1988 Countdown #48: George Michael, “Faith”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

Adam Curry: “In at number forty-eight, we find George Michael. He’s had a great year, of course. His Faith tour that everybody went out to see; in fact, MTV covered it, we broadcast two songs live from his show in, what is it, Massachusetts, I believe. And his album Faith spent seventeen weeks at number one on Billboard’s album chart.” (In reality, it was twelve weeks.) “Billboard actually voted the album the number-one album of the year, and the single ‘Faith’ the number-one single.” Which leads to the question, assuming Curry hasn’t mangled those facts–why isn’t the song ranking higher on this countdown? I believe the answer is that its ride at #1 straddled 1987 and 1988 (not a problem at Billboard, where the year ends circa December 1).

Curry throws to the video: we’re getting the extended version, where we see an old-fashioned Wurlitzer jukebox playing (a tinny, low-volume version of) “I Want Your Sex.” We zoom in to see another record lifted up to the needle: it looks like a regular 33 rpm 12-inch vinyl album. While an organ plays a liturgical version of Wham!’s “Freedom,” the camera pans around George Michael’s body, counterclockwise and up, like a corkscrew. (This is all in black-and-white.) Michael’s jeans have white bleach spots and strategic rips.

Leaning against the jukebox is a woman, who appears to be naked except for a pair of high heels. (We can’t see her above her waist, and she is artfully framed in a side view.) She has one leg bent. Her shoes are bright purple, although the rest of the screen remains black-and-white: this was a computer-aided colorization technique that became popular around this time and can be seen in Hershey’s commercials of the era, a Michael Jackson video that will come later in the countdown, and five years later, Schindler’s List.

We pan over to George Michael, who is leaning on the other side of the jukebox, also with one leg bent. The video’s introduction is carefully building up the iconography that Michael would literally set on fire just three years after this single, in “Freedom ’90.” The intro takes 55 seconds; the rest of the clip clocks in at just 2:35 (which I believe makes “Faith” the shortest #1 single of the last thirty years).

We return to the corkscrewing camera, which has reached Michael’s unsmiling face. He’s wearing mirrored aviator glasses. A cross dangles from his left earlobe. His stubble appears to have been carved with the steady hand of a cardiac surgeon: extremely short, and with two triangular indentations. Now, this overall look is just “George Michael costume,” but at the time, it seemed dead cool: a fashion-forward outfit that roughed up Michael’s pretty-boy glamour a bit.

The music starts: a strumming guitar, with Michael’s steel-toed cowboy boot tapping against the jukebox in time (which should knock the needle off the record, right?). We get a tight shot of Michael’s pelvic region: he’s wielding a National guitar and shaking his hips from side to side.

Reverse angle: we see Michael shaking his ass. This is the most attention paid to a male pop singer’s butt since Bruce Springsteen’s cover for Born in the U.S.A.

Lots of fast cuts, whip-pans, and zooms in and out. The back of Michael’s studded leather jacket is emblazoned with the message “Rockers Revenge” and the letters “BSA”–much as we might hope for a cheeky endorsement of the Boy Scouts of America, it apparently stands for the Birmingham Small Arms Company.

We’re treated to an assortment of post-production tricks: some shots are straight black and white, some have a purple hue superimposed, some are monochromatic except for the blue jeans, and some are in lurid color against a yellow background. It’s all unnecessary frippery–Michael is giving a hugely charismatic performance, bursting with energy and getting in touch with his inner Elvis.

The camera zooms in and out; Michael pouts and spins. The cross has switched to his right earlobe, either because he moved it or because somebody flipped the footage in the opening. Closeup on Michael’s clapping hands: he’s wearing a leather glove on his right hand, in tribute to either Michael Jackson or Ron Guidry.

We see the leggy naked woman’s purple shoes again, and Michael swinging his hips next to the Wurlitzer. He’s got a crazy strand of pearls on his left shoulder; they keep flapping around as he gyrates. We reach the line “Before this river becomes an ocean / Before you throw my heart back on the floor.” Twenty years ago, in a pizza parlor, Rob Sheffield pointed out that this lyric is a missed opportunity: if “floor” were “shore,” it would sustain the aquatic metaphor. I agree, but that’s pretty much the only blemish on a great pop song. I think of it as the cousin of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”: British male singers with big voices finding ways to make rockabilly into modern pop. It’s also an elegant counterpoint to “I Want Your Sex”: the singer spurns a hot lover because he knows it’ll only lead to heartache.

