By In Stuff

Listen Without Prejudice Volume 3

When you are in high school, in college, music defines you in every way imaginable. Anyway, that’s how I remember it; maybe your experience was different. When my family moved from Cleveland to Charlotte back in the early 1980s, there were only two questions that anyone ever asked. First: What is your ACC basketball team? Second: What music are you?

The first question, I answered as obviously as possible: “Uh, North Carolina?” Well, no, the first time I was asked I said, “I don’t have one,” or “What’s an ACC?” or something like that. I was an obsessive sports fan, but I knew zippo about college basketball. I didn’t know anybody in Cleveland who cared about college basketball. I knew Clark Kellogg because he went to Ohio State. And I knew Ralph Sampson because he was a giant and had dropped 50 on Ohio State.

But in Charlotte back then, before the NBA and NFL came to town, when the place still felt impossibly small, not having an ACC basketball team was not an option. North Carolina seemed the blandest and most popular option, and all I wanted was to fit in. I had no idea that the instant choice (it’s possible that I could not NAME another ACC team – I don’t think I knew that Sampson’s Virginia was an ACC team) would connect me with a national champion and a coach named Dean and a freshman called Michael Jordan.

The music thing was trickier. Notice the above question is not “What music do you like?” It was, instead, “What music ARE you?” My own sparse musical experience had been recording Casey’s Top 40 on notecards. Knowing where “Kiss on My List” and “Bette Davis Eyes” charted was not exactly an entrance into the Halls of Cool. The key for high school boys at East Mecklenburg High School then more or less came down to the black T-shirt you wore. The Rush T-shirt said something about you. The Molly Hatchet T-shirt said something else. The Black Sabbath T-shirt pegged you as dangerous. The Led Zeppelin T-shirt was, in its own way, even more dangerous.

There were land mines everywhere. You could wear a Styx T-shirt as a guy and be more or less OK (at least for a while), but a Journey T-shirt might get you pushed up against a locker. Bruce Springsteen carried no cache whatsoever in a Charlotte high school in the 1980s while wearing a Go-Gos shirt said you were carefree and fun. A Police shirt was pretty safe, the North Carolina Tar Heels of bands. The hair bands came along, the New Wave bands came along, the edgy political bands came along and it was hard to tell whether liking Midnight Oil was cool enough to help you blend in or would get you pushed up against a locker.

Michael Jackson, of course, was universal. Everyone spontaneously broke into a moonwalk at some point.

In any case, everything in high school for me was about not standing out, not being noticed, diving without creating any splash or ripple. And so I did not enjoy music in high school so much as I navigated it. I kept up with music the way intelligence agents keep up with world threats. I was just on the lookout for that precise moment when it stopped being cool to like U2 or Oingo Boingo or Pat Benatar so that I would not say something wrong – BE something wrong — and live with my back up against a locker door.

It goes without saying that Wham! (with that flamboyant exclamation point) was a code-red no-fly zone. There might have been guys in my grade cool enough to like Wham! ironically. And there were others who wore the weirdo tag proudly and would come in with their Wham! T-shirts singing “Wake Me Up Before You Go -Go!” as a middle finger to anyone trying to break their stride. But I stayed away.

In college, the musical game was much more subtle. You were still defined by your music somewhat, but the danger was different. “Counter” was the word. You didn’t want to like something too popular. There were no “safe” choices anymore. REM was the ultimate college band, until they got too popular, and Springsteen was fine as long as you only liked the older stuff, and the B-52s were great as long as you kept it light, and Jimmy Buffett or the Grateful Dead were fine as long as you were drunk and high, and, yes, you could go back to basics like Dylan or the Beatles or Hendrix or even Sinatra, but if you did that you had to accept that you were now the Dylan or Beatles or Hendrix or Sinatra guy (or girl). Nothing was better than new bands nobody had ever heard of.

Obviously Wham! was still a no-no, and George Michael was still Wham! even when he left.

