner in Wham!, already looked dispensable. Unfairly tagged as good-time lightweights, Wham! had everything but credibility, and Michael’s performance made it clear that the 22-year-old was hungry to correct that. Before Faith, before even his duet with Aretha Franklin (also in 1987), Michael was overtly aligning himself with the greats, and he began with John.
“George was nervous as hell. The feeling was, could he deliver in this company?” says Bernard Doherty, the publicist for Live Aid. “Backstage they were laughing and joking: two local lads who came from down the road.” At that point, Michael, John and Freddie Mercury constituted an MTV-enabled troika of British megastars roughly-equivalent to the American triumvirate of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Michael was a generation younger than John and Mercury, but he felt older than his years and bigger than the ’80s zeitgeist. “I’ve always felt that my talents were very traditional. I didn’t feel I was tied to youth culture,” he told me in 2004. Of his contemporaries, he added: “I always believed I would outlast everyone, with the possible exception of Madonna.”
Like his British heroes-turned-peers, Michael was a closeted gay man from the London suburbs whose voracious ambition was that of the conflicted outsider storming the citadel. Also like them, he was a versatile populist with a big-picture understanding of pop, a gift for universal melodies and a supernova showmanship that extended all the way to the cheap seats. For Michael, the success of the more flamboyant Mercury and John in the straight world was inspirational.
This was the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era of pop, when stars scrambled norms of gender and sexuality in a way that bypassed homophobia while hitting a demographic sweet spot that excluded no one. “They acted out fantasies on behalf of their audience, but it was unthreatening, in the realm of make-believe rather than the truth of their sexuality,” says Martin Aston, author of Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out.
Michael made his affinity with his forerunners explicit in 1992, when “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” recorded live with John, became his last No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Performing the song in Las Vegas three days after Michael’s death, an emotional John said: “I only wish George was here to sing it with me.”) Also in ’92, Michael gave a bravura rendition of “Somebody to Love” with the surviving members of Queen at the Mercury tribute concert. “It was probably the proudest moment of my career because it was me living out a childhood fantasy,” he said later.
Two things set Michael apart from his elders. One was his readiness for stardom: He wrote “Careless Whisper” when he was just 17 and waited three years until the time was right to unveil it. The other was his auteurdom: He was his own songwriter, producer, arranger, image-maker and strategist. Faith mastered and tweaked American forms for maximum pleasure, from the brisk rockabilly of the title track to the erotic manifesto “I Want Your Sex (Parts I and II),” from the deep soul balladry of “One More Try” to the sexual-spiritual alloy of “Father Figure.” This was something-for-everyone pop born of generosity rather than calculation, and it was irresistible. En route to winning a Grammy for album of the year, Faithproduced four No. 1s on the Hot 100 and topped the Billboard 200 for 12 weeks. A young British solo artist wouldn’t reach that position again until Adele did 24 years later.
It was not for want of trying. Robbie Williams, the straightest camp man in ’90s British pop, modeled himself on Michael, but he was one of many British exports whose appeal didn’t translate to America. Michael appeared to have blazed a trail, but it was one that only he could travel down. “I’ve seen people aspiring to be me for the last 20 years,” he said in 2004, “and what they normally don’t understand is that to be me you’ve got to do the whole process.”
That was part of it — but the industry changed, too. Pop’s monoculture splintered into hip-hop, R&B, grunge and country, often reasserting traditional gender roles in the process, and saw off the kind of ecumenical megastar who straddled genres and demographics, especially the British variety. Just a few years after Live Aid’s summit meeting, the sun had set on British pop’s imperial phase, making Faithboth its zenith and its last hurrah.