The passing years can be unkind to rebels. You survive booze, bad marriages, and car crashes, only to have the march of time leave its muddy bootprint on your shining legacy. Still, George Michael has gotten off lightly: He merely lost his American audience. On the surface, calling the British blue-eyed soul titan a "rule breaker" seems laughable. His rendition of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" was the highlight of his recent appearance on ABC's Eli Stone, but there's no "Mississippi Goddam" in his catalogue. Hell, he can barely dress the part; even in a motorcycle jacket and aviator shades, Michael looks more like a grooming expert than a thug. But his record speaks for itself. Throughout his quarter-century in show biz, the two-time Grammy winner has been an unrepentant troublemaker.
Take his initial heyday as half of early-Eighties pop pinups Wham! Michael and his foil, Andrew Ridgeley, pumped out singles advocating staying on the dole ("Wham! Rap") and avoiding matrimony ("Bad Boys"). Between 1984 and 1991, Michael scored 10 number one singles in America. How did he thank his handlers? By continually crossing the music industry that pimped him. Within just a few years, Michael went from stuffing a shuttlecock down his shorts onstage to refusing to appear in his own promo clips; the video for "Freedom '90" featured a gaggle of supermodels, but no George.
In the aftermath, he sued his record company, Sony, to get out of a contract he deemed unfair. Still, Michael suffered as a consequence. One of his best singles, a 1999 duet with Mary J. Blige on the Stevie Wonder jam "As," wasn't even available on a domestic CD until his recently released retrospective, Twenty-Five. Did you even know he released a covers album, Songs from the Last Century, in 1999? In Britain, it peaked at number two on the charts. Here, it stalled at 157.
Still, Michael has refused to play nice. Now his first U.S. tour in 17 years looks to be his last. In a recent interview, the singer admitted he has no delusions about kick-starting his career. The loss is ours. For a nation founded by rebels, America doesn't always recognize them. Maybe this one just needs to fatten up.
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