Revisited by Jessica MachadoRevisited

Re-listening to Father Figure:

Less Creepy than Anticipated

By Jessica Machado

Father Figure?he first time my mom proved she was cool was when she came home from work and announced we were going to see George Michael. One of her high school students had won tickets from a radio station that morning, and when my mom mentioned how her 11-year-old daughter loved the ex-Whammer, the student offered them up. I realize now that my mother wasn’t just cool for pulling off this feat; she was a goddamn hustler of the highest order if she got a teenager to willingly hand over her winnings to an authority figure.

My mom and I went to see George that evening, and he looked like the handsome (though tiny), tan Greek Fonzarelli that he did in his videos—with his motorcycle jacket, five o’clock shadow and signature butt wiggle. But this wasn’t about a crush (I had bigger ones than him; see Johnny Depp, Duff McKagan). It was about actually getting to hear my favorite song, “Father Figure,” performed live.

I loved his debut solo album, Faith, which he was touring for at the time, but I wasn’t as into its first single, “I Want Your Sex.” It wasn’t accessible to me—not only because it was banned on many radio stations but also because of its subject matter. He sounded playful with his “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” and I liked that, but I knew he was talking about things I wasn’t supposed to be privy to yet (like trying to convince a woman she’s overdue to put out) and the whole sex being “chemical” and “logical” reference went way over my head. His second single, “Faith,” was better for its danceability, but “Father Figure” was downright hypnotizing. It sounded exotic and sphinx-like with its snake-charmer synthesizers and finger-snap drum line. There was an air of mystery lingering in the instrumentation, the lyrics and the video (complete with a supermodel Cleopatra), a sort of choose-you-own-interpretation tale in which George’s affair with Cleo may or may not have been entirely of his imagination. Plus, unlike the reason for painting “monogamy” on a woman’s thigh in “I Want Your Sex,” I knew what a father was. I had one!

But, uh, yeah, I was 11. I was able to latch onto catchy lyrics while never quite understanding what they meant. Which brings me to the choice in song title: Listening to the chorus—“I will be your father figure/Put your tiny hand in mine/I will be your preacher teacher/Anything you have in mind”—the “father figure” line is practically a throwaway. He’s just desperate to be whatever this (presumed) woman wants him to be because he’s under the spell of lust. It’s not that he actually wants to dress her in ribbons, ground her from the outside world and pay her mortgage. But anyone in the Reagan-Bush era who heard this song in passing probably thought George was into some kinky Electra-complex shit, which I’m sure label execs didn’t mind, as that image correlated with the whole heterosexual-stud package they were trying to push and which helped make Faith the top-selling album of 1988.

Oddly, the “I’ll be your daddy” bit is a lot less creepy and pathetic now that we know George is gay. Calling someone “daddy” is about as common as calling someone “honey” or “hey, you” in the gay community, even though I’m sure that’s not what he was going for. But re-listening to some of the lyrics, in light of his coming out in the late-’90s, I can’t help but wonder if they reference the constraints of loving someone from the closet: “That's all I wanted.../For just one moment/To be bold and naked/At your side.../Maybe this time is forever/Say it can be.” Taken in this way, the song is quite moving and sad, and as with many closeted artists that came before and after George, you question if their work was better or worse for that pain—for the show they had to put on to be accepted. Here, I think that tension captivates.

Watch George’s ’80s and early-’90s videos now, especially anything from the Wham! days, and feel astonished that anyone believed that the man jitterbugging across the stage in a coral sweatshirt and color-blocked speedo was a heterosexual. But between me, my mother (because you know she had a crush on him if we were seeing him on a school night) and all the other females around the world who had a thing for a tight ass and an unclean shave, we needed to see what we wanted to see. And maybe that’s what makes “Father Figure” one of his most standout songs—it’s elusive. It’s not as poppy or ballad-y as his other hits. Twenty-four years later, it still retains a hint of mystery, even though that mystery has mostly been solved.

Re-listenability: 8

Jessica Machado is an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications.