George Michael Wanted to Be Taken Seriously. But Dana Carvey and ‘Saturday Night Live’ Made Him the Butt of the Joke

In the late 1980s, the Wham! singer remade himself as a grownup, sexy pop auteur. Unfortunately, his ass-shaking video for ‘Faith’ opened him up for mocking that he struggled to live down
George Michael Wanted to Be Taken Seriously. But Dana Carvey and ‘Saturday Night Live’ Made Him the Butt of the Joke

It is the constant internal battle of the pop star: to be the biggest artist on the planet, but also to be taken seriously. It’s not enough for someone like Taylor Swift to be enormously popular — she also wants journalists and peers to acknowledge her massive artistic gifts. This battle is understandable: Create something that’s incredibly successful, and immediately naysayers will accuse you of not having any substance, of selling out, of catering to the masses with shallow and cynical hits. But you want to prove that big pop songs are just as hard to craft as more experimental tunes — you want to prove that what you do is meaningful, too. You’re not just an image. There’s more to you than that. 

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In the last 35 years, probably no pop star more wrestled with the need to be respected than George Michael. Dying on Christmas Day 2016 at the age of 53, he had a successful career first as part of the pop duo Wham! before setting off on his own, delivering one of the biggest solo debuts of all time, 1987’s Faith. He was part of 10 No. 1 singles, he sold more than 100 million albums, and yet at the height of his stardom he chafed at the idea that he was “just” a pop singer. He saw himself as an auteur — someone who maintained complete creative control over his artistic expression — even if a lot of people couldn’t see past his good looks. 

That tension returns to the public consciousness with Wham!, a new Netflix documentary about his old band that examines their rise and dissolution. Back during the Wham! days, people mocked his beauty, so when he went solo, he tried pivoting to being an artist. But even then, he liked having it both ways — he enjoyed flaunting his attractiveness, and when you looked like him, why the hell wouldn’t you? But the risks and rewards of that two-pronged strategy were never more apparent than with “Faith” — especially its music video, which cemented an image he’d have to contend with for years to come.

The man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou grew up in England with a pretty great life. “I was really lucky that I had a stable upbringing,” he said in 1987. “My parents never fought. There was very little aggression. When I went around to other people’s houses, and their mom and dad started screaming, I couldn’t handle it; I’d go home. I’m still very close to my family. Though my upbringing was very working-class when I began, by the time I was in my teens it was very middle-class and we were secure. … My parents didn’t argue about money, and I knew they loved each other. Since I came from such a stable background, it gave me the room to be creative without having any distractions. It’s probably why I’m so mainstream in what I do ‘cause I came from such a mainstream background.”

Michael was a teenager when he and school chum Andrew Ridgeley formed Wham! “Our sole ambition was to make records. Fame was never really a factor,” said Ridgeley in 1997. “But, when we started recording, we knew we stood as good a chance as any. And, when we got our recording contract in 1982, we felt we were on our way.” Hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Last Christmas” made them superstars on both sides of the pond, the tunes’ irrepressibly upbeat melodies perfectly meshing with the guys’ boyish handsomeness. But Michael soon tired of being labeled as a pop lightweight. “I’ve been accused of being just an impersonator for so long,” he once lamented, and so he focused his energies on changing people’s perception of him. 

Enamored with Black music and wanting to come up with something as substantial and soulful in his own work, he left Wham! behind, recording a hit duet with his idol Aretha Franklin. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” went to No. 1 and won him a Grammy. Michael hadn’t written the song, but the experience bolstered his confidence. “I just wanted to sing with her and see if I could stand up to it,” he later told Spin. “But the real challenge was to make sure I didn’t sound competitive in a situation like that.”

The next test would be putting together a solo album. While some of Faith was worked out in London, Michael and his team also decamped to a Dutch studio, Puk, which gave him a chance to escape the anticipation around his record. “There wasn’t much press activity in Aarhus, so we could relax without worrying about him getting hassled,” engineer Chris Porter recalled. “And we could also get straight down to work because everything we needed was in-house: food, accommodation and great equipment.”

Michael wasn’t a formally trained musician and couldn’t read sheet music, but according to Andy Duncan, who played percussion on Faith, the singer had a “phenomenal ability to conceptualize a piece of music and keep it in his head.” Credited as Faith’s sole producer and writer — save for David Austin, who co-wrote the album track “Look at Your Hands” — Michael would create songs in pieces. A prime example of this was the title track, a fairly straightforward but insanely catchy tune that recalled the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, back when elements of country and blues were more evident in its DNA. The song started off as more of a snippet, just a two-minute thing that was meant to close out the album. But others saw its potential.

