Another Popular recap, in which an unlikely teenage obsession is revealed.

Duran Duran, “The Reflex”, 5 May 1984

This is another song I associate with the art class whose teacher loved Jim Steinman and whose students included a Boy George-by-proxy. Our teacher let us listen to the radio while we were working, provided it was THE-FM, the local equivalent of the not-yet-national JJJ. THE wasn’t as alternative as the Js, as it played regular chart tracks along with the indie stuff; actually, it’s more accurate to say that it played the alternative end of the regular charts, because the whole notion of indie/alternative was still well underground in Hobart in 1984.

So it was no surprise when the DJ cued up the 12” mix of this one afternoon, a version that cranked up the song’s idiosyncrasies to the point of annoyance. The surprise came just as it was hitting its stride with an extended “the RE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE-FLE”, when I heard my first ever live-to-air “zzzzzzrp” of a needle being yanked off a record, and the DJ saying “That’s enough of that.”

I can never hear it now without wanting to do the same. That moment has similarly cut off any potential for assessing the track objectively, so it wouldn’t be fair to add my rating to the collective judgement here; I honestly don’t know what it would be. As Duran songs go, I enjoyed this more than their previous UK number one, and more than “Wild Boys” and other hits from their middle period, but just as they never had an Australian number one they were never really number one with me.

Wham!, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, 2 June 1984

In my first year of pop obsession a few bands loomed large, and one of those was Wham!, whose name—complete with exclamation mark—made for excellent block capitals in black permanent marker on the back of a wooden ruler. My obsession was based entirely on one song, “Wham Rap”, with its “D.H.S.S.” chant and get-on-down funkiness. It made me think that this rapping business might have something to it, but its early-’80s representatives on the Australian charts were all ring-ins—Wham!, Blondie, Malcolm McLaren—and by the time the real thing arrived, I’d lost interest.

In hindsight, I started to lose interest in Wham! not long after their debut album came out, even though at the time it was a prized purchase. They showed some nous calling it Fantastic, an even more hubristic title than Thriller, and one that turned every mention into a review: “Wham!’s new album is Fantastic.” “Is it really? Thanks for the tip, I’ll pick it up.” But I wasn’t sure it was. I still loved “Wham Rap”, but the album tracks didn’t quite match its excitement, and the elusive singles “Bad Boys” and “Young Guns”, which I’d missed when they were in the shops (they were released first in Oz), were a little disappointing after all the anticipation. Only the Miracles cover “Love Machine” caught my interest. By the end of the year I had swapped the record with my brother and moved on to new rulers and new bands.

So by the time “Wake Me Up” was topping the Australian charts (for seven weeks, including a return to the top after a week of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”), my love for Wham! had well and truly waned, and I dismissed the song as fluff. The whole white-shirts-and-teeth look seemed far too calculated to a sixteen-year-old mastering the fine art of cynicism, and the “jitterbug” intro sounded like an imitation of the hated “Uptown Girl”. I didn’t buy the single, or the album, or anything else to do with the band—not even when Rolling Stone went into Serious Grown-Up Music orgasms over George Michael’s Faith.

So let’s see how it holds up on a fresh viewing, rather than in tainted memory...

It’s great. I was a fickle teenage flake. 7, if not 8.

Later: Thinking some more about why I’m reacting to this so warmly, it’s partly Popular’s fault. The whole enterprise is a cynicism vaccine when it comes to pop songs, which neutralizes my teenage reaction of “what a sell-out piece of fluff”. Of course the makers of pop songs try to make them more popular—that’s the point. Once you accept that, the question then becomes “did they succeed?”—did they hit that sweet spot of an exquisitely catchy tune, polished production, and (in the image-obsessed ’80s) unforgettable look? With “Wake Me Up”, Wham! clearly did.

And it’s really not such a drastic break from their early sound, despite the ’50s touches; this and “Wham Rap” are both full of horn stabs and dance-floor action. The lyrics may have lost their street vibe, but that wasn’t all it seemed, either: the lyrics to “Wham Rap” read as easily today as Tory apology than as Labour protest. “Hey kids, sorry you’re on the dole, but don’t let it stop you having fun!” As for the deeper messages of “Young Guns” (wise guys stay single!) and “Bad Boys” (let’s join a gang!), are they really that preferable to “take me dancing tonight”?

“Wham Rap” certainly talked a good game; suggesting that a regular job is a sell-out was bound to appeal to young creative types. A subversive idea for sure, but it wasn’t the Man being subverted, it was the thousands of teenage psyches being encouraged to feel unsatisfied with what life was likely to offer them. If nine-to-five doesn’t turn out to be unalloyed bliss you’re a sell-out, and if life on the dole isn’t one big party you aren’t doing it right.

So, not exactly a stick-it-to-Thatcher song; in fact, it’s uncomfortably like a right-wing parody of lazy sponging lefties. True, some artists and musicians live off the dole to support their art, but they’re hardly living it large. The idea that dole life is a party life doesn’t sound like it comes from someone who’s lived it.

Which may be the point: “Wham Rap”, like “Bad Boys”, is a fantasy portrayal of its subject. I see that George Michael grew up in a conservative area, which doesn’t mean he was conservative himself, but it doesn’t look as if he grew up walking the mean streets. It isn’t what he thought his lyrics meant, though, so much as what others made of them, and because they don’t have that ring of truth it can’t have been hard for any lefty vibe to be ignored once Wham! made it big. Young Tories could dance to Wham! without guilt, because what were the early singles really saying anyway? In a way, “Wake Me Up” was a wake-up call, its trivial lyrics revealing how trivial most of their previous lyrics also were. Perhaps that’s what bothered me about it at the time. I’m not bothered now, though, because I’ve had two decades of not thinking of George Michael as a political lyricist—“Shoot the Dog” notwithstanding.

15 August 2009 · Music