Friday, October 18, 2013

A little light culture: "But sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime"

Nothing topical about this one; the subject just jumped into my head because the song "Careless Whisper" was playing at the store when I went to buy a dehumidifier yesterday.  So I'm looking at a couple of songs by George Michael that date from a period when he was hiding some secrets. Both feature videos that aimed at giving very specific meanings to the words of the songs that accompany them.

You may say, "So what?"  Well, here's what: non-specificity is key to the success of most pop songs. It helps if the listener can imagine it applying to them. If the song is too specifically tied to the singer's love affair then millions of girls can't apply it to their real or imagined love affairs. And neither of these songs had any specific meaning until the video stamped it with one, meaning that it was a conscious decision to do so. It's not hard to figure out why: George was on the defensive about both songs on moral grounds. The thing is, it turned out that he had other things to be defensive about.

Here is the first tune. The video tries very hard (and fails miserably) to make you think the song is about heterosexual monogamy. I was in graduate school when it came out. It was on an album called Faith that was instantly infamous for it's creepiness. (Not, surprising as this may seem, because of this song.)

It was a pretty big hit at the time; mostly as a succès de scandale as you could hardly call it a great, or even a good, song.

It's interesting now because the lyrics have acquired a different feeling since it came out.

Consider, for example, these lines:
I've waited so long baby
Now that we're friends
Every man's got his patience
And here's where mine ends.
Kinda date-rapey, don't ya think? It didn't bother anybody in 1987 and, come to think of it, I haven't heard anybody complain since. If Robin Thicke (NSFW video at link) put a line like that in his song he would be publicly castrated.

The other lines that feel a little uncomfortable now are these ones:
There's things that you guess
And things that you know
There's boys you can trust
And girls that you don't
There's little things you hide
And little things that you show
Who are these boys and what secrets do you trust them with? And the problem with the girls is, strikingly, not that you "can't" trust them but that you "don't" trust them. Why not? Cause there were things that George was hiding at the time about how he felt about boys and girls. Like the fact that he liked visiting public washrooms and having anonymous sex with men he met there. Eleven years after the video above was made, featuring George's girlfriend from the time, he was arrested for gross indecency in a public washroom.

A year after that, George was out of the closet.

He claimed in retrospect that he previously had told his close friends that he was bisexual. That may even be true but it is also one of those things you can't really check up on. He also didn't say whether he included his girlfriends and female casual sex partners in the circle of close friends. OTOH, given the above, he seems to to have been peppering his lyrics with obscure references to ... something.

He also said this:
I used to sleep with women quite a lot in the Wham! days but never felt it could develop into a relationship because I knew that, emotionally, I was a gay man. I didn't want to commit to them but I was attracted to them.
Emotionally, he was a gay man!

That's interesting. Why? Because you would guess that when gay men think about being unable to bond with women they have known, emotional bonds wouldn't be issue. When scientists study "bisexuality" they hook people up to instruments that determine whether blood rushes to their genitals when they see pictures of naked men and women and not whether they feel they can really bond emotionally one or the other. George apparently had no serious problem getting enough blood to rush to his genitals to achieve an erection, penetrating these women with said erection and reaching orgasm. Sex he could do, emotionally bonding he could no dot.

Think about this way: If a man or woman spends a few years having casual sex with both men and women and then falls in love, does the sex of the partner they fall in love with determine whether they are heterosexual or not. (It's not hard to imagine a heterosexual man loving another man while repulsed by the idea of sex with him. Nor is it hard to imagine a gay man loving a heterosexual woman while being repulsed by the thought of having sex with her.)

Or think about it this way: Imagine someone you know who has been sexually active with members of the opposite sex for a while but has never fallen in love, would you say to him or her that they were gay or lesbian as a consequence?

And was George making an emotional bond with the washroom guys?

I don't know: there are things that you guess and things that you know.

You may think I'm picking on George here but I'm not. I'm quite sure he is telling the truth. And that is interesting because it suggests things about sexual orientation that don't fit the official narrative of our time.

Oh yeah, you're probably wondering which song from the same album made it instantly famous for creepiness. It's embedded immediately below but, before you watch the video, I want you to think about how you would interpret the lyrics without the pictures. (If you're really crazy, you might listen once without looking at the video and a second time while looking.)

The lyrics feature the line I quote in the subject header: "But sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime". Well, what crime?

The video clearly suggests a crime: stalking. The cab driver played by George Michael is stalking the model, played by Tania Coleridge and yes, she is directly related to that Coleridge whose name, while we're at it, has only two syllables so pronounce it that way (cole-ridge and not cole-lurr-ridge). And, if you watch the video, it all fits.

But if you didn't have that set of visuals to go with it, you would almost certainly assume the crime was due to the the age of the love object. Everything about the lyrics suggests that she is a girl not a woman.

I don't think that's a problem. In fact, I think the song is something of a minor masterpiece and easily the best song that George Michael ever did. If get ambitious, I might do a post on the all-time great creepy songs someday. This would certainly make the cut.

To return to my specificity point, consider the way the audience (the market for George Michael was mostly young women) would respond to such a song. In order to sell well, lots of of girls and women have to be able to imagine George is making a plea to let him be a father figure to them. Making a video about stalking takes that away from them. It would have been a much bigger hit with a more ambiguous video. (And don't fool yourself into thinking that the creepiness of the song would have put girls off; it certainly didn't put them off the Police's very creepy "Every Breath You Take", which also has a stalking theme but soft plays it so a girl can hear a love song if she wants to.)

Faith was pretty much the end of poor George's career. Ironically, his defensiveness in the face of criticism made it impossible for him to ever play on ambiguity or notoriety again. This effect was further amplified following his arrest. He took the position that his love had been mistaken for a crime and the media went along with his new pose of heroic victim. That more or less forced him to be sincere and, having spent his entire career excelling at milking coy ambiguity for all it was worth, he couldn't shift to a new persona convincingly. His life has gone steadily off the rails ever since and he seems determined to join the long list of pop music stars who die tragically these days.

A big call out to T, if she is reading. (She'll know who she is why this applies to her and you won't.)

PS: Frank Sinatra once wrote a letter with some very good advice in it to George Michael. If George had done what Frank suggested, he'd be a much happier man today. But I wonder if he could have? The subtext of the Sinatra letter is all about toughness and that was a virtue poor George never developed.

1 comment:

  1. The instrument you refer to above is called a plethysmograph or a penile plethysmograph. It is used by law enforcement and clinical treaters of sexual abusers with sex offenders or alleged sex offenders primarily to determine if there is arousal to children. I've always doubted the efficacy of it, on some days I could show arousal to a tree, and like the polygraph I don't think its admissable in court.
    You raise a good point about the problems associated with people taking on or adopting the labels gay or straight. As you know, these are relatively recent social constructs, and moving homosexuality or heterosexuality from behaviors to identities are very recent. There's a very good book which explains how and why this was done called "After The Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Hatred and Fear of Homosexuals in the '90s" by Kirk and Madsen. The two authors, both alums of Harvard and Madison Avenue, explain the strategy in great detail (including "born gay" which they admit is a hoax) and one can see today how successful they were. I'm a liberal (as you must have figured out by now), but this book really opened my eyes, its not just right-wing propaganda.