“Basically, (Michael’s publisher) Dick Leahy said, ‘This is amazing, you need to give it a proper structure, give it a middle eight, and resolve it properly,” Michael recalled. “I don’t remember very well, but he says that I came back the next day and just played it to him and went, ‘Did you mean it like that?’ And it was as it was.”

Porter remembered Michael being in the studio with guitarist Hugh Burns, explaining what he was going for. “George described the Bo Diddley feel to him, as well as the sequence and the chords,” Porter said. “As he didn’t really play guitar, he sang the melody and the two of them worked out how it would go.” Bass was laid down by Deon Estus — who, like Burns and Porter, had worked with Michael during the Wham! days — while the organ sound was a preset on a synthesizer. As for the lyrics, Michael came up with them as they were recording. “For this and his subsequent albums, George actually wrote the lyrics in front of the microphone,” said Porter. “I would start recording, he’d sing a line and then he’d say, ‘Okay, stop a second. Play that back... Can you drop me in for the word “the”?’ This would be the first time I’d heard the lyric and the first time he’d sung it, and that’s how we would build the whole song. Nowadays you can do numerous takes and perhaps use the Melodyne editing program to chop in words, but we did it live and it took many, many hours to complete.”

Over that jaunty, guitar-driven rhythm, Michael came up with a tale in which the narrator has to turn down a lover, resisting his sexual urges because he knows she’s going to break his heart:

Well, I guess it would be nice 
If I could touch your body 
I know not everybody 
Has got a body like you 
But I gotta think twice 
Before I give my heart away 
And I know all the games you play 
Because I played them, too 

Oh, but I need some time off 
From that emotion 
Time to pick my heart up off the floor 
Oh, when that love comes down 
Without devotion 
Well, it takes a strong man, baby 
But I’m showin’ you the door 

‘Cause I gotta have faith 
I gotta have faith 
Because I gotta have faith, faith, faith 
I got to have faith, faith, faith

Sexy, playful, joyous, “Faith” flirted with honky tonk, boasting an indelible hook that grabbed you immediately. But that freewheeling tone belied a pointed undercurrent: Now serving as Faith’s opener, the track begins with an organ that faintly recalls “Freedom,” a Wham! hit. Not so subtly, Michael was declaring his independence, with that organ stopping abruptly and the chunky chords of “Faith” surging to life. Out with the old, in with the new.

As Michael prepared the album, he also thought about its design — and his own style. The “Faith” video would be critical for selling this new George Michael, the more grownup version who wasn’t an adorable kid singing fluff like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” (It’s worth pointing out that Michael was all of 24 years old when Faith hit stores.) In James Gavin’s biography George Michael: A Life, he describes the young man, alongside video director Andy Morahan, visiting Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to assemble the now-iconic “Faith” look. Michael bought a leather jacket and a motorcycle. He got blue jeans and sunglasses. And he went into a pawnshop and purchased an acoustic guitar. 

As designer Bret Witke later put it, “It was a straight-guy image in his mind,” an indication that, although Michael was gay, he wasn’t ready to come out to his audience. Sporting stubble and perfectly coiffed hair, Michael seemed to be evoking a bygone era of biker-gang masculinity, a mix of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley. Whoever the actual object of the song’s affection was, the “Faith” video showcased an alluring woman, selling the image that Michael was straight. Where Wham!’s appeal was more cuddly and inoffensive, Michael now presented himself as a deeply heterosexual sex symbol — albeit one who was also a serious artist trafficking in pop, soul and R&B. Who said an auteur couldn’t also be sexy? Isn’t that what Prince had proven throughout the 1980s?

Faith’s first single was actually “I Want Your Sex,” a frank, slinky dance track that got him in trouble because he dared propose the notion that sexual intercourse was an enjoyable activity. The video, featuring his girlfriend at the time, would only be played at certain hours of the day by nervous broadcasters — a decision that helped bolster Michael’s grownup-artist bona fides and strengthen the public’s assumption that he was straight. But as far as he was concerned, the controversy obscured the song’s message. “I believe the slant on sex generally in the past several years has made it seem terrifying to kids,” he told Spin. “I’ve read that even though we’ve had huge campaigns about AIDS in my country, there hasn’t been a large increase of sale of condoms. The kind of lust in ‘I Want Your Sex’ is all part of something good.” 