All of which is just a long, long (long) lead-in to say that my first album, the very first one that I would call my own, was George Michael’s “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1.” It was the first CD I ever bought because I just liked the music. I didn’t listen because it was cool – it was most decidedly NOT cool. I didn’t listen to fit in because George Michael was not going to help you fit in. There were a couple of hits on that album. The biggest one was “Praying for Time,” which had made a splash because the video was just a black screen with lyrics coming across in white. It was stark, at least for 1990, and it was certainly stark for George Michael, who had basically spent the previous few years shaking his butt in front of a camera.

“Look at that, look at it, accept it Dennis,” Dana Carvey as George Michael shouted on SNL. “Look at my butt. The worst thing you can do is try to ignore it. It’s a total circle, don’t you see? You can’t hide from it. It’s a force to be reckoned with, accept it before it destroys you.”

I’m pretty sure it was the “Praying for Time” video that got me to buy the CD – I liked the song, but more I liked that George Michael himself so badly wanted to break away from the madness that he had created. He wanted to be different. I wanted to be different.

The second biggest hit on that record, Freedom ’90, took his persona straight on: “When you shake your ass/they notice fast/and some mistakes were built to last.”

Yes. Some mistakes WERE built to last.

The whole album connected with me. It is one of only a very few albums – “Born to Run,” “Lifes Rich Pageant,” “Ten,” a handful of others – that I still listen to in order and from beginning to end. For months, I had it playing on a loop. I learned to juggle to Listen Without Prejudice. I fell asleep to Listen Without Prejudice. I read Catcher in the Rye to Listen Without Prejudice. I lamented heartbreaks and celebrated small triumphs and dreamed big to Listen Without Prejudice.

And it was MINE. I certainly did not tell anybody that I was listening to it. I certainly did not tell anybody that I knew every word not only to semi-hits like “Waiting for that Day” (where George Michael finished off by singing a few lines from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” thus giving the Stones a writing credit on it) but also the 7-minute “They Won’t Go When I Go,” (co-written by Stevie Wonder) and the surprisingly touching “Mother’s Pride,” about a boy who, like his father, is destined to go to war.

I guess “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” was not exactly a triumph commercially or critically. His previous album, “Faith” had made him one of the biggest stars in the world. Listen Without Prejudice sold one-third the records. Critics were blah on it. I was unaware of any of that. That record was personal for me, the first bit of music I listened to relentlessly DESPITE what it might say about me. In a way, it changed me a little bit. It made me stop caring so much.

As for the quality of the music, well, I will echo what Keith Law tweeted – it’s one of those rare records that ages so well it actually sounds better almost three decades after it was released.

Many years after that album dominated my life, I was hanging out with my friend Chuck Culpepper in a bar somewhere and we were talking music because we often talked music. And somehow the subject came up, “What is the most underrated album ever recorded?”

At the exact same time, we both said: “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1.”

That was a shock — a shock to hear that someone else loved that record despite what it might say. RIP George Michael. He lived a turbulent and short life, and he never did seem to find himself. But I will always love that album, always love that he put so much of himself out there when it would have been safer to just keep shaking his ass, always love that he put “Vol. 1” at the end of that album title. It’s hopeful, you know?

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29 Responses to Listen Without Prejudice Volume 3

  1. Paul O. says:

    There is a Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 that was never released.

  2. invitro says:

    “Praying for Time” and Listen w/o Prej came out in 1990, not 1988. Joe was 23 when they came out, and to not buy an album until you’re 23… that’s crazy. CRA-ZA-ZAY. Also, that album is crap. I re-listened to several songs on it last night. It’s not underrated; it’s overrated. It’s crap. You know the Brits bought more of it than they did Faith? Silly Brits. Faith was and is great, the first half anyway. But Boy George 2 is a singles artist, not at all an album artist; all his albums are jam-packed with filler. And his best ten singles, according to invitro, are:

    1. Everything She Wants
    2. Faith
    3. Father Figure
    4. Freedom
    5. Wrap Her Up (with Elton John)
    6. Careless Whisper
    7. A Different Corner
    8. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
    9. I Want Your Sex
    10. Last Christmas

    Joe’s right that Wham! and George weren’t cool for school, at least for boys. I loved these songs when I was a teenager, but I didn’t advertise it. I bought Make It Big when “Everything She Wants” came out, and Music From the Edge of Heaven when it came out. But I bought a lot of uncool or potentially embarrassing music those days. I bought Duran Duran and Madonna albums. George’s songs were probably the most feminine music of the 1980’s — he made Madonna look like a butch soccer player — and I’m surprised all this decidedly feminine pop music didn’t bend me. Well, I don’t think it did.

