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?