But because of the subject matter, “I Want Your Sex” was criticized, inspiring freak-outs from the sorts of people you would assume would freak out about something like that. Soon after, Michael released “Faith,” which was certainly suggestive but far more palatable to mainstream audiences. It was the biggest hit of 1988, staying at the top of the charts for weeks. 

Resistance at that point was futile: Six Faith songs eventually landed in the top five, with four hitting No. 1. Michael won Album of the Year at the Grammys. Critics who had previously dismissed him embraced this more mature musical presentation, his incredible voice paired with sophisticated, undeniable arrangements. And unlike the teeny-bop lyrics of the Wham! days, Michael wrote about domestic violence, spiritual isolation, economic strife and drug abuse. “I wouldn’t have dared approach subjects like wife-beating or addiction when I was with Wham!” he told Rolling Stone. “But I had been liberated from those particular confines. … There was a fair amount of pressure on me to carve a different niche as a solo artist without actually having to force it. The progression had to be natural, but I also knew there had to be a progression.”

The thing was, though, a lot of people just couldn’t get past his ass. 

In the “Faith” video, Michael rocked out on that dimestore acoustic guitar, shaking his butt to the song’s seductive rhythm. Despite the leggy model also seen in the clip, he was the real eye candy. Michael was hardly the only male musician showing off tight jeans or beautiful hair — Bono and Bruce Springsteen were doing similar things at the time — but there was something about his shameless flaunting of sexuality that made him a target for ridicule. He was too pretty. He was the guy from Wham! It seemed like maybe he was trying too hard. Whatever the reason, Dana Carvey took it from there.

Only a brief clip still exists from the 1989 Saturday Night Live sketch, in which Weekend Update host Dennis Miller has George Michael (Carvey) on via remote to talk about his recent triumph at the American Music Awards. But Michael is annoyed because a soda commercial he’s doing fails to give enough respect to his heinie. “Look at my butt!!” the fake Michael commands, shaking it while Carvey does a wonderfully terrible British accent that sounds nothing like the actual George Michael. The point of the bit was obvious: George Michael was a silly, vain dude who seemed way too concerned about how his ass looked in jeans. That’s not what real men do, bro.

In Gavin’s book, he references an interview Michael gave before Faith hit stores in which a journalist brings up rumors about the singer’s sexuality. “If I turn around tomorrow,” Michael responded, “and say, ‘Oh, I’m gay,’ and everyone that has been saying it for the last five years had been right all along, there’s no doubt it would have a huge effect on my career.” Michael stayed in the closet, but whether it was his ass-shaking or his earring, he seemed suspect to some. The fact that he insisted on being taken seriously only made him more comical. It didn’t help that Michael could be a bit thin-skinned with reviewers who didn’t love Faith. “Critics are nobodies with absolutely no right to use their position to put forward their own personal prejudices,” he once declared, later adding, “I spent over a year working like hell to get a brilliant album out, and then some unknown critic spends less than 10 minutes racing through the tracks.” As far as Michael was concerned, he’d delivered a “work of genius.” 

Carvey’s “Look at my butt!!” bit wasn’t as popular as the Church Lady or Wayne’s World, but it nonetheless represented a societal pushback against Michael’s incredible success in the late 1980s. (Faith produced singles for nearly 18 months, guaranteeing it was just about impossible not to hear Michael on the radio for a span of about two years.) Michael tried taking the SNL dig in stride, saying from the stage at the 1989 MTV Music Video Awards, where he was given the Video Vanguard Award, “I’d like to thank Saturday Night Live for giving my rear end the celebrity it deserves.” 

Nonetheless, Michael didn’t enjoy the attention that came with releasing one of the best-selling albums of its era. By the time he unveiled Faith’s follow-up, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, he talked about wanting to downplay his public persona, refusing to appear in the videos for the new record. “I decided that the thing I really enjoy … the thing I really needed was my songwriting,” he said that year. “I didn’t need the celebrity. … (I’m) sure that most people find it hard to believe that stardom can make you miserable. After all, everybody wants to be a star. I certainly did, and I worked hard to get it. But I was miserable, and I don’t want to feel that way again.”

In light of such comments, it was hard not to hear Listen Without Prejudice as a sort of apology — the earnest artist trying to make amends for his past pop indiscretions by delivering a collection of somber songs. The press enjoyed mocking Michael’s comments — and fellow artists such as Frank Sinatra told him to lighten up — but Michael was sincere about wanting to burn down his Faith image. And I mean that literally: In the video for “Freedom! ‘90,” which didn’t feature Michael, the core visual components of the “Faith” video (his leather jacket, his guitar, the jukebox) go up in flames. The song’s lyrics retraced Michael’s career, focusing on his discontent with fame and his belief that he compromised his art for celebrity. 

