Sunday, July 30, 2017

I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) To Post About "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)"

Here's a sentence from 1986 written by no one ever:

"Can George Michael survive without Wham!?"

The man certainly had a lot to prove. And in order to prove it, he needed to find a heavy hitter, a big timer, a game-changer, someone who could show the world that he didn't need to coast on the back of Andrew Ridgeley. Someone who could, you know, actually sing with him.

Let me propose to you an idea for a duet. Two titans of soul music, joining forces to ascend the Church Spire of the Billboard Hot 100, to achieve a musical height together that would be unthinkable alone. But they couldn't be just any two singers. We're talking about assembling a dream duo of soul here. How about Aretha Franklin? Yeah. That's a good start. Can't go wrong with the Queen of Soul. OK, so Aretha Franklin, and ... who's the male gonna be? Let's see here. Al Green? Ray Charles? Sam Moore? Ronald Isley? Try none of the above.

How the hell did George Michael end up singing a duet with Aretha Franklin? And here's the more pertinent question: how did that duet end up being so fucking awesome?

Seriously. It would be like James Brown doing a duet with Madonna. It couldn't work. It shouldn't work.

It totally worked.

Aretha doesn't mess around. "Like ah warr-yah-that-fights ... and wins the baaaa-tuhl ... I knowwww the taste of vic-tahhry." This, my friends, this is the taste of victory. "Though I went-through-some-nights ... consuuuuuuumed by the shadows ..." She's feelin' it, she's definitely feelin' it. What have you got, Georgios?

"Mmmmmmm somehow I made it through the heartache, yes I did, I escaped/I found my way out of the darkness, I kept my faith." Not bad, Brit Boy! In case anyone doubted whether or not George truly kept his faith, Aretha assures us with a supportive "I know you did." How the hell would she know? She'd probably just met him!

Even so, the moment she met him, I'm guessing the first thing she did was take him to church, because on the chorus, Aretha and George climb up on that pew and raise their hands to the sky:
When the river was deep
I didn´t falter
When the mountain was high
I still believed
When the valley was low
It didn´t stop me
I knew you were waiting for me
Can I get an "Amen"? Favorite ad-libs:
  • 2:29: Aretha's "Whoahhhh-ahhhh!"
  • 2:54: Aretha does a melismatic "Whooo-hooo-uh-ooooh" which George follows with a gutteral "I knewwwww you were waitin'"
  • 3:04: Aretha really lets it all hang out now with an "I didn't faltaaaahhh, Lawd!" while George throws in an authoritative "When-the-val-ley-was-low"
  • 3:22: George really reaches back for "When the mountaaaaaaain was hi-iiiiigh" and I can just imagine Aretha giving him the side-eye and thinking, "What do you think you're doin' honey" because she barely reaches back for an "Ahhhhhhh! When the valley was lowwwww"
  • 3:38: George emits a simple "Yeahhh" but Aretha smothers it with a rising "Whuuuuuuhh-ahhhhh! Uhhhh-Yeah!" which starts at the very tippy tippy-toes of George's feet and ultimately lands on the moon by the time she's done with it
  • 3:44 George hits a nice groove with "Ohhhh-I sti-yillll believe" (OK, we got it, you believe), then Aretha gets masculine on his ass with a growling "You know it couldn't stop me, no," which George punctuates with a forceful "No"
  • 3:52: At this point I suspect George is just riffing on whatever the fuck Aretha seems to be doing; She shouts "Someday!" so he shouts "Someway!, then she shouts "Someplace!" so he shouts "Somehow!," which seems to have settled it. What is this, the Jets and the Sharks? Where's Tony and Maria when you need them?
"I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" managed to do what few hits have done before or since. It managed to unite eight different audiences at once: black and white, male and female, gay and straight, British and American. A record executive couldn't have drawn up more of a sure-fire hit if he'd generated some sort of "focus group hit record algorithm" in a state-of-the-art lab. Naturally, the song hit #1 in both the US and UK, making George the first artist in Britain whose first three singles all peaked at #1, which means that, just as Tom Brady's five Super Bowl rings clearly make him the greatest quarterback of all time, George Michael is clearly the greatest British singer of all time.

Of course, "Careless Whisper" and "A Different Corner" were still quasi-Wham! songs, so the video for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" was George's first true opportunity to present a new "solo" image to the public, and while the mountain of expectations may have been high, Lord, he didn't falter. That's right, it was time for ... the leather jacket, sunglasses, earrings, and six millimeter stubble. At first he enters a dark, cavernous room with a giant screen on the wall (did every record label have one of those lying around?), and he stares up at footage of Aretha. Uh-oh. Don't tell me this was another one of those deals where the producers couldn't work out the artist's schedules and had to film their bits separately. Come on, we need some hot George on Aretha action here! A full two-and-a-half minutes go by until we finally see - yes! - George slide into the frame with Aretha. See? I knew they were waiting to show me that they'd made it to the same set at the same time.

Suddenly the screen in the background starts showing images of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill, and I'm thinking, whoa, that's ballsy. You guys really want to be comparing yourselves to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, eh? And then the screen starts showing images of Sonny and Cher, and I'm thinking, OK, that's a little more appropriate - if anything, sort of a downward comparison. I would put George Michael and Aretha Franklin right in the middle: not as great as Marvin and Tammi, but better than Sonny and Cher. Yes, better than Sonny and Cher, even though George and Aretha only recorded one duet ever, and Sonny and Cher recorded hundreds. Look at it this way: no bad songs!

Let's turn, once again, to Professor Higglediggle for a more academic analysis:
Michael's presence of "whiteness" acts as an ethnomusicological co-opting of Franklin's authentic "otherness," which serves to situate her Africanist transnationalism merely as a reductivist codification of "soul." In a perhaps unintended parallel, Franklin's heterogeneity serves to recontextualize Michael's ambiguous phallic capital under a rubric of mediated familial cohesion. By consenting to Michael's reification, Franklin doubles as Michael's African-American "beard," while simultaneously essentializing the British homosexual white male fantasy of "being able to hold one's own" with an "American soul legend," a fantasy which can only be realized in the figmental realm of audience formation, the lyric's invocation of sacred Judeo-Christian imagery (e.g. "river," "valley,") serving to circumvent the repressive inequity of the pairing.

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