Will the Real Blue-Eyed Soul Artists Please Stand Up?

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georgemichael_sm.jpgImagine sampling a brand new food, something you had no idea even existed. Something that turned out to be so delicious, so mouthwatering delightful, that after one taste you were hooked.

 

 

 

 

Recently, while trying to find something, anything worthwhile on television to capture my attention, I turned to one of cable's most trustworthy channels: VH1 Classic. To my delight, Behind the Music was on. And what a fantabulous treat it was to see featured one of my absolute most favorite male artists: the über talented singer/songwriter/musician/performer extraordinaire, George Michael.

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My first introduction to George Michael as a solo star was in 1987, after his split from the super duo Wham!, one of the most successful British pop bands in history. At the tender age of 12, I was the hugest George Michael fan ever. Not only did I have his debut album Faith, which won the Grammy Award for "Album of the Year" in 1989, but I had copies of it on two cassette tapes. One cassette held a regular spot in the stereo in my bedroom, while I kept the other in heavy rotation in my portable neon green, dual cassette boom box. "I Want Your Sex," "Faith," "One More Try," "Hard Day," "Monkey," "Father Figure"... you name it, I knew the lyrics to those gems by heart. And 20 years later, I still know all the words.

Some folks today consider George Michael a joke, a ridiculous has-been because of his longtime closeted homosexuality and recurring troubles with drugs and the law. In my opinion, though, that way of thinking is just pure insanity. Even though George Michael hasn't had a hit single on the Billboard Hot 100 (USA) since 1996, I have no doubt that the quality of his extensive list of chart-topping hit songs will stand the test of time.

As I sat and watched the incredible story of Michaels' life on Behind the Music, it struck me that he is the epitome of blue-eyed soul. Sure, there are a few other greats who fall into this category—Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, Jamiroquai, Lisa Stansfield, Teena Marie, Steve Winwood, and Elton John quickly come to mind—but George is my all-time favorite. And sadly, like George, none of those other phenomenal artists have had singles in regular rotation in quite some time. So that raises the following questions: What's become of blue-eyed soul today? Does it even exist? Do younger artists even know what it is?

At this point, I'm sure some people are saying to themselves, "Well, look at Justin Timberlake!" or "What about Robin Thicke?" Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy bringing "SexyBack" with the best of 'em, but, really, is that truly blue-eyed soul in its most sincere and genuine form? Me thinks not! "SexyBack," no doubt, has an infectious beat that makes you want to get out on the floor and shake your groove thang. And, yes, Timberlake is quite a looker. But is his brand of blue-eyed soul smooth? Do his melodies and rhythms linger long after his last notes have been sung? Again, I hate to say it, but me thinks not!

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And as for Robin Thicke, such a disappointing waste of tremendous potential, where do I even begin? Well, let's rewind back to the beginning. The Robin Thicke that just about everyone knows today and constantly raves about, well, I still refer to as simply Thicke. See, I was an early fan of Thicke, back when he had long scraggly hair and looked like a scruffy dirt biker and used only his surname. I was so incredibly psyched about his promising success when he was featured in the 2003 Sprite commercial, riding through the streets of New York on a BMX bike, singing his debut single, "When I Get You Alone." I waited with bated breath for his first full-length album, Cherry Blue Skies (2002), which was re-released as A Beautiful World (2003). Talk about an album that was well worth the wait. Solid! Soulful! Sincere! Each song was original, innovative, and distinctive. Imagine sampling a brand new food, something you had no idea even existed. Something that turned out to be so delicious, so mouthwatering delightful, that after one taste you were hooked. That's exactly how it was for me when I first heard Thicke.

A Beautiful World held a permanent spot in my CD player for months. But while the CD garnered acclaim from a few critics and a sprinkling of discerning music lovers like me, the wider listening public wasn't so enthralled. Despite its original mix of classic soul, hip-hop, pop, rock, and funk, A Beautiful World was a commercial flop, selling only 63,000 copies and reaching #152 on the Billboard 200 chart. A few months after the CD's less-than-stellar debut, Thicke, himself, fell off the radar.

Fast-forward a couple of years to 2005. A newly monikered "Robin Thicke" begins working with the likes of hip-hop mega-superstar producer Pharrell Williams and rappers, like Lil' Wayne of Cash Money Records. He sheds his unshaven, grungy appearance and emerges with a new, clean-cut preppy look, sporting classic shell-toe Adidas, a V-neck sweater, and a closely cropped coif.

In the fall of 2006, Robin Thicke's third album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke, is released, and it becomes a certified success, spending two weeks at #1 on the R&B albums chart. Not only that, but the single "Lost Without U" becomes Robin Thicke's first #1 hit on the R&B singles chart, and he becomes the first white male singer to top the R&B charts since George Michael back in 1988. But for all of his newly minted success, Robin Thicke is not the new George Michael. And as for claims that he is the latest, greatest blue-eyed soul singer, again I have to say loud and clear, me definitely thinks not!

Here's the simple problem I have with The Evolution of Robin Thicke: it's a Justin Timberlake clone. Thicke even goes so far as to take one of the songs ("Shooter") from his debut album, remix it with Lil' Wayne, slap it on his new release, and then promote it to the masses as if it were an original masterpiece. Back in the early days, the talent certainly was there, and so was the promise, but in the end, Thicke simply got tired of waiting to make it big, and he sold out.

It's clear that Thicke's "evolution" has been nothing more than a quest for commercial success. After the disappointing performances of his previous releases, I'm sure he felt extraordinary pressure from his record label to finally succeed. And, of course, I understand the pressures of personal finances - everyone has bills to pay. But to trade in your unique sound and artistic integrity for the sake of wealth and popular success, that's just something no true blue-eyed soul singer would ever do. Just ask George Michael.

Michael is a classic, a true talent who's never compromised his artistry for the sake of mass appeal. From his early blockbusters with Wham!, like "I'm Your Man," "Careless Whisper," and "Everything She Wants," to his early solo hits, like "A Different Corner," "Freedom '90," and "Too Funky," to his later masterpieces, like "Older," "Fastlove," and "Flawless (Go to the City)," George Michael has always had something meaningful to say with his music, something lasting and memorable, something worthy of being considered true blue-eyed soul.

As a bona fide music icon and song stylist, Michael can sing anything well and he always sounds fantastic. He even has an album consisting of old and new standards, called Songs from the Last Century (1999). Check it out, if you haven't already. You won't be disappointed. George Michael is the real deal—a real blue-eyed soul artist whom you can wholeheartedly get behind, knowing that you'll never be duped or deceived by his lust for commercial success. | Retannical D. Russell

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