Shimmering guitar solo: Michael, silhouetted in a doorway, rocks out and plays his six-string. The guitars on this track were actually played by somebody named Hugh Burns, but Michael’s learned to play well enough to do a good job faking it. Which is the secret of pop music, and arguably, life.

“Faith” topped the Billboard singles chart for four weeks. You can watch the video here.

posted 3 November 2010 in 1988 and tagged . 14 comments

14 Comments on 1988 Countdown #48: George Michael, “Faith”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Right on with the comparison to Queen/”CLTCL.” I’ll have to research the shortest-single data point, but I’ll bet you’re right about that.

    Which leads to the question, assuming Curry hasn’t mangled those facts–why isn’t the song ranking higher on this countdown? I believe the answer is that its ride at #1 straddled 1987 and 1988 (not a problem at Billboard, where the year ends circa December 1).

    Perfect — thanks for doing my job for me. 😉 For Billboard, “Faith” was a near-perfect year-end chart-topper, as it peaked on the Hot 100 in December of 1987, the first month of their “chart year,” and had virtually the full year to amass chart points for the year-end tally. It also spent more weeks at No. 1, four, than any of Michael’s other Faith smashes (or any 1988 single except Steve Winwood’s “Roll with It,” which also spent four weeks on top).

    Those four weeks also beat the three-week chart-topper “One More Try,” which I bet will appear higher up in this countdown, its dull video notwithstanding; and the two-week chart-topper “Father Figure” (my favorite Faith single), which is also still to come and had a much more interesting/lurid video — I’ll bet that places highest of all.

    ‘Cuz I mean, all of this MTV chart placement is random and based on nothing but the programmers’ leanings in 1988 (metal > pop > R&B > hip-hop) and whatever payola the labels stuffed in their pillowcases that year. I’ll bet “Faith” placed well on their 1987 video countdown, but that’s based on mysterious/nonexistent data, too.

    For MTV, “Father Figure” and “One More Try” are bigger George Michael “hits.” For the general public as reflected in Billboard, “Faith” is George Michael’s indelible Moment.

  2. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Since this was 1987-88, the glove was probably more of a tribute to Frank Viola than to Ron Guidry.

    Am I wrong, or are there no drums on this song?

  3. Gavin Says:

    I think you’re wrong, or at least not completely right. No drummer is credited in the liner notes, but I certainly hear percussion–it usually sounds like it’s cymbals or tambourine (or programmed simulations thereof), but there’s times when it seems to be bolstered by something drumlike.

    Chris, I would love to know when there was a shorter #1 song–1975?

  4. Scott Underwood Says:

    Minor, maybe relevant addition: BSA does stand for Birmingham Small Arms Company, but in the context of the logo on that leather biker jacket, BSA made well-loved motorcycles; specifically, they were the “most popular cycle in the world” in the mid-’50s.

  5. Chris M. Says:

    I do know the shortest No. 1 of the entire Rock Era off the top of my head: Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay” (1960) is only 1:37. That’s a commonly available factoid.

    Ranking the song lengths of all of the Billboard No. 1’s would involve a pretty deep dive into the Whitburn Project. I’ll keep looking.

  6. Rob Says:

    Casey Kasem once did a countdown of the 3 shortest Number One hits ever: Elvis Presley’s “Surrender,” Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” and the Zodiacs’ “Stay.”

    At the time (this would’ve been early ’80s) Casey said these were the only 3 Number One hits under 2 minutes. I bet there haven’t been any others since then. “Faith” was incredibly brief for 1988–I bet it was a minute shorter than any other Number One hit of 1988. And I bet you’re totally right it’s the shortest Number One hit of the past 30 years.

    I’m sure we can all agree that the “baby!” that kicks off the 2nd verse is one of the ten greatest “baby!”‘s of all time.

    If the walls of New Haven pizza parlors could talk, they would reveal some mighty verbiose rock critic Socratic dialogues! As the Naples dude used to say, “Slices are ready.”

  7. Gavin Says:

    It’s short enough that I think they padded it with that organ intro so people wouldn’t say “whoa, that’s short!” when they saw the running time. (Even with it, it was probably still the shortest #1 single of the year.)

