The Taylor Swift of the Eighties

by Jen Vafidis


During her promotional tour for 1989, Taylor Swift wouldn’t shut up about how great the eighties were. To Rolling Stone, she theorized:

What you saw happening with music was also happening in our culture, where people were just wearing whatever crazy colors they wanted to, because why not? There just seemed to be this energy about endless opportunities, endless possibilities, endless ways you could live your life.

Why not? It makes sense that the eighties could give pop stars some direction. Pick any year post-Thriller, look at the Billboard Year End chart, and count the number of songs in one year that you haven’t been able to escape since; these are the songs of lazy DJ sets, karaoke nights, college party playlists, and desperate car commercials. There’s some forgettable garbage in there too, but even it’s still played. You hear this stuff across state lines and generational chasms. The system worked.

Of course Taylor Swift would want to emulate artists who sold millions, and of course doing so means ironing out the country, idling away from the specific. As of this month, just over five million copies of 1989 have been sold in the United States; other than Drake’s latest, it’s the only album to sell over a million copies in 2015. In the pictures publicizing Swift’s 1989 tour, the glitter rompers and pyrotechnics and celebrity cameos all add up to this new “pop” Swift, one with endless opportunities, endless ways she could live her life. This is the way she’s living her life. It looks fun, if also a little disappointing.

Swift cites “Like A Prayer” in that Rolling Stone interview, but if I have to name a lasting pop star from the era who embodies Taylor’s distinguishing qualities — performatively guileless, massive ego, insistent on possibilities while staying within the lines, someone who hides parts of herself to get what she wants, i.e. your love — I can’t go with Madonna, who was more transparently provocative and ruthless. Janet had genuine rhythm; Cyndi was downtown in a way Taylor’s Tribeca is not; and Whitney was in a vocal class of her own. I don’t think I can name a woman. I might name a man. Let’s talk about George Michael.

George Michael was the most-played artist on British radio from 1984 to 2004. He beat out Elton John, even in the “Candle in the Wind ‘97” years, and Madonna, who had three more albums than Michael had in that span of time. “I’m the luckiest writer on Earth,” George said of the distinction. His first solo album Faith, released in 1987, has sold twenty-five million copies globally. He has sold more than a hundred million records worldwide, received multiple awards, become filthy rich, and so on. This is likely due to his being a very good singer with some very good songs — but it’s also due to Simon Napier-Bell and Jazz Summers, the managers of Wham!, who introduced George Michael to the world by getting him to China.

In Napier-Bell’s book, which has the comically capitalist title I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch, he describes the eighteen-month process of getting Chinese officials to agree to let Wham! become the first Western pop band to tour the country. Napier-Bell made a great pitch: If the Communist Party wanted to change its reputation and secure foreign investment, it would need to show it was open to the West, and what better way than to allow the band to perform on stage in Beijing? He beat the competition for this spot, Queen, by showing pictures of Freddie Mercury striking typically flamboyant poses. These conversations seem ludicrous, ironic, and probably exaggerated (“I fed the whole government,” Napier-Bell writes, leaning into the title). But they worked. Wham! in China was a spectacle that dominated worldwide media and made George Michael a bigger name than ever before.

It’s kind of moving to read what people in China had to say about this publicity stunt. Remember, this was only several years after the Cultural Revolution had ended. It’s like reading early accounts of the Beatles, but the quotes come from 1985. “The band members had long curly hair,” says one Chinese man who was a teenager then. “They dressed differently.” Another former teen admits: “Before that day, I had only seen a ballet performance.” “Back then,” says yet another, “if we wanted to listen to pop music with lyrics like that, we had to do that in secret.”

Every person who attended these concerts was given a cassette tape. On one side was a collection of Wham!’s hits; on the other side was a Chinese singer covering those hits with some altered lyrics. The BBC recently printed some of the Chinese version’s lyrics:

Wake me up before you go go
Compete with the sky to go high, high
Wake me up before you go go
Men fight to be first to reach the peak
Wake me up before you go go
Women are on the same journey and will not fall behind

People still have and cherish these cassettes. There’s also a concert film about this tour, but no one connected with the band likes to mention it. Partly because it’s bad, and partly because George Michael is the one who made it bad.

Foreign Skies: Wham! in China is an hour long, and you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube. The credits report that it was directed by Lindsay Anderson, the British New Wave filmmaker who gave the world Malcolm McDowell’s debut in if… and ambitiously looked into England’s national character in This Sporting Life and O Lucky Man!.”Perfection is not the aim” was one of his mantras.

