The summer is over, the Olympians have gone, and Lord Coe has been put back in his box for another year. But some memories will linger on, like a stubborn cold. Music fans, in particular, will struggle to forget George Michael’s performance in the closing ceremony. Other acts came out and played their most famous song for a TV audience of somewhere between nine and ten billion, according to industry insiders. George, wilful to the last, gave us his execrable new single. No one wanted to hear it, everyone was just waiting for it to end, but George wanted to play it, and afterwards he wanted us to buy it.
Maybe you need to be that famous to misjudge your audience so acutely. Anyone whose ego does not travel separately would realise that people only want to hear the hits. Remember Queen at Live Aid? They resuscitated their entire career that afternoon, because they knew instinctively that there was a time for crowd-pleasing, and that was it. Playing the new single, by contrast, suggests that you regard this gig as a purely promotional device. It’s not about London, it’s not about the Olympics, it’s about you, because everything always is. Self-absorption isn’t just a hobby for George, it’s a vocation. What might have come as a surprise to the casual viewer, who remembers the perkiness of the Wham! hits and the genuine promise of his early solo career, was just how vacant and tuneless the new song turned out to be. I have heard it once or twice on the radio since, and been dumbfounded that something so feeble could have found its way on to the playlist. It wouldn’t have done, if it hadn’t been by George Michael.
All political lives end in failure, said Enoch Powell, who would have made a fine rock critic in a parallel universe. Quite a few pop lives end in considerable wealth and the realisation that the period of actual, functional creativity was very short. David Bowie had a decade (1971–80) and he is unusual. Most of them have a brief flowering of magnificence and then spend the rest of their careers jogging along. But George Michael is a different case. Those first two albums, Faith (1987) and Listen Without Prejudice, Volume I (1990), suggested a long and fruitful career in which great classic songs would be written and national treasure status assured. What has come since, in the main, has been brutally disappointing: meandering, bland, dope-fuelled, pointless. What sets George apart from almost everyone else is that the disappointment of his later career has, to some extent, devalued what came before. Imagine calling an album ‘Listen Without Prejudice’! Hubristic, or what? Paranoid, un peu? It was such a silly title that many couldn’t see past it to the fine songs underneath — the last fine songs George Michael wrote, as it happens.
Disappointment is a very personal thing. You have to have really liked an act before they evoke that response in you. I can only think of a few who have done so in me. One of them turned up at the Paralympic closing ceremony: Coldplay. I have the first two albums and listen to them still. Again, such promise, such wonderful songwriting, full of ambition and scope and ideas. Somewhere along the line, though — and it may have come during the loot-generating tour that followed A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) — Chris Martin and his chums developed a different kind of ambition. ‘Let’s become the biggest band in the world!’ they chorused, over a late-night sherbet. ‘Let’s write simpler songs, with big fat choruses and lyrics that don’t mean anything! Let’s aim every last note at the not-very-bright man standing at the back of the audience, who will buy a T-shirt afterwards!’ And so it has come to pass. They get Brian Eno in to produce the albums now, but we are not fooled. They are now an economic unit before they are a musical one.
So Coldplay gave the audience what they thought they wanted, and George Michael ignored the audience altogether: two ways, it transpires, of achieving the same goal. The hubris of rock stardom never palls. And the disappointment of the fan who has lost his faith, or indeed his Faith, never quite fades. Chris Martin’s singing voice drives me bonkers now. And George Michael’s new single blights the Olympics’ closing ceremony. My problem, of course, and, no, I won’t be buying it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012