Something about that “jitterbug” thing bothered me. I don’t know why. I thought it was a soap commercial or car insurance or something, at first. It was so impossibly happy and carefree. Surely this wasn’t really on pop radio. The song before it was Wrapped Around Your Finger, by The Police, which talked about the devil and deception and servants becoming masters and all sorts of dark, grown-up themes. Now, here was this song by some group called “WHAM.” What in the name of all that is holy was going on, on my radio? No WAY this would stand.
Shortly after that debut …I was proven wrong by the masses. Really, really wrong. And George Michael was launched into the pop music stratosphere. My early instinct, that proved to be so completely out of touch, would haunt me the rest of my adult life. I’ve been wrong so many times about so many different artists and songs, I can’t believe they still let me do this. Well …actually …they’re trying to make me stop. We’ll get to that later …
Fast forward three years and George Michael, the freshly minted solo artist, shook things up with the provocative “I Want Your Sex.” Again …I was a bit bothered. Was he saying he wanted her sex in that he wanted to BECOME her sex or that he wanted to own all the people of a certain sex or …what? I want your sex is just not a phrase that works in the asking of someone to have sex with you. It sounded to me like something an alien would say or someone from Russia. Either way …I was wrong again.
George Michael was one of those pop stars I didn’t put my stamp of approval on. I couldn’t deny who and what he was …but if anyone had asked me, I would’ve passed. Pretty? No doubt. Great voice? You bet. But he never moved me in any way. That was just my personal assessment.
Years after those incidents, I took my own shot at pop stardom. I was close to it. Everyone thought I was on a trajectory that would land me on planet super star. I was “critically acclaimed” (don’t even seek critical acclaim – all it means is you’re about to not sell any records) and picked by several trade publications as the one to watch. Some music journalist called my debut record the best record of the new millennium (of course this was 2003. There hadn’t been that many records made yet). But a series of strange and mysteriously serendipitous events sent me crashing back down to earth.
I spent the next five years spinning into obscurity and defeat and depression and becoming a full time care-giver (along with my wife …the real hero of the family) to my daughter with special needs. I slept with a baby monitor and a bottle of whiskey next to my bed. Good times.
But suddenly, in 2008, I wrote a song that won the American Idol songwriting contest (I’m jumping around …this is all in my book and most of you have heard this story a dozen times and know how it ends). And I found myself on the front row of the most watched American Idol finale in the show’s history. They told me I would be featured on camera and would be introduced to America as the winning writer. My wife and I kept checking our watches.
Ten minutes before the show ended, George Michael, of all people, was introduced and he began singing a slow, dirge-like ballad. When he got to the second verse (2 and half minutes in) I looked at my wife and said, “this thing has a second verse?!?!” At that point I knew my song wasn’t going to get a full performance on the show. There simply wasn’t enough time. After seven minutes of air time …SEVEN MINUTES …George Michael was finally done. And the show was running three minutes behind schedule.
As Ryan Seacrest announced the winning David, DVRs across the nation were switching to local news. And millions of people didn’t hear who won the show or my winning song. I was pissed. I stormed out of the Nokia theater like a tiger pacing in a cage. I was short with the press and just wanted to go home. Clearly, I was as insignificant as I’d been made to believe I was over the past 5 years. And, to add insult to injury, I couldn’t find my contact. I had no passes to after parties, no instructions on where to go or what to do, and not even a parking pass. The whole experience was one of the worst of my life …I thought.
But what I didn’t know was happening was that people who’s DVRs had cut off were going to iTunes to see who won and what song was being sung as the coronation song. And before I even knew what was happening …there were several hundred thousand downloads of my song. In fact …it crashed the iTunes server.
The song went on to be a 16-week number one on two different radio formats. It sold more than 2 million copies and closed the opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympic games. Oprah Winfrey declared it the theme song of the Olympics. And I’m pretty sure when Oprah says something they chisel it on golden tablets somewhere and enshrine it at the Smithsonian. The whole story became my first book and is in development to become a feature film.
But the actual man behind the story …is George Michael. I later found out that my contact couldn’t contact me because he was on the phone for six hours straight with Steve Jobs’ personal assistant. George demanded that his song be on iTunes by the moment he finished singing it on the show. That process usually takes days and sometimes weeks. American Idol and Steve Jobs made it happen in hours. Still …it didn’t matter.
My song crushed it on iTunes. Why? Because people were trying to find out who won the show. Why? Because George Michael had run long.
And so, my unlikely encounter with George Michael became one of the most important ones of my life. It was convoluted and confusing. But it was all for the best.
Sometimes, what we think is the worst moment of our lives …turns out to be the best. My greatest commercial moment as a professional songwriter, began as one of my worst. Everything that went wrong that night turned out to be the most magical thing that could’ve happened to me. That moment turned into a hit song …that turned into a great story …that led me into blog and book writing …that has possibly led me into a new career.
So, when I heard about George Michael’s death over the holidays, I was sad. In some strange way, he is the reason I’m here …like this …like I am now. He helped me get past pop music into something deeper and more fulfilling. I sold my piano this week and I’m working on my first novel. In some ways, I have George Michael to thank. You see, he really WAS supposed to be a pop star. I wasn’t. And my “hit” song was just a catalyst to get me where I’m supposed to be.
You never know who is going to be used as the dime on which your life will turn. George Michael was mine. And I will always be grateful.