Introducing a new series for When Things Go Pop: Performances That Pop. One of my favorite things to do on the Internet (when I’m not fretting about writing) is going through YouTube’s vast library of pop music performances and watching amazing singers and entertainers bring their songs to life. Given how ephemeral much of pop culture is these days, I wanted to share performances – both well-known and perhaps lost to time – and discuss why they resonate with me. I have plenty of performances I’d like to write about, but if there’s one that you personally love that you’d like me to feature, please leave a comment below. I hope this series either exposes or re-introduces you to some wonderful performances from wonderful performers.
There were few complete pop packages like George Michael.
He had the look, with his perfectly-coiffed hair, five o’clock shadow, and iconic leather jacket (the one he wore in the “Faith” music video and then set ablaze in the “Freedom! ’90” video). He had the voice, sleek enough to ride Wham’s bubblegum classics like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and soulful enough to go toe-to-toe with Aretha Franklin. He could move, with hip action and rhythm that might’ve made Elvis do a double take. His musicianship was immaculate, writing lyrics of emotional and thematic depth that also kept a finger on the pulse of the era’s mainstream trends, without pandering to them. (“Kissing a Fool,” a smooth jazz torch ballad, was a Top 5 hit in the States.) Had he just one or two of these qualities, he would’ve been a pop superstar. That he had all of them made him a music legend.
If one performance encapsulates his exhilarating, fully formed presence, it is his performance of “Killer / Papa Was a Rolling Stone” at the Concert of Hope, an AIDS benefit concert held in December 1993 at Wembley Arena in London. It was a time of significant personal and professional transition for him, particularly his lawsuit against record label Sony over his recording contract.
And yet, you wouldn’t know of any turmoil watching him on stage. Michael performed like he owned everything and everyone in the arena. (Princess Diana was in attendance.) A consummate showman, he generated and radiated irrepressible energy, riling up the audience as the first beats of “Killer” pulsed through the arena. His voice had a bright-eyed sizzle to it; you could hear how much fun he was having, how good he felt feeding off the fully-engaged audience. When he wasn’t blowing out the speakers with his powerhouse, effortlessly funky vocals, he strutted across the stage like it was his own personal catwalk, working the hell out of his three-piece suit. His dance moves were sleek, rhythmic, and graceful; he swiveled his hips and waved his arms like he was conjuring lightning from the sky to power him, not that he needed it. The crowd reasonably went wild.
But Michael wasn’t alone on that stage. His interactions and harmonizing with his background singers in the transition from “Killer” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is a testament to his exceptional musicality, steeped in the soul tradition. As was the inspired decision to mash up Adamski and Seal’s acid house banger with the Temptations’ legendary soul classic into a stone-cold powerhouse. Hearing it through Michael, it’s almost inconceivable that they weren’t always joined together. But that was part of Michael’s pop genius; he found unique, surprising ways to bridge the past and present that paid deference and showed respect.
“Respect” was a key theme of Michael’s career. He demanded respect, from his label and the society that unfairly shunned him following his 1998 arrest (which led to him coming out publicly). He also gave respect generously, which you can see here, to his supporting musicians, the audience, and the songs he sang so beautifully. One can only hope that the audience’s rapturous response to this once-in-a-lifetime performance communicated how much that respect was reciprocated by pop music fans. If not, the least we can do is remember what he gave us in his illustrious and complex career.
You can view more articles in the Performances That Pop series here.