Michael was modeling the riff on young American manhood that he would make iconic with 1987’s Faith #8212; blue jeans, black leather jacket, sunglasses, stubble #8212; 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.
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, Faith produced 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.
“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.
The evening’s lineup featured three rejuvenated giants of the 1970s #8212; David Bowie, Elton John and Queen #8212; 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 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.”
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.”