Martin Lewis was the one to hire Anderson. Lewis had a knack for incongruous, lucrative pairings. In the late seventies, with John Cleese, he created The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the funnier “famous people being famous in public for charity” precursor to Live Aid. Before producing Foreign Skies, he already had experimented with putting filmmakers and pop music together by giving ten thousand dollars to Sam Peckinpah to direct two Julian Lennon music videos. (They’re fine, kind of chaste even. Peckinpah died months later, so they’re the last waltz for him.) Perhaps if Lewis were less self-aware, less British, he would write an incredible The Kid Stays in the Picture-esque aria about the last half of the twentieth century. In light of that, Anderson makes some kind of sense, in that he doesn’t make sense at all.

When Anderson showed his final cut of the film to the managers and the band, he was kicked off the project entirely. In his diaries, Anderson described the tone of his cut as “humorous-lyric-ironic,” a montage of episodes that showed the band interacting with a world they didn’t know. It was meant to appeal to an audience larger than “Wham! teenies.” George Michael hated it.

“None of this, I suppose, is exactly astonishing,” Anderson wrote coolly. “When I first took on the assignment, I warned myself not to get too involved, since such projects so often end by conflict between creators and exploiters, and in such situations the exploiters must always win.” That would have been a nice, even-keeled way to sum it up, but he went on: “I must admit, though, that I was not prepared for the incredible waste, silliness, lack of conscience, ignorance, lack of grace, lack of scruple, egoism, weakness, duplicity, and hypocrisy which have characterized the whole operation.” Bad blood, for sure. The film was cut from ninety minutes to an hour, and If You Were There (Anderson’s original title, a good one) became Foreign Skies: Wham! in China. No one is legally allowed to screen If You Were There publicly, even though it lives with Anderson’s papers at Stirling University.

“Like the trip itself, Foreign Skies is a sad, confused affair,” wrote journalist Tony Parsons. He’s not wrong. There is lots of footage of the boys walking around bazaars and interacting with ancient Chinese people, as well as several sequences of Chinese youths working out (think tai chi and martial arts, not weightlifting) while various Wham! hits play. George and Andrew stand on the Great Wall. They wear Communist Party hats and several billowing suits. Some woman in pastels at the British Embassy says Chinese food is “too rich” for her taste. One wonders what other embarrassments Anderson caught on film.

There are twelve performances in Foreign Skies (there were only four in If You Were There). One of them is Wham!’s cover of “Love Machine,” which goes on way too long. One of them is “Everything She Wants,” and another is “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” Of course, the last performance is a nine-minute version of “Careless Whisper,” and it is the reason the film endures beyond cultural curiosity. George Michael sings “Careless Whisper” in a white suit jacket and pants, with no shirt on underneath. We watch his glistening, orange, hairy-enough body as he holds his microphone with two hands and makes a fist to show the song’s power.

I won’t be obvious and say that all pop music traffics in artifice, but George Michael’s songs absolutely do. He’s often making a proposition to keep it all going, to keep the illusion alive. “I’ll tell you that I’m happy if you want me to,” he sings in “Everything She Wants.”* “I will be your father figure,” he promises on “Father Figure.” While it’s a mistake to read any pop song as autobiography, a remarkable amount of George Michael’s lyrics operate on closet logic: The “if, then” language and modal dance of someone who wants to keep a secret while still getting what he wants; it’s an equal exchange until someone realizes he’s not happy.

In “Careless Whisper,” more than any other song from that period, he regrets how easy it is for him to pretend this arrangement won’t fall apart. “You’re no fool,” he admits. “We’d hurt each other with the things we want to say.” And in “Freedom ‘90,” Michael sings:

I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I told you so
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone else I got to be

George Michael was only twenty-one when he wrote “Careless Whisper.” He was twenty-two in 1985, when he performed it in the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing in front of thousands of Chinese people who suddenly had the ability to see something like this, after decades of isolation. Five years later, George Michael would renounce this image of himself, the hairy man sniffing himself and smelling what it means to be a man. But it is powerful stuff. Masculine, sensitive, and hurting. Full of pain and guileless. Knowing, but still pretty stupid. Death in Venice could be rewritten about young George Michael. The gay-yet-still-mainstream George that came out later, via a “lewd act” in public that he has since called “subconsciously deliberate,” is something different and much less erotic: predictable.