    • KHAZAD says:

      The best thing about music is that like food, there is something for everyone. It is a very personal thing. What you like and what someone else likes may be completely different and that’s OK. The songs that touch Joe may not reach you, and you may even think they are “crap” and that is how music is supposed to be.

      The worst thing about music is people who are judgy about what you like. I remember the situations in high school like Joe talked about. I noticed them, though they didn’t affect me the same way – I was absurdly immune to peer pressure. I spent most of the 1980s singing in bands and hanging out with musicians. Oddly enough, the people that are the most into music can be the most close minded. The bands they worshiped were great, every band they did not sucked, and anyone who liked those other bands were a lesser person. I have always tried to appreciate someone’s musical passions, and listen to how it makes them feel, even if the music they are talking about doesn’t reach me. I take joy in how some music makes my Wife feel, even if I am unmoved.

      The one thing that has come through strongest about you, Invitro, is that you seem to think your opinions are actual facts, no matter how subjective. I don’t mind someone having opinions. I enjoyed you sharing your top ten, whether I agree with it or not. What I don’t like is the scorn and dismissal you sometimes show for the opinions of others. I am not speaking of times that you argue over a point of fact, just the seeming belief that everyone who differs with you over something that is not a point of fact is still unequivocally wrong. The close mindedness and condescension says much more about you than it does anyone else.

      • murr2825 says:

        I second Khazad, wholeheartedly

        • Karyn says:

          Same here. I used to be that jerk who belittled others’ tastes in music. I’ve grown up a little, I think. At least on that score.

          • Rob Smith says:

            I was never that guy. OK, a little if you were a disco lover. Other than that, I liked what I liked and I was generally interested in what my friends listened to. Some of it grew on me, some didn’t. But I distinctly remember a guy in college that looked to Rolling Stones magazine for what he was supposed to like. To me, he was one of the most superficial people I’ve ever met. To him, you HAD to like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, and etc. I liked them too, but I actually had quite a bit of fun giving him a hard time about the “in” bands, particularly on those days they weren’t great… i.e. Elvis Costello giving a 40 minute concert and then walking off stage with no encore, for no reason. We both were there & so I took it out on him (with great glee).

            As for George Michael, he had no chance with me. I was way too old, not gay, and not a teen girl… and he was the “WHAM guy” to me, so it just wasn’t going to be my thing. I never could take him seriously even when he was selling 20M albums with Faith. The bathroom thing didn’t help. But my wife LOVES him. I get it. She’s female and was the right age in the 80s. Perfect demographic. Even last night they flashed a more current pic of George and my wife says “wow, he is still soooooo handsome”. Yeah, I guess so.

      • invitro says:

        In some writing-intensive class I was once in, the instructor came in one day and announced: “I am *tired* of you guys constantly writing ‘I think’ and ‘My opinion is that.'” Someone asked, “But if we don’t write that, people will think we’re claiming something to be a fact, rather than our opinion.” The instructor replied, “Don’t be silly. Anyone who thinks [some particular sentence] is a factual claim isn’t worth your time, anyway.”

        • birtelcom says:

          I agree that in some contexts, a preamble such as “in my opinion” can be superfluous, But in the context of a comment that merely says “x is crap” without any substantive analysis or explanation of why, and in response to an article that tried to provide a thoughtful, personal and rather modest positive evaluation, it seemed to me disrespectful to not at least acknowledge overtly that you were merely expressing a personal and not intending to insult the original writer by belittling his view.

          • invitro says:

            I think you guys are being entirely too sensitive here, but I accept my scolding.

