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, Lori Majewski takes on the album’s first hit single and title track, the club-ready, provocative “I Want Your Sex.”
I was a virgin when I first heard “I Want Your Sex.”
In 1987 I was 16, and the idea of sex frightened me almost as much as Freddy and Jason. According to my sex-ed teacher, “pre-marital relations” could only lead to two things: a reputation (see the girl in my class known as “the Lincoln Tunnel”) and unwanted pregnancy. The former would ruin my day-to-day life; the latter, my meticulously planned-out future. Thus, I kept my adolescent libido in check and my eyes on the prize, which was going to college and becoming a music journalist. It was a career choice partly inspired by self-proclaimed groupie Pamela Des Barres and her memoir I’m With the Band, but the irony was lost on me.
When George Michael crash-landed into ’80s pop, he was barely out of his teens himself. Through his songs, I learned he didn’t want a baby, either: It was a point he made loud and clear via the Wham! songs “Young Guns (Go For It)” and “Everything She Wants.” If Michael couldn’t deal with a real job (“Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)”), no way was he ready for a kid. Anyway, he was busy bromancing with his partner-in-crime (though inequal-partner-in-music), Andrew Ridgeley. The duo charted a half-dozen early-to-mid-eighties hits about their excellent, seemingly-heterosexual adventures in smoking cigarettes and giving/getting hickeys (“Bad Boys”), sun-tanning and sipping cocktails (“Club Tropicana”), and doing the jitterbug in day-glow short-shorts (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”).
Michael had also written songs about romance and relationships, of course, but the subject matter didn’t stray from the usual fare: love found, then lost (“A Different Corner”), love ruined by cheating a friend (“Careless Whisper”), love that left him flat-broke (“Credit Card Baby”).
He’d even written several salacious songs about sex. While “I’m Your Man” encouraged the listener to “do it right” while doing it with him, “The Edge of Heaven” claimed, “There’s a place for us in a dirty movie/ ‘Cause nobody does it better than me and you.” My teenage self hardly flinched at such innuendo. After all, this was not long after Frankie Goes to Hollywood urged people to “relax, don’t do it, when you wanna” — well, you know. Indeed, the most controversial thing about George Michael seemed to be that he was a man who wore two hoop earrings — one through each lobe — instead of the more culturally acceptable one.
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Then, on June 1, 1987, Michael released “I Want Your Sex,” the lead-off single from his forthcoming solo album, Faith. In daring to reference the act of intercourse in the song title, the Brit managed to simultaneously torch his boy-band past, one-up controversy chasers Prince and Madonna, and force uncomfortable radio DJs around the world to utter the words “I Want Your Sex.” (Except for Casey Kasem: For the entire duration of its stay on his American Top 40, the late host introduced the track as “the new one from George Michael” — even when it hit number one.)
If the track had been by a lesser-known artist, radio probably would’ve buried “I Want Your Sex” under a pile of promos. But Michael was too big to ignore. Five months earlier, he’d topped the U.S. charts with “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” a duet with Aretha Franklin. And the year before, Wham! played their final gigs to humongous, sold-out crowds at Philadelphia’s Veteran Stadium and London’s Wembley Stadium. It was only a matter of time before the BBC, who’d initially banned “I Want Your Sex” from daytime playlists, let down their guard. Meanwhile, many American stations put the single in rotation, opting to bleep out the “sex” in the chorus. The track climbed into the top five in both countries.
As for me, I found myself both seduced and terrified by “I Want Your Sex.” Keep in mind, this overt ode to coitus arrived smack-dab in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Though my sex-ed teacher left that out of her lessons, I’d read AIDS could be transmitted through intercourse, and contracting it was considered a death sentence.
But, as I’d come to discover, Michael had written “I Want Your Sex” in response to the epidemic. “The media has divided love and sex incredibly,” he said, trying to quell controversy. “The emphasis of the AIDS campaign has been on safe sex, but the campaign has missed relationships. It’s missed emotion. It’s missed monogamy. ‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”
Further illustrating his point was the music video, which starred Michael and then reported girlfriend, the makeup artist Kathy Jeung, who writhed in the nude while tangled in satin sheets. Her bare back was the canvas for the song’s message, Explore Monogamy. Or: Sex doesn’t have to be scary when it’s with someone you trust, and when you take the proper precautions.
“I Want Your Sex” isn’t my favorite George Michael song. (That would be “Jesus To A Child,” the mournful lead single from 1996’s Older) It didn’t remain high on Michael’s list, either: After the Faith World Tour, he would never again perform it live. However, it was the perfect song for that particular moment, the bridge that allowed him passage from Wham! to solo superstardom — and once he made it across, he burned it behind him. For me, the single was a totally new way to think about sex: “Sex is natural/ Sex is fun/ Sex is best when it’s one-on one.”
The day after I caught George Michael’s Faith tour at New York’s Madison Square Garden, I wore my prized souvenir to school: a black tee with EXPLORE MONOGAMY written in big letters across the back. My principal didn’t like what I was broadcasting. “We’ll have none of that here!” he said, cornering me in the hallway, before demanding I go home and change. But I stood my ground. “Monogamy is a good thing,” I argued. “Don’t get fresh with me!” he said. Clearly, he had no idea what the word meant.
Afterwards, I realized that it was George Michael who’d actually taught me sex ed. And my principal still had a lot to learn.