Talkhouse Contributing Writer Rick Moody is a member of the Wingdale Community Singers. He is also the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays called On Celestial Music. Since 2009, he has written music criticism at the Rumpus.
Here’s a passage from Susan Sontag’s essay of 1964 called “Notes on Camp.” Have you reread “Notes on Camp” recently? It’s well worth doing so, now and again, when its point of view, for whatever reasons, is briefly obscured by the fulminations out at the repressive end of the American political spectrum:
A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration… For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification, and the goad of a sharp conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.
How might Sontag’s approach to what she calls Camp (which we might now call, more sympathetically, in a far more aesthetically permissive moment, gay culture), inform any investigation of Symphonica, the new and not terribly “good” album by George Michael? Let us proceed to inquire further.
As Sontag foregrounds her own relationship to Camp, by insisting on both her attraction and repellence, let me explore on my own relationship to the music of George Michael. I will say, as I’m sure many would who were not British teenage girls in the mid ’80s, that I thought upon first encountering Wham! (Michael’s first musical calling card) that they were among the hardest-to-take musical acts I’d heard up to that time. They were to rock & roll what Olestra was to salty snack foods. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” came out the same year as Zen Arcade (Hüsker Dü) and My War (Black Flag) and Let It Be (the Replacements), and during this period I was not listening to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I would rather have been interrogated by the secret police. The dissolution of Wham! and the end of its fluffy narcissisms (the brand that launched a thousand boy bands), did not register as a cultural crisis for me, and while I loved certain tracks from the early George Michael solo career (“Faith” is a really good song!), I always kind of hated the guy, even if I recognized, grudgingly, that he had a technically great voice.
Everything changed, for me, with George Michael’s first arrest for cruising in 1998. I mean, I assumed, as probably most culturally aware people did, that George Michael was gay, but that there was some resistance to being out, perhaps for career reasons (he has said he was worried about his mom’s reaction), and this did not distinguish him, at least not in my book. While the constraints and miseries of the closet have produced some great music, music made out of frustration and pain (Zen Arcade itself, arguably), an opening outward into candor and forthrightness is always when the music starts to be complete. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen, as others have asserted, can be read as an allegory of queer self-acceptance, and its exceedingly florid middle section is about as operatic and Campy as rock & roll gets. The cruising George Michael had the decision to come out of the closet taken away from him, which is too bad (you don’t need me to tell you: the struggle within the self to come out is important), but after the arrest there is no mistaking who George Michael is, and as far as I’m concerned he is much the more interesting singer in this out context. But, more compellingly, Michael’s forthrightness, after 1998, makes his earlier work more consonant with the contours of gay culture and Camp. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is extremely campy, it has its tongue in cheek, and when you embrace all the Wham-is-gay rumors and say yes to them (even if Andrew Ridgeley is as straight as a football star), suddenly that song is a lot more palatable, even funny and sly.
To put it another way: there is a way through (and “Through” is the title of the first track of Symphonica) the work of George Michael that excludes or suppresses his queer identity, but to this reviewer such an approach misconstrues the work, even the work that was produced when he was still closeted. In this view, George Michael’s voyage, given how much shit he took from all corners, was totally heroic. Yes, my argument is that George Michael has become heroic in the new millennium. And all those guys who bitched about Wham! or who carped at Freddie Mercury for his mustache, or who disliked Elton John’s Victim of Love because it was too Studio 54, those guys should be ashamed of themselves. George Michael lived with the hatred when it was hard to be a gay singer of popular music at the top of the charts, he lived with pain and, one assumes, self-recrimination (he has said as much), and if all those Listen Without Prejudice pleas to be understood as a human being were not as earned as, say, the respect we would grant a singer who was openly out (Laura Nyro in the ’80s), they are genuine pleas nonetheless. Elton John descended into a swirl of drug addiction in the ’80s to deal with the pressure of a like kind of negative public attention, and Freddie Mercury died without admitting to his bisexuality, and David Bowie appeared to cross back over the fence. You can say George Michael should have come out sooner, from a historical perspective, but you’re not the one who had to live in his skin.
Times have changed. George Michael now admits to cruising, has even suggested that cruising has been part of gay life as long as there has been gay life (which is a truth devoutly worth repeating, as with the sentence There have always been gay men in the Catholic church hierarchy), and he is trying to cut down on the pot-smoking so that it’s only seven or eight spliffs a day, rather than 25. He gives a lot to charity, and is especially sensitive to charities devoted to combating HIV. I admit that I find the cruising, pot-smoking George Michael admirable, thorny, adult, and complex, and these are all fine qualities for an artist.
But what about Symphonica?
If you read some of the recent reviews of Symphonica, which is a “live” recording from a recent George Michael tour and the last document produced by the legendary Phil Ramone (the great adult contemporary stylist who worked with Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, and many, many others) and features an abundance of covers and a few originals, all of them already recorded in one form or another by Michael himself over the years, you will note that the prevailing opinion is not one of approbation. There is precious little about this recording that is new. The sound is burnished within an inch of its life with orchestral filigrees, and there are occasional attempts to simulate a jazz band. Now and again, there are some contemporary electronic rhythms and sounds, and bits, here and there, of the old rock & roll ensemble. In certain moments, one hears a guitar. The song selection hews toward things that could perhaps be standards, like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “Wild Is the Wind,” and, I suppose, “Roxanne.”
