Pop heroes: The two artists George Michael based his career on

It’s never easy to transition from a child star to a pop star midway through a career. People may have fallen in love with the baby-faced version of you, but how are you supposed to get those same people to take you seriously as a musician when you’ve already sung songs that were meant for children? While artists like Justin Timberlake managed it okay, George Michael thought it best to pull from the biggest hitmakers of the 1980s for his breakout moment.

When looking at Michael’s career trajectory, breaking up Wham! felt like one of the biggest gambles in the world. Sure, everyone knew who he was from the ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ music video, but why lose the brand recognition that put you on top of the hit parade to begin with?

In truth, though, Michael ending the pop duo at Wembley Stadium was a case of him closing the door on one side of his career. He had already been eyeing up the prize of being a solo star and had been featured as the main artist on ‘Careless Whisper’, so from his perspective, the last Wham! show was just confirming what most people already knew.

When working on Faith, though, things were about to change significantly. Although Michael was never gonna pull a David Bowie and make a complete genre switch, the music on the album ended up having far greater depth than what he was making in his old outfit. Whereas ‘Everything She Wants’ paved the way for more emotional songs, no one could have predicted the James Dean look he went with for the title track.

Although he was welcomed by the pop crowd, Michael’s passion was to be on the same level as R&B stars like Prince and Michael Jackson, telling Mark Goodier, “I absolutely wanted to be in the same stratosphere as [Jackson and Prince], definitely. I’d gone from, a couple of years before, being perfectly happy with being on Top of the Pops, to thinking, ‘I can do what [they] can do’…. I wanted to be in that vein but, mostly, I wanted to make music as good as theirs”.

While trying to go up against one of the biggest-selling pop albums in the world is no small order, Michael delivered and then some on his debut solo record. Outside of the pop songs that he was known for, tracks like ‘One More Try’ brought a more refined take on pop, giving Michael his own version of ‘Man in the Mirror’ before Jackson had even done it.

Whereas Jackson’s influence seems more evident in the ballads, the funky side of the album is more in line with Prince. If you listen to ‘Monkey’ or all nine minutes of ‘I Want Your Sex’, there’s definitely a distinct purple haze to what Michael was doing, especially considering one of the songs was produced by Prince’s proteges, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Once he was on stable ground as a solo artist, though, Michael slowly developed his own sound on Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Instead of trying to emulate his heroes, Michael sounded like he had taken everything he had been taught and absorbed them into an album that was asking the hard questions about life. The 1980s may have been a fairly silly time for pop music, but Michael hinted that the genre could still be taken seriously if you had the right idea.

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