There are some concert films we take seriously because we recognize that the people in them are artists. Crucially, Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz both feature very few shots of the audience (while Foreign Skies is all about its audience, to the point of being defined by it); both Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorcese focus on the music, which inevitably reveals several narrative gaps: Why bother with this band, these singers, if we cannot see how they are received, how they are used? Who is the audience, besides us, and why are we there? For starters, there’s usually a connection between the filmmaker and what’s being filmed. “I loved Melvin and Howard,” David Byrne explained. “I was a Talking Heads fan from the very beginning,” Demme gushed. These filmmakers also have an authoritative language at their disposal. Bill Graham shouted at Scorcese during Dylan’s too-loud performance of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”: “Shoot him! Shoot him! He comes from the same streets as you!” The impulse starts with the heart — maybe yours, maybe theirs — and it gets bigger, like all love affairs and forest fires.

Sometimes, when someone calls something “cinematic,” that just means it’s big. David Byrne’s iconic big suit, the gray flannel suit that Pauline Kael called “the perfect psychological fit,” was inspired by a fashion designer telling him “everything’s bigger on stage.” It’s true. Everything is bigger on stage, and even bigger on the screen. The concert film only truly works if the music is big to begin with, if it depicts a group with a lot to express. The album that preceded the China tour for Wham! was called Make It Big. George Michael, in Lindsay Anderson’s words, had an enormous ego, was bigger than everything and everyone else on stage to the point of breaking up the band he had formed with his schoolmate. It’s strange that this doesn’t lead to something bigger to behold, something beyond the Top 10.

The best concert films of the most recent era, despite not being directed by any boomer-approved luminaries, are Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. (Taylor Swift’s concert films are both bad, not least of all the one that is a misguided collaboration with Def Leppard.) Both are in 3D. Both are thrills. In both, the costume of innocence is outgrown or burning. These films are about costumes, cultural idioms, and profit — they’re extensions of popular music in the way that music videos used to be. By way of example, in David Fincher’s glossy music video for “Freedom ‘90,” the iconic leather jacket Michael wore on the cover of Faith, also goes up in flames. It’s a script that’s now in every pop star’s hands. It’s something everyone understands.

Foreign Skies is not like these other films though, because it shows the relationship between the music and people who don’t understand it. Or they understand it differently — it’s hard to tell if they don’t get it or if they really get it, better than we do. Probably both. Ultimately, Foreign Skies is about the tension between what’s exciting (uncharted territory, Western expansion, sexual tension) and what we can’t prepare for. How could George Michael and company not anticipate what Lindsay Anderson saw so easily: This tour was an invitation to be part of a pivotal moment in China’s history. In every scene, even with all the editing, it’s hard to tell who is the exploited and who is the exploiter. Who is gaining what from this moneymaking scheme? At first, you think Wham! is the winner, hopping from city to city, having a great time in billowing shirts with new fans. But by the end, as you watch young Michael perform sexual confusion and misunderstanding for an audience who mostly can’t understand him, you’re not quite sure.

Taylor Swift is always gaining something though. Her strength is not the long-form, “uncensored” concert documentary or the music video, despite her recent VMA win; it’s the long unfurling of an album release, or her Instagram videos and her tweets, pregnant with “surprises” and gratitude. She’s always, we’re told, involved with the production. Her apparent ignorance of how she could be interpreted is reframed as intention and supported almost instantly by her collaborators. The other day, director Joseph Kahn gave a statement that explained how the video for “Wildest Dreams” was not a work depicting a colonialist vision of Africa, but a classic Hollywood romance, as if the two weren’t often the same thing. He went on to point out the number of people of color on the creative side, including himself, as well as in front of the camera (though not, of course, featured in any prominent way). The final strategic deflection came with the assurance that Taylor would be donating all proceeds from the video to the African Parks Foundation, which preserves endangered species and supports local economies. Her mistake was prepared for, if not the expectation.

George Michael wanted something like the pictures from the 1989 tour: bright explosions, celebrity fun, a star fully embodying what they want. In Taylor’s Instagrams or tweets, there is no room for the weirdness that must exist in her life as she expands, as it has to exist in any life that includes world tours. Even when she’s embarrassing, she likes to tell us that she knows how embarrassing she is. Her maturity as an artist has meant acting like she knows what we’re thinking and that she’s giving us what we want. Maybe it’s only natural.

Make it big, whatever it is.

*This piece originally listed an incorrect title for this song. We regret the error!