George Michael refuses to play the polite pop star

The passing years can be unkind to rebels. You survive booze, bad marriages, and car crashes, only to have the march of time leave its muddy boot print on your shining legacy. One day, you're Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a quintessential leather boy. A few decades later, you're being shot in shadow to hide the fat creases and lampooned on SNL. In contrast, George Michael has gotten off lightly: He merely lost his American audience.

On the surface, calling the British blue-eyed soul titan a rule-breaker seems laughable. His rendition of Nina Simone's “Feeling Good” was the highlight of his recent appearance on ABC's Eli Stone, but there's no “Mississippi Goddam” in his catalog. Hell, he can barely dress the part; even in a motorcycle jacket and aviator shades, Michael looks more like a grooming expert than a thug. But his record speaks for itself. Throughout his quarter century in showbiz, the two-time Grammy winner has been an unrepentant troublemaker.

Take his initial heyday as half of early-'80s pop pin-ups Wham! While Madonna urged audiences to enjoy a “Holiday,” Michael and his foil, Andrew Ridgeley, pumped out singles advocating staying on the dole (“Wham! Rap”) and avoiding matrimony (“Bad Boys”). It's telling that his new career-spanning compilation, Twenty-Five, opens with the pointed “Everything She Wants,” rather than the insidious earworm “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

Between 1984 and 1991, Michael scored 10 number one singles in America. How did he thank his handlers? By continually crossing the music industry that pimped him. Heavy MTV rotation helped his 1987 solo debut, Faith, to sell 20 million copies worldwide. But for its follow-up, the superlative Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, he eschewed most promotion chores — including making videos. In just a few years, Michael went from stuffing a shuttlecock down his shorts onstage to refusing to appear in his own promo clips; when he finally relented for “Freedom '90,” it featured a gaggle of supermodels, but no George.

In the aftermath, he sued his record company, Sony, to get out of a contract he deemed unfair. Whereas Prince and Nine Inch Nails enhanced their outlaw status with similar maneuvers, Michael suffered as a consequence. One of his best singles, a 1999 duet with Mary J. Blige on the Stevie Wonder jam “As,” wasn't even available on a domestic CD until Twenty-Five. Did you even know he released a covers album, Songs from the Last Century, in 1999? In Britain, it peaked at #2 — here, it stalled at #157.

Still, Michael has refused to play nice. His 2002 single, “Shoot the Dog,” skewered Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But his best work of the last decade came in response to his 1998 arrest for “engaging in a lewd act” with “Outside,” a frothy, disco paean to public sex. Having already gone on record about his sexuality, discussing how the 1993 AIDS-related death of his lover shaped his album Older, Michael laughed off his belated media “outing.” Likewise, he characterized his February 2006 bust for possession of Class C drugs as “my own stupid fault.” He then got nicked by the fuzz twice more.

Michael, who turns 45 this month, is the most-played artist of the last 20 years on British radio; here, until he popped up on last month's American Idol season finale, he'd barely troubled airwaves since 1996. When he stopped acting like a mature pop star, America stopped treating him like one. Now his first U.S. tour in 17 years looks to be his last. In a recent interview, the singer admitted he has no delusions about kick-starting his career. The loss is ours. For a nation founded by rebels, America doesn't always recognize them. Maybe he just needs to fatten up.

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