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, Maura Johnston takes on the album’s sixth hit single, the stately and stark album closer “Kissing a Fool.”
In a 1988 Rolling Stone profile published shortly after his proper solo debut Faith crash-landed onto the American charts, George Michael shows himself to be even more of an almost-obsessive scholar of pop than his recorded output might indicate.
He marvels over the sonic minutiae of Janet Jackson remixes; he notes that the Piccadilly Circus outpost of Tower Records hasn’t yet put up a Faith-touting window as agreed; he makes a convincing case for “the elation of pop as an art form” via the staying power of singles by The Supremes and The Beatles. But writer Steve Pond is particularly taken by Michael’s fascination with Getz/Giberto, the 1964 Stan Getz–João Gilberto collaboration that contained “The Girl From Ipanema” — the lighter-than-air saunter that turned boundless longing into something if not cool, then at least appropriate accompaniment for cocktails.
“Kissing A Fool,” the final single from Faith, isn’t the album’s only stark ballad; “One More Try,” the gospel-tinged plea that made it big on both the Hot 100 and the R&B chart then known as “Hot Black Singles,” counts too. But “Kissing,” a sparse crooner’s showcase that tells of a love gone sour in a way that echoes Getz and Gilberto’s lament and serves as Faith‘s denouement in a sense, is a fantastic example of not just Michael’s talent for balladry, but of the way he fully internalized his up-close study of pop.
His vocal range here is on full display — the song opens on a low B-flat, then soars to its two-octaves-away counterpart on the impassioned bridge, with Michael showing off his impressive vocal strength and masterful control. The precise musical detailing makes the song feel of Faith, which paired its four-on-the-floor rhythms and risqué-for-1987 lyrics with exquisite arranging, but they also help the song remain true to the aesthetics it’s honoring — the floating-in-space guitar filigrees that act as a counterpoint to Michael’s low-register laments, the barely-there drums, the closing pluck of a bass that puts a period on everything.
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Michael’s lyrics are plainspoken in the way that self-deprecation can be at times — he’s the titular fool, drawn in by falsehoods and crocodile tears, bamboozled by love in a way that can only be solved by a long night at one of those pubs that isn’t too crowded, where the music isn’t too loud. (The official video for the song gives Michael is set in a room that evokes a forgotten section of backstage, all slowly rotating fans and piled-up chairs.) His self-expression is simple but potent, the heartbreak that comes from love just not working, even though its parts all seem like they should be in place, simmering underneath his lower notes, and breaking big on the higher ones.
“It’s impossible to equate the bloke who’s [peeling off his jacket] with the bloke who in the next number sings his heart out in a ballad and really means it,” Michael told Q writer Adrian Deevoy later that year, just as Faith was solidifying its months-long hold on the Hot 100. “People aren’t prepared to accept that those two sides co-exist. I think that’s why people are so cynical about me.”
But those cynics clearly didn’t listen to “Kissing A Fool” closely, if they did at all. Michael made his name as a cheeky pin-up who winked at pop music while reveling in its potential to portray and accompany life’s pinnacles and nadirs; “Kissing A Fool,” by turning down the volume and letting Michael and his talent simmer, shows how serious he was about his life’s pursuit.