I was 13. Her name was Kathleen, and this all took place at a junior high dance in 1988. We were friends, but I had a horrible crush on her — which I kept to myself lest I upset the balance of our tiny little universe. She was dating somebody else, but they broke up in the middle of the dance. Since we were such good friends, I was the first person she told. Did I seize the moment? No, I made some mild comment about how maybe we could dance later in the night and then stewed long enough until she ended up dancing with a friend of mine who she eventually started dating.
I don’t recall all the specifics of that night, but there’s one thing I do know for sure: George Michael’s “Father Figure” played while Kathleen and her new boyfriend danced. Twenty-five years later, the moment is still ingrained in my sense memory.
We remember our first crush, our first true love, the person we lost our virginity to — but what about the first song that taught us about sex? The song where the light clicked on and we realized, “Oh, wow, so this is what sex is all about”?
For me, “Father Figure” was that song. I had heard “Father Figure” before that dance, but I had never really heard it before. Sex was still a long ways off, but George Michael unintentionally formed my initial understanding of what sex and love could be.
Before the song’s central groove kicked in, the opening seconds of “Father Figure” — its seductiveness and sophistication revealed with foreboding, chilly synthesizers — graciously ushered me into adolescence. There’s an air of expectation in the music, but I also heard something melancholy in those sustained keyboard tones. In my mind, I translated those first few seconds into a truism: if love is what we talk about in polite company, then darker, more powerful sexual desires are always burning bright underneath the surface.
The song tells the story of a man struggling to maintain a relationship with his lover — as a kid, I assumed the song was about George Michael and his girlfriend, just like the video had suggested. (Michael didn’t come out of the closet until about 10 years later.) A simple scan of the lyrics implies that age-old heartfelt sentiment, a pretty poem about undying love: “That’s all I wanted / Something special / Something sacred / In your eyes.” The opportunity to love and be loved in return. But despite the familiarity of a love song, Michael’s is overwhelming in its maturity. His Wham! days long gone, Michael on “Father Figure” is no longer singing about simple romantic misfortune. This longing has balls. Just listen to how Michael stretches the word “naked” into five syllables — “For just one moment/To be bold and naaaaakeddddddd/At your side” — as an invitation for all of us to imagine slowly undressing our object of desire.
Michael’s promise to play “father figure” to his lover is sexy, but also vaguely unsettling. The chorus suggests role-playing and domination, as opposed to an initial, knee-jerk reaction that takes things in an incestuous direction. Although plenty of pop songs hint at sex in slinky ways, most lack the crucial element of sexual intimacy that “Father Figure” inherently understands — legitimate kinkiness. This relationship, partially hidden behind closed doors, has two bodies working through issues and needs the rest of us never see (or understand).
In my small way, this was what I was discovering that night at the dance. Even though I hadn’t had a girlfriend (or even kissed a girl yet), as I watched Kathleen and her new beau dancing close together, I realized that they were part of a world that was only theirs. I wasn’t allowed.
George Michael’s perspective represented what it meant to be a man: powerful, sexual and comfortable navigating relationships. At that 13-year-old moment, I suddenly understood that growing up meant embracing those surging hormones, while knowing there would be a price to pay for crossing that emotional threshold.
Young boys listening to the radio look for gender cues just as much as they look for sexual clues. They’re looking for hints about what it means to be a man, an endless, compulsive anxiety for insecure adolescent boys. On one end of the spectrum, the über-macho hard rock of AC/DC taught us to treat women like shit, because that’s how you gain the upper hand — if you don’t, they’ll think you’re a “pussy.” On the other side, we had James Taylor or Ben Gibbard — guys with pretty voices who sing about pretty girls in poetic ways, hoping that the world won’t break their glasses.
But there’s another group of performers who don’t fit that binary, scaring most straight men by singing about seduction with a confidence that those sad-eyed guys lack, but without the meathead misogyny of those hard rockers. They dance unabashedly, with sexuality in their moves and they dance well — with confidence, choreography and grace. Women love these performers as sexual objects but also as best friends and secret confidants.
These performers are Prince, Justin Timberlake and yep: my guy, George Michael.
These guys taught me more about love and sex than AC/DC or James Taylor ever did. Their genius is that they cross typical gender roles, confounding male listeners who insist on tidy categories, exuding an undeniably strong sexual vibe that lacks any trace of macho. What’s more, their sexuality is feminine — soft and warm and inviting, and there’s a fluidity to it that you don’t get from sweaty rock gods in tight leather pants.
That feminine energy pervades “Father Figure.” Perhaps it’s the product of a British white guy trying to do soul music, but the song’s longing manages to be gentle — even if its undercurrents are kinky. Michael sings, “I will be the one who loves you / ’Til the end of time,” which, if true, is quite an impressive commitment. But it also felt reassuring, like he knew something about her that nobody else did.
This kinder, softer attitude stuck with me, even though I didn’t get Kathleen. From that moment at the dance, “Father Figure” became, for me, a love song about losing someone with grace. It was making peace with bittersweet emotions, even if the other person never shared any of them. “Father Figure” resides at the corner of love, desire, sadness and acceptance — it gives equal time to all four states of being. Sometimes, they end up coexisting.
Like a lot of music critics, I’ve had to listen to an album or a song intently while writing about its considerable merits to the point that it no longer has those qualities — the overplaying exhausts the material of its potency. I don’t want that to happen with “Father Figure.” I want it to remain like a ghost in the distance, a force to forever be reckoned with. I’ve come a long way since Kathleen — I’m happily married to a woman who I understand and who, as Michael would sing, “understands me.” But when “Father Figure” comes on the radio, it still gives me a little shiver. And I’m glad it does.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. This essay has been revised and condensed from the author’s presentation at the 2009 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington.