George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 at 25: “Praying for Time”

Praying for Time

The first song on Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was also George Michael’s first single in almost two years. He released the song in the UK in August of 1990, where it hit the top 10. It made its way to the US a bit later on,  spending ten weeks in the Billboard Top 40 and rising to #1 on the Hot 100 list on October 13. (Just to place this in true 1990s context, it was bookended at #1 by Maxi Priest and James Ingram.)

It’s strange to think that out of all five singles from LWP, this would be the one to hit the top of the charts. It’s unlike the other songs on the album in both content and style (with the possible exception of the sombre “Mother’s Pride”), and a drastic departure from the upbeat rockabilly singles from Michael’s first solo album, 1987’s Faith. “Praying for Time” is moody, dark, and pleading. Instead of the crisp guitars and the treble-heavy synthesizers in songs like “Monkey” and “I Want Your Sex,” the jangle of tambourines and over-reverberant snare practically obliterate the background strings and guitars in a fuzzy parody of a funeral march. The descending chords that make up the harmonic structure play on hundreds of years of inherited emotion; the lament bass has symbolized death, tragedy, and loss since the seventeenth century. And over it all, Michael’s piercing tenor cries out in appeal.

In the early days of Wham!, the group had put out a small few semi-political songs (their 1982 Wham Rap!, which talked about unemployment and other issues, was perhaps their most overt). But Wham!’s popularity and superficiality grew hand-in-hand, and the majority of their songs were designed more for the immediacy of 80s pleasure than to relay any kind of deeper meaning. That trend was somewhat thwarted on Faith, contrary to popular opinion, which has tended to focus most on either the light-hearted look at love on the album’s breakout single of the same name or on the trilogy of lusty, explicit “I Want Your Sex” songs. Yet Michael criticized 80s America somewhat harshly in “Hand to Mouth” and hinted at a variety of social issues such as drugs and sex in most of the other tracks on the album. Still, the pin-up image of Michael’s rear in ripped jeans, the studded leather jacket, the three-day scruff and the dangling cross earring typecast him as the quintessence of the bad boy at the turn of the 90s, an image Michael was more than anxious to shake.

So eager, in fact, was he to drop that persona that he released LWP without any pictures of himself on the cover. Instead, the album’s artwork is a cropped section of the 1940 photograph Crowd at Coney Island by the photographer Arthur Fellig, who worked under the pseudonym Weegee. Michael also didn’t appear in many of the videos he filmed for the album’s singles. In fact, the video for “Praying for Time” consists of nothing but the lyrics to the song placed over a black background (making it, perhaps, one of the biggest precursors to today’s lyric video craze). Its complete lack of similarity to Michael’s earlier videos earned it its own fifteen minutes of fame, so to speak, as it hung out on MTV for at least a few weeks.

As Michael’s desire for maturity and serious artistry grew, so did his desire to divorce his music from the image concocted for him in his Wham! and Faith days — but as a result, some of the fans who had come to love the image were startled, perhaps even put off by the Michael-less-ness of the album’s promotional material and the more socially conscious, confessional lyrical content. After the success of “Praying for Time,” not even the up-tempo “Freedom ’90” could crack the top 5. Despite being virtually omnipresent on radio and MTV that fall, it was thwarted by mainstays Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, newcomer Mariah Carey, and the one-week success of Vanilla Ice. Although “Praying for Time” was the first single to be released off of LWP, it was also the last of his nine number one hits in the US; none of the other four singles cracked the top ten, and two failed to chart entirely.

It’s a cynical, dark look at 1990s life: hunger, poverty, ignorance, inequality, insecurity, distrust, the stifling claustrophobia that the growing global war brings to everyone via television, radio, and the burgeoning internet. Yet there is an undercurrent of hope; with enough time, perhaps we can delay the inevitable, fix the problems handed to us by prior generations or today’s inadequate politicians, and allow those hurting the chance to heal. The song’s musical production sounds a bit dated these days; it’s not a song that gets much radio airplay these days. But between the widening financial and social inequalities here in the States, the rise of the ultra-conservative right fighting the separation of church and state, the growth of global terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigration the world is faced with, and the fear created by virtually everyone and everything, the lyrics seem as raw, poignant, and pertinent today as they did twenty-five years ago.

Michael’s words seem prophetic, even damning. It is indeed hard to love when there is so much to hate, hard to hope when things seem hopeless. But maybe, with enough time, we can all remember how.

These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers

This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
Because God’s stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us alt out to play
Turned his back and all God’s children
Crept out the back door

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time

These are the days of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year

This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is over here

So you scream from behind your door
Say “what’s mine is mine and not yours”
I may have too much but i’ll take my chances
Because God’s stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things they sold you
Did you cover your eyes when they told you

That he can’t come back
Because he has no children to come back for

It’s hard to love there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time.

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Filed under At 25, Pop Musings

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