    My memory is that radio didn’t play the intro, though.

    Rob, anytime you want to compile the ten greatest “baby!”s, we’re here for you.

  8. azul120 Says:

    Surprisingly enough, Faith missed the top 100 of 1987, which is weird because it debuted on the top 20 in November of that year. Though I think it would have been in the 80s at the most, given that that’s where the videos that debuted around the same time (“So Emotional” from Whitney Houston, “Need You Tonight” from INXS) charted.

    Here’s the real shocker though: Faith only peaked at #4 on the countdown. Which was still an improvement over “I Want Your Sex” peaking at #6, and that was #27 of the year on MTV. There were a few other videos that had surprisingly hard luck on the countdown as well. “Faith” would be vindicated in later countdowns, many of which would have it as his highest ranked video of all time.

  9. Chris M. Says:

    Another short No. 1 hit that just happened to pop up on my iTunes today (I was listening to a Genius playlist): the Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Total time: 1:58.

    I honestly think the whole list must be dominated by ’60s songs, not ’70s.

  10. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    OK, since no one else was willing to man up and do it, I checked the lengths of all the Number One songs of 1988, and they’re all at least three minutes long. The shortest is “Need You Tonight” at exactly 3:00. That includes “Faith,” which clocks in at 3:16. I don’t know how long it would be without the organ intro.

    George Michael’s three other Number Ones for the year – “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” and “Monkey” – all weigh in at more than five minutes long. So “Faith,” in this instance, was rather like being the lightest member of the Packers’ offensive line.

  11. Gavin Says:

    >I don’t know how long it would be without the organ intro.

    As mentioned above, 2:35.

    An old entry pertinent to this conversation is this chart of the longest/shortest/median #1 song lengths, by year.

  12. Rob Says:

    As far as I remember, the radio didn’t play the organ intro at all–that was strictly for MTV. The intro would have sounded totally disjointed for a radio setting. (Any Number One hits from 1987-88 with instrumental intros around the 45 second mark? how about instrumental intros that account for almost a quarter of the song?)

    But it did always sound startlingly brief. I’m gonna guess that the only other Number One song from ’87 anywhere near this brief was the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba.” (Which I successfully dodged at the time and haven’t heard since.) Another thing that always sounded weird about “Faith” is that it had a cold ending rather than a fadeout, very unusual for a radio hit from the post-“Billie Jean” 1980s.

    Funny how I still think of this as George Michael’s most famous song, his signature hit, although “Father Figure” and “One More Try” seem to be the ones that come up far more often in cabs and drug stores. (Also funny how I think of this as a “Naples song” rather than a “Yorkside song.” I guess New Haven pizza parlors seemed to have their own sound–Yorkside was all about The Outfield, Stacey Q and Nu Shooz, right?)

    Who had more good years, George Michael or Ron Guidry? They both had blockbuster years that overshadow their other good ones…but when you talk about George or Gator, you’re talking about ’88 and ’78.

  13. Gavin Says:

    Michael versus Guidry is a close race.

    They’ve always delivered, but they each have three years with a lot of black ink: one powerhouse best-in-the-world year (88 Michael, 78 Guidry), one right next to it that was almost as good but overshadowed by the career year (87 Michael, 79 Guidry), and one very strong year a few years later (90 Michael, 85 Guidry: you’re stacking up “Freedom 90” against a 22-6 record). The fourth-best year for Guidry was probably 1983, when he went 21-9 with a 3.42 ERA and placed fifth in the Cy Young voting (the other three years mentioned above, he placed first, second, and third). Michael’s fourth-best year is probably 1996, when “Jesus to a Child” and “Fastlove” both hit #1 in the UK (and each went top-ten in the States).

    But that’s just considering Michael’s solo career: if you factor in Wham!, he also had 1984, when he released “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Freedom,” “Everything She Wants,” “Careless Whisper,” and “Last Christmas.” Which is an MVP year, even if he got edged out by Prince’s 1984.

    So I think you have to give it to Michael, even though he doesn’t have a nickname that can compare with either “Gator” or “Louisiana Lighting.”

  14. Chris M. Says:

    If this were on Facebook I would have enthusiastically clicked “Like” on both of the above two comments.

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