Graded on a Curve:
Wham!,
Make It Big

When it comes to ersatz pop soul it doesn’t get any more authentically faux than 1984’s Make It Big by Wham!. England’s glorious It duo successfully transmogrified their transparent lack of authenticity into an asset, and while they never managed to reach the awe-inspiring pop heights of Hall and Oates, they were really quite alike insofar as one guy did all the heavy lifting while the other guy did, well, who knows what he did. Hand the guy doing all the heavy lifting the occasional Kleenex maybe.

As Hall once said of Oates, “I’m 90 percent and he’s 10 percent, and that’s the way it is.” The only difference is that John Oates’ 10 percent beat Andrew Ridgeley’s 2 percent hands down, even if that 10 percent was contributed not by Oates but by Oates’ mustache. Oh, and there’s another difference: John Oates hasn’t been relegated to the status of a trivia question.

But enough with the relegation of duties stuff. The point I want to make is that thanks to George Michael, Wham! were so shallow they were deep, which is demonstrated by the fact that Michael went on to become a pop superstar who could make ‘em swoon by doing nothing more than wiggling his butt. But it takes more than supernatural keister gyration to make it in the cutthroat Pop Biz. You have to be able to write songs that are so infectious the CDC has to be sent in to investigate them, and Michael had a gift for writing songs that epidemiologists spent a lot of time peering at through microscopes. Mock him and Wham! if you will—I’ve been doing it for ages—but the fact remains that Michael had mad pop skills.

There isn’t a single flat out bad song on Make It Big with the semi-exception that is “Credit Card Baby,” and even it’s more likeable than anything ever vomited up by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. No matter how much I like the lines, “You can have my credit card, baby/But keep your red heart fingers off my heart, lady” “Credit Card Baby” comes up short on bounce, and with a title like “Credit Card Baby” a song had better have a lot of bounce. Ah, but if it’s bounce you’re hankering for you need look no further than “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which I despised back in the day but has since grown on me like kudzu over the years. It’s anthemic, catchy, and dumb, and between that croaking voice that goes “Jitterbug” and the snazzy horns you’d have to be stupid to deny it.

“Heartbeat” is a great girl group cop complete with stately piano and some very natty percussion straight out of “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals, which is my very favorite girl group song of all time and always makes me dizzy. Michael shows off his chops and bares his heart and it’s my favorite song on the LP just ahead of “Careless Whisper,” which is a slow and soulful ballad that features lots of soulful crooning and a wonderfully cheesy and soulful sax and have I mentioned that this baby is, well, soulful? “Freedom,” meanwhile, is a yet another upbeat number of the girl group persuasion about how freedom isn’t a good thing. Nope, what George wants is not the liberty to fool around but to be monogamous like a normal guy with a normal butt instead of a magical butt that attracts sex partners the way a bug zapper attracts moths.

“Everything You Want” features some copacetic keyboard blurt and a Michael Jackson vibe and is to Michael Jackson what the Jackson Five were to Sly and the Family Stone, which is to say a lovable adulteration of true genius that is so happy-making it constitutes its own form of true genius. Michael ever throws in some of Wacko Jacko’s patented “Woo’s!” to hammer home the comparison. “Like a Baby” boasts a bright keyboard sound and is the kind of song you’ll want to play with the lights way down low because you’ve got your baby beside you and you’re in the mood for lovey dovey. As for “If You Were There” it’s a groovy percolator that features our George in top form tonsils-wise, so why not get up off your ass and dance?!

Wham! would go on to release a third and final studio LP (1986’s Music from the Edge of Heaven) that doesn’t amount to much thanks to the inclusion of such lamentables as “Wham Rap! ‘86” and “Last Christmas,” the latter of which would indelibly tarnish a far better band’s legacy. And after that of course George Michael went intergalactic while Andrew Ridgeley went to wherever the Andrew Ridgeleys of the world go. But on Make It Big and its predecessor, 1983’s Fantastic, Wham! produced some very likable pop indeed. I’ll reiterate: I used to despise this stuff. But I’ve lost both my good sense and my good taste over the years, and I’m glad I have. I would really hate to really hate music this wonderfully empty.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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