Whether or not he wanted to admit it, the roasting he got from the likes of SNL was still clearly on his mind: “Well, it looks like the road to heaven / But it feels like the road to hell / … / Posing for another picture / Everybody’s got to sell / But when you shake your ass / They notice fast / And some mistakes were built to last.”  

Disputes with Michael’s label delayed the release of Older, which didn’t come out until 1996. He also faced a series of personal tragedies. In 1993, his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa, who was HIV-positive, died of a brain hemorrhage. A few years later, Michael lost his mother. “I swear to God it was like I had a curse on me,” he later said of that period, in which he battled depression. “I couldn’t believe how much God was piling on at once. There was so much death around me, I can’t tell you.” 

Older did well in the U.K., but in the States, he just seemed like one more aging phenom trying to regain his footing in a world that had moved on to other pop stars. More so than the album’s release, the biggest news Michael made in the late 1990s, at least in America, was his 1998 arrest for a “lewd act” in a public bathroom in a Beverly Hills park, which brought the tabloids to his door. As his boyfriend at the time, Kenny Goss, later put it, “(Michael) was stressed out. He took to his bed. Then, the next morning, we got up, and I told him, ‘Yep, still a few helicopters up there.’”

Michael did his best to have a sense of humor about the incident, which provoked him to finally come out. He recorded a song, “Outside,” which celebrated cruising while cheekily referencing his arrest. (The chorus: “Let’s go outside in the sunshine / I know you want to, but you can’t say yes / Let’s go outside in the moonshine / Take me to the places that I love best.”) Michael upped the ante for the video, dressing as a cop.

“I think it’s important that I can be out there and say that I’m a big tart and still have a big smash album,” Michael later said of “Outside.” “When I was tempted to give up in the middle of making this album, one of the things that made that difficult for me is that I would have felt I’d have let down a whole generation of young gay kids. That they’d think, ‘He’s massive, then he comes out and then he’s gone.’ When I made the ‘Outside’ video, I knew I was helping a whole generation of 15-year-olds who are cruising and dying of shame about it.”

He toured and recorded less in subsequent years — a byproduct, in part, of his battles with addiction. Michael would try to dismiss such talk. In a 2009 interview with The Guardian, he downplayed the concerns that famous friends like Elton John and Bono had about his drug usage, saying, “Look, if people choose to believe that I’m sitting here in my ivory tower, Howard Hughesing myself with long fingernails and loads of drugs, then I can’t do anything about that, can I?” 

Still, after Michael’s death from natural causes in 2016, stories started circulating about his supposed sad final years, how (according to the Daily Mail) he “ended his days as a recluse, binging on junk food and male prostitutes inside his North London mansion … his creativity blunted and his rich voice ruined by drugs and cigarettes.” 

Even if that’s a sensationalized exaggeration, Michael left this life unable to have the sort of late-career comeback that other pop stars have enjoyed. (Arguably, the most culturally-relevant George Michael of the early 21st century was Michael Cera’s character from Arrested Development.) But since his passing, he’s been remembered fondly. The 2019 romantic comedy-drama Last Christmas was built around Wham!’s yuletide hit, with several Michael songs scattered throughout the film. And now the Netflix documentary gives his old band its due after years of being ridiculed as disposable. George Michael always wanted credibility, to push himself into new terrain that demonstrated his artistry. But despite all his commercial success and the accolades, I don’t know if he ever felt like he truly achieved his ambition — at least in his own mind. That’s the real tragedy of his passing.

“I never minded being thought of as a pop star,” he said in 2004. “People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.” 

Like Prince and Madonna before him, Michael wanted to see if sexuality and artistry could mix — if a singer could be provocative and still dominate the charts. All three of them courted controversy and annoyed conservatives, but Michael always seemed the most tormented by those challenges. Maybe it was because he had to live a lie in public for so long. Maybe it’s because he suffered the most heartbreak. 

After Dana Carvey did his impression of George Michael, I wonder if he ever realized just how much truth there was to the joke. Michael had changed his name and, later, his image, trying to make himself seem more macho, more heterosexual. But the SNL sketch, which reduced Michael’s achievements to having a shapely ass, tore away the illusion. The sketch underlined how pop stars are obsessed with their image, desperate to control the messaging of their stardom. For all his creative brilliance and incredible songs — for all his desire to have complete autonomy over his music — George Michael never quite could control that.

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