In honor of the 30th anniversary of George Michael’s blockbuster solo debut LP Faith, celebrated this Oct. 30, Billboard asked six writers to pen essays about the album’s six classic smash hits — all of which peaked in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, and all of which showcase a different shade of Michael’s singular brilliance. Here, Barry Walters takes on the album’s third hit single, the smoky ballad “Father Figure.”
When he began his solo career in 1987, George Michael faced a major quandary: How could he bridge the gaps between his public persona as the fun-loving former frontman of the teen-pop duo Wham!, his artistic ambitions as a serious musician, and his private identity as a gay person still gripped by insecurity? He wasn’t ready to come out, but he did want to write more personal, adult material.
“Father Figure,” the third single (and first ballad) to be pulled from his debut, established Michael both as a nuanced grown-up and as a skilled singer-songwriter, able to intertwine racy innuendo and romantic steadfastness. An alternatingly smooth and blustery gospel prayer of devotion with a soupçon of pederasty, Faith’s supremely sensual third smash in three tries sprung from George’s erotic and chaste relationships alike.
According to the singer, George’s own father, Kyriacos Panayiotou, a hard-working Greek emigrant restaurateur, was absent and largely adversarial: He dismissed his son’s musical ambitions so thoroughly that George insisted on proving his father wrong. If he didn’t become a superstar, George believed he’d never earn his father’s love. He desired masculine approval so much that he thought his own sexuality was seeded in it.
When he started Wham! with his hetero pal Andrew Ridgeley, George believed he was bisexual. He was genuinely, physically attracted to women. But once he left his teens and his own carnal knowledge grew, George realized he was emotionally bonded to men. That was so clear in early Wham! videos that one could be forgiven for believing George and Andrew were lovers — George’s erotic interest in females and yearning for kinship with males sent out mixed messages that attracted a particular kind of woman who didn’t always click with traditional straight guys.
Among them was Princess Diana. “She was very like a lot of women that have been attracted to me in my life because they see something non-threatening,” George admitted in a 2009 interview. “I think we clicked in a way that was a little bit intangible, and it probably had probably more to do with our up bringing than anything else. Maybe because I take care of my sisters and I’m so protective of my sisters, women seem to smell that. So women who had a hard time growing up… when I was still sleeping with women, my God, it was absolutely all of the time.”
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These are the threads woven into “Father Figure.” On the surface, it’s a traditional love ballad, the particularly passionate kind George mastered when he wrote “Careless Whisper” with Ridgeley when they were both 17. This one is far more churchy. Like his idol and contemporary Prince, George searched for something “sacred” in sexuality; a healing balm that will protect both him and his beloved. He aims to provide it, both with his reassuring words and steadfast delivery – whispery and intimate during the verses, commanding and declamatory during the chorus.
Both approaches are necessary, for George knows all too well the complications of loving a guy like him. “Sometimes I think you’ll never understand me,” he admits way up front. That’s the first clue there’s something unusual happening here. Illegality is also on his mind, as he mentions it twice: “I have had enough of crime,” he promises, while admitting, soon after, “Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime.” Both renouncing what’s verboten and suggesting it’s a question of perception, George delivers the song’s strangest, most brazen taboo with the simplest, most unsettling command: “Put your tiny hand in mine.”
Jailbait love is no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll: It’s explicit in classics like “You’re Sixteen,” a hit both in 1960 when its original singer, Johnny Burnette, was 26, and again in 1973, when Ringo Starr revived it at age 33. At 24, George was young for a father figure, and perhaps not an obvious candidate: Although his stubbly, swarthy, and hirsute appearance made him more masculine and mature than his androgynous (and often childlike) ‘80s pop peers, his plucked eyebrows, eyeliner, and jewelry made him a likely model for “the little f—-t with the earring and the makeup” referenced in Dire Straits’ 1985 chart-topper “Money for Nothing.” So it was rather subversive for a pretty boy, who only three years earlier had pranced around in short shorts and florescent yellow gloves for Wham’s omnipresent “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, to be suddenly playing Pops.
“Playing” is the operative word here: There’s no historical evidence to suggest George was sexually drawn to underage girls or “chicken,” the gay slang for young men that recently rediscovered transgender pioneer Jackie Shane uses throughout her justly acclaimed Any Other Way: Both Anselmo Feleppa – the AIDS-stricken lover George mourns throughout third LP Older – and Kenny Goss, with whom he had his longest relationship, were several years George’s senior, while Fadi Fawaz, the lover who found George’s dead body last Christmas, was in his 40s. As for girlfriends, his primary and perhaps final one, Kathy Jeung – the woman who romps with the singer in satin sheets for his “I Want Your Sex” video – was only a year shy of George’s age.
Instead, “Father Figure” allowed the songwriter to act out the part Princess Diana and many other women – even his young fans – likely wanted to cast him. He’s the protector, the confidant, the “teacher” he sings to so pleadingly two songs later on Faith in “One More Try.” He’s role-playing The Daddy – a celebrated status for gay men, who are otherwise culturally taught they mustn’t age — long before he was old enough to enact that character in real life. In the song, he brings more than enough worldly manhood.
Moreover, “Father Figure” allowed George to celebrate forbidden desires without drawing explicit attention to his own. Sex between adults and those underaged remains illegal for good reason; even if it’s seemingly consensual, the older person holds too much power. However, even 30 years after “Father Figure,” LGBTQ love remains more than mistaken for a crime: It is a crime throughout much of the world. It’s telling that radio didn’t have a problem with George singing “Put your tiny hand in mine” as they did with him declaring, “I Want Your Sex.” Unlike that No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 hit, “Father Figure” went all the way to No. 1 in the U.S. in February 1988, and stayed there for two weeks.
There are times when art can go to places real-life human behavior mustn’t, and in this case, over 10 million Faith buyers in the U.S. alone decided they were okay with George taking them somewhere they wouldn’t want to travel with Jerry Lee Lewis. Without the elements that nudge the lyric toward off-limits territory, “Father Figure” would be a far more conventional and much less compelling song. They serve as crucial metaphors that brought George as close as he could to writing from the heart, without alienating much of his audience and the industry. For although the ’80s embraced LGBTQ musicians with a fervor we haven’t seen since, the era rarely allowed gay songwriters to call love by its proper name, let alone top the charts with it. We’re still not there yet.