          • invitro says:

            I’m curious, though. What if someone had said “It’s sad that people would listen to Listen Without Prejudice, when there was so much great and authentic music around in the early 1990’s, made by actual musicians?” (This is not my opinion.) This sentence is exactly analogous to something Joe wrote a couple of weeks ago about a certain restaurant in NYC. So condemning this sentence would be a little hypocritical? Inconsistent?

          • Rob Smith says:

            I’d like to agree with you that this album was crap, but I NEVER listened to it, and I flipped the station whenever George Michael came on, so I never had any inkling of what he actually did after WHAM, which was so in your face on the radio stations. I had completely forgot that Faith was so popular, too. To me he was this ex-WHAM, drug addled, risky gay sex guy that had a major crash somewhere along the way. I didn’t realize there was a straight guy anywhere who listened to him.

          • Pat says:

            I agree with invitro, and you know that gets on my nerves.
            But I expect I’m not the only composition teacher who crosses out “I think” and “In my opinion” reflexively. Younger writers need to be forced to do without that crutch, and anyway it’s always more concise.
            Now, if they write “that’s crap” in their papers for me, that’s a separate issue.

      • JustBob says:

        Amen, Khazad

    • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

      I took Joe’s comment to be not that it was his first ever album but the first he bought solely because he wanted to listen to it, not because it was popular with some in-crowd or another.

    • Spencer says:

      Music is subjective. You don’t decide what is good or bad.

      Also your comments on how feminine his music was are bizarre and I think homophobic, but I can’t be sure what you mean by “didn’t bend me”. If so that’s crappy.

  3. Chris says:

    My high school band covered a couple songs from LWP because we knew it needed more attention. Solid write-up, JP.

  4. Michelle says:

    This is definitely the difference between being a teenaged boy in the mid-80s and a teenaged girl. Wham! and pictures of George Michael were all over the locker doors of my all-girls high school. Wham! was my first concert with several of my high school girl friends. Listen Without Predjudice was a tough one for one of the many “little school girls” to get into for me at first (“Freedom ’90” had me torn between loving it and being pissed off at being insulted) but I came to love it and the many gems that when they pop up in an iPod shuffle put a smile on my face. 2016 has wreaked havoc on high-school/college me, and this has me thinking about how much more he could have done with his amazing pop sensibilities and beautiful voice. Downer of a Christmas.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Exactly. A teenage girl in the 80s is the perfect demographic for George Michael. In fact, on Facebook, I’ve noticed the comments about him dying are virtually all from girls of the demographic. Actually all, not virtually all. Some day it will be on of the One Direction guys and teens from this era will be posting about it. I already know who those people will be. They’re the ones that were devastated by Zayne leaving the band.

  5. JW says:

    Great post, Joe. Faith was MY first cassette.

    Picky thing: I believe Carvey called his butt “a PERFECT circle…”

  6. Rob Wilson says:

    Fun fact: George Michael’s “Cowboys and Angels” was written when GM was in a bisexual love triangle. George had fallen for the man, while the woman had fallen for George.

  7. Terry says:

    Gosh, music is so personal, it doesn’t really matter what you like or what you listen to . I grew up in the 60s and 70s and music was iconic then with many of the legendary artists in their prime. But, ultimately, it just mattered what was the thing that resonated with you.

    personally, I liked the Dead and Jimmy Buffett, but was neither friubnk or stoned. Still like the Dead. Still am not drunk or stoned. That’s offensive.

  8. denopac says:

    I know that most BRs frown on typo correcting, but we should at least get names right. (And I know I’m not the only one who thinks this, judging from the reaction as a certain BR continues to misspell “Vazquez” at every opportunity.) Anyway, the name of Kim Carnes’s song is “Bette Davis Eyes.”

    • denopac says:

      Thank you for the fix, Mr. Posnanski.

      PS – Incidentally, your spellchecker also removed the “t” from “cachet.” 😉

  9. […] who went into astronomy, and George Michael, whose music I didn’t particularly love but who meant a lot to […]

  10. Paul Schroeder says:

    Joe, listening to Oingo Boing, U2, Midnight Oil or The Police will never be uncool…

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