Creativity and Happiness Vs Fame and Fortune
George Michael, in an interview, shortly before he died (on Christmas Day two years ago), said he felt there was something genuinely odd about people in his position. With a musical ability powered by a desperate ambition to be famous, initially, all he thought he ever wanted was fame and success, but realized in the end it was true love, normality and creative freedom that he yearned more than anything else.
Right from the get-go George said he’d had no doubt he could become an international solo artist. In 1988 when he left Wham and launched as a solo artist, the hits soon started coming thick and fast – four of them becoming US no 1 singles, making him a huge overnight success in America. But instead of relishing this increased fame, George was surprised and quite disturbed that he had become more famous than Wham.
As he explains in the interview, when he was with Wham there had been Andrew to share the journey with. Now he was facing fame on his own. He found the hysteria that comes with fame frightening and awkward-making to the point that he wanted to self-destruct and act out sexually. Everybody wanted a piece of him. Even when surrounded by so many people, he felt alone, trapped, isolated, and mentally all over the place. He was beginning to find it difficult keeping pace with who he really was and what he really needed. He was losing his sense of self. Added to that he felt he was being steered creatively in the direction that Sony his record label wanted, rather than what he wanted, which felt deeply uncomfortable.
To continue living this way was making him feel all round stifled and creatively strung out, and it seemed too big a price for him to pay. When it came to promoting his next album “Without Prejudice”, he chose to loosen the perceived shackles and “disappear” behind the scenes, directing videos of the five supermodels Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Tatian Patitz, who became the the lip-synching stars of his album instead. The significance of the burning of his leather jacket in one of the scenes was George’s way of saying he was sick of this type of treatment – he no longer wanted to put his image or name to the album. He felt dehumanized and objectified by Sony and he was tired of all the fame and attention he was getting.
Sony did not feel the same way. They saw this as an act of childish defiance and fought back, refusing to accept George’s decision not put his name or image to their product. At around the same time, George’s Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppo died of aids. Grieving his loss and at the same time enraged by his label’s reaction and insensitivity, George sued Sony and took them to Court.
He fought long and hard and after several months lost his high court battle to be released from his contract (it came as a double blow that no other major artists came rushing forward in support of his case). Apparently, he had no right to resign – there was no such thing in the music industry, and being tethered to his contract felt like professional slavery. As he later expressed “You are expected to live with the initial decision at the beginning of your career and live with it for the rest of your life”. George had changed and grown apart from his label, and Sony had lost their best artist, agreeing in the end that the contract could be sold. George could then buy himself out.
Notwithstanding, having been released from his contract, he then had enough fuel to create and produce one of his finest works; “Older” which he released through Virgin. He was able to use all the pain and frustration he had endured with losing Anselmo and fighting Sony, to provide the material for an outstanding collection of beautifully crafted songs. As Stevie Wonder was later to say “Being you is not being afraid or ashamed of the gift you have been given”. In the end, George had proven he was no longer afraid of being himself, and despite the lonely journey, was in control of his career at last.
There is no doubt George was one of the great songwriters of our time – one of those last big stars when there was a certain amount of glamour and razzmatazz attached and fortunes were made. Today, the major labels are not what they were. They have become fragmented, nervous, risk-averse and global monoliths; more like distributors to a small percentage of rare artists who have either slogged tirelessly to build up careers on their own or are so talented they get handed the “golden ticket”.
So how should they address those rare world famous artists like George who come along every once in a while, who need to manage the “oddness” that he spoke about in his interview – who are musical geniuses subsumed by the powerful obsession for fame and success, who clearly need the big arm of a global entertainment group to expand their career? I believe if we all continue to perpetuate the myth that fame and fortune are what brings happiness, these exceptional artists are going to continue to struggle with the acute focus that comes from anything or anyone that encourages global fame and objectification. If artists can’t take time out to be normal, they are going to continue to suffer and feel bound up by contractual obligations that don’t recognize and factor in their frailties as well as their talents.
The music industry can do more to humanize the careers of their super talented artists. They can start by understanding that however talented and hungry for attention, they do have needs. And these artists can benefit from understanding more about themselves too – not just creatively, but also strive to have a master plan that brings happiness and a sense of serenity, seeing balance as a necessary prerequisite, so that they can manage better the ups and downs that come with being strongly creative, and find more manageable ways to remain in the driving seat of their careers before circumstances force them to do so.
Being in the driving seat with control over your right to creativity and happiness over and above the irresistible lure of fame and fortune, is becoming increasingly more important. Do you agree? If you want to find out more, contact Gina at The Powerful Artist. WWW.thepowerfulartist.com