Michael’s voice is perfectly calibrated to the contemporary pop strains of The Voice or American Idol, all performance, all virtuosity, and is much inflected with his influences — David Bowie, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Bryan Ferry, et al. — and I notice an interesting feature that is most a la mode, Michael leans into open notes (without vibrato) in ways that feel a lot like the hovering robotic quality of Auto-tuning. I assume that he doesn’t need any software to support his rather astoundingly confident singing voice, but the icy, reserved, technical excellence of his approach here sounds like software (as if they mixed the recordings with digital reverb or studio enhancements), and that is part of his thing now. George Michael is the guy who plays at being a world-class pop star, who performs the Vegas version of a pop star, as though it were all a simulation (which it all is), and who makes it look both exceedingly easy, and a burden that he doesn’t want to bother with anymore. (How come no more originals, George? Is it that hard to write a song these days?)
And that’s where Sontag’s essay becomes relevant to these notes (and n.b. how Sontag’s essay proceeds the Stonewall riots by four years, but seems to anticipate some of what those riots set in motion). There is something profoundly repellent about Symphonica (whose title, I assume, means to conjoin symphonic and erotica, which, in the pop world, would seem to be the quintessence of an oxymoronic neologism, unless it also means to conflate electronica as well, in which case the icy perfection of the recordings is doubly apparent in the title). Even the corporate masters at Hollister wouldn’t play this album in their franchises. It’s too punctilious, too given over to excesses of sentimentality that still somehow feel miserly and non-purgative and stiff. The song selection is too bizarre. (Where, for example, are Michael songs like “I Want Your Sex,” whose bold, hilarious provocations are his most indelible and unmistakable successes?) Michael’s conservatory devotion to pre-rock material is too idiosyncratic and show-biz. Indeed, the ideal listening environment for this album would be a Madison Avenue nail salon, or perhaps the lobby of one of the higher-end Vegas hotels. You should listen to it on a heart-shaped bed. It’s more like Celine Dion than it is like Tina Turner, more like Marie Osmond than it is like Liza Minnelli, more like Paul Anka than it is like Bryan Ferry.
And, in fact, it’s odd even to listen to this album. It should probably be seen, not heard, because if there’s one thing George Michael has, it is charm, and where the voice cannot sell the songs, the charm sometimes can. The insistence on selling this product as though it’s an audio document, when really it’s about simulation of performance, the style of performance, not the arrangements, or the studio varnish on the live recordings, is of a piece with Michael’s refusal to participate in his own videos, back when he was first on Sony Records, of a piece with his refusal to allow himself to be fetishized as an object, even though he makes such a great object. Michael, it seems, would rather cruise than be cruised.
All of which, for me, makes this a fascinating document, despite the great difficulty one feels for it as a recording. Symphonica is a chilly, no-hair-out-of-place, excessive symphonic pop album in which a multi-multi-millionaire, one of the most successful pop vocalists of his era, records “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” And “Roxanne” and “Wild Is the Wind.” (In latter case, it should be noted, he has to try to exceed the greatness of the Nina Simone recording, which he will never be able to accomplish.) In which an artist of exceedingly catchy dance-pop never once performs in that genre. In which almost every song has its complex and reluctant lyrical aperçu about pop music itself, as in: “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate…” (“Praying For Time”).
Indeed, in some fundamental way Symphonica seems to dislike pop music in a substantial way.
There’s no drag in Symphonica, there is no Campy incestuous melodrama about it, there are no jokes. In fact, the insistence on the absence of anything even remotely humorous about Symphonica is part of how you know that there is something paradoxical and comical at its core. The joke, in Symphonica, is the structured absence, the truth at the center of its lie. The imperceptible joke at its center is, perhaps, this performance of pop stardom as opposed to pop stardom itself, which performance usually looks more garish and inflammatory than this. But in this case the performance is the refusal to give you anything anticipated, like, in its way, Ministry flipping the bird at Arista Records, or Tom Verlaine demanding to be released from Elektra, or like Prince assuming the glyph in order to get out of his contract.
Camp is counternarrative. And counter-intuitive. Camp is against the prevailing construct of what love is in pop song. What you say is organic is to be resisted in the Camp version of the thing. And if you think there’s something to resist in Symphonica, that just means that it is working on you in just the way it should.
George Michael, in his third decade of making records, is long past that historical moment in which he wanted to behave like a pop star for you. But it may also be that he is finally existing in a historical epoch — the one in which gay people can marry, and in which an entire generation, the millennial generation, is overwhelming comfortable with gay culture, and in which, I predict, there will soon be a gay season of The Bachelor — an epoch perfectly suited to his complicated and astringent relationship to the popular song. All he has to do is be willing to sing “I Want Your Sex.”