Boy George: Against All Odds : Fallen superstar fights heroin scandal, old image in latest comeback try
Boy George is at it again, challenging the conventions of the pop-music industry.
George, who six years ago made the androgynous look acceptable for everybody from grandmas to little kiddies, has his first Top 10 hit in years.
But there’s a twist: The song, “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip,” is a hit only at radio stations that specialize in black music (such as KACE-FM in Los Angeles). Pop-oriented stations (such as local powerhouse KIIS-FM) have passed on the record.
The record is up to No. 6 on the black-music chart in the current issue of Billboard magazine, but isn’t even listed on the Hot 100 pop chart.
It’s not unusual for a white artist to land a hit in the black-music field, as the success of recent singles by George Michael and Sheena Easton attests. But their songs were also big hits at pop radio. It’s unprecedented for a single by a white pop artist to be a hit only on black stations.
Of course, George has made a career of defying the norm.
Think back to February, 1984. The Englishman’s group, Culture Club, had just won the Grammy Award as best new artist, and George was addressing a national TV audience.
“I want to thank America for knowing a good drag queen when they see one,” deadpanned the gender-bending star.
The remark got a big laugh. But then why shouldn’t it? George, just 22 at the time, was the toast of the music business. “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club’s fifth straight Top 10 single, was just coming down from the No. 1 spot. And the group’s second album, “Colour by Numbers,” was hanging tough at No. 2--just behind Michael Jackson’s invincible “Thriller.”
George’s fame extended far beyond records. He was a media celebrity, interviewed on “Face the Nation” and a Barbara Walters special. He was a favorite sparring partner of Joan Rivers on “The Tonight Show.” He guest-starred opposite Mr. T on “The A-Team.” He was listed as one of the world’s 10 sexiest men in Playgirl magazine. One Halloween, Boy George costumes were a favorite of party-goers and trick-or-treaters.
But George’s ride on the roller coaster was brief. By the end of 1984, the fizz had gone out of Culture Club’s frothy mix of pop, R & B, reggae and dance music. The records stopped selling and ultimately the group broke up. Boy George looked like a classic backlash case.
That was the least of George’s troubles. In 1986, he was convicted in London for possession of heroin and treated for addiction. The same year, a musician died of a drug overdose at George’s London home. Many expected George to become the next rock ‘n’ roll casualty.
But George (full name: George O'Dowd) has been laboring to get his personal and professional lives back on track, with mixed results.
His solo debut album for Virgin Records, “Sold,” scarcely made a ripple in 1987. Sales of his second album, “High Hat,” have been sluggish since its release two months ago.
But the acceptance of “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip” at black-oriented radio stations has finally brought a glimmer of light to the Boy George story.
The fate of George’s record says a lot about the politics of radio, the fickleness of fame, and the dangers of overexposure. It also raises several questions:
* Was there really a public backlash to Boy George, or was it a media backlash?
* If George is shunned by pop stations, why is he welcomed at black stations?
* How did George go from being the toast of the music business to a virtual pariah?
* Can he make a comeback?
On the set of “The Arsenio Hall Show” at Paramount Studios recently, Hall was interviewing George by satellite from London. The singer couldn’t be here in person because he lost his visa after the drug conviction.
“Let’s talk about America and England,” Hall began. “Who’s been the most forgiving as far as what you’ve been through and what you’ve done?”
George thought for a second and replied, “My mother.”
Boy George hasn’t lost his knack for the clever quote.
But a moment later he grew more serious.
“There’s a big difference between the public and the media,” he said. “With the press it’s the story. You’re Ben Johnson, you’re Elton John. . . . You’re a story, you’re not a person.”
In a telephone interview the same day from his home in London, George--who is writing songs for a Culture Club reunion album--said radio can also be a harsher judge than the public.
“It’s very difficult to decide who’s cutting you off,” he said. “Is it the public or is it a few people at radio stations? The public isn’t necessarily of the same mind as the radio people, but if they don’t hear a record, they’re not going to buy it.
“It’s been very difficult for me with white radio in America since my troubles,” he said. “It’s been very hard to get any kind of warming from them.”
Industry figures disagree on the extent to which the public has turned against George.
Jeff Wyatt, program director of Los Angeles’ No. 1 radio station, KPWR-FM (which is playing the record), said that George has a loyal, enthusiastic core of fans.
“The response to Boy George is always incredible,” Wyatt said. “Despite his troubles, he has one of the most dedicated followings that we’ve ever seen. I’m not sure that Boy George has a negative image. I would guess that 50% of the audience doesn’t give a damn one way or the other. And 20% may be crazy about him--and they tend to be active, the kind who write letters and call in. Now, you weigh them against the negatives and the apathy, and you have a different picture.”
Rob Kahane, who co-manages George Michael, offered a much bleaker assessment.
“I think he’s yesterday’s news,” Kahane said flatly. “I don’t think people are that interested in him. I don’t think a radio station is going to sell any more commercial time because they’re playing a Boy George song, and ‘Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip’ isn’t an important enough song for them to take a chance on. It’s good but there’s not a lot of depth to it. If I was a programmer, I wouldn’t take the chance.”
Phil Quartararo, Virgin Records’ senior vice president of marketing and promotion, acknowledged the resistance to George, but said, “I think there are a lot of Boy George fans out there. My impression is that the media and the industry are afraid of George.”
Quartararo pointed out that the American public tends to forgive some fallen heroes but not others.
“How many times did we see the Rolling Stones get busted? How many times did we hear the stories about Liberace--and yet he found his way into all of our grandmothers’ homes. The question is how they choose and whom they choose to freeze out.”
What’s the main reason that “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip” has been embraced at black radio stations? You can answer that question in two words: Teddy Riley.
Riley, who supervised “Trip” with his partner Gene Griffin, is so hot right now that his name on a record is enough to get it in the door at most black-oriented radio stations. Among the team’s hits: Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid.”
“To a certain extent it’s the song, not the singer,” said Ed Eckstine, senior vice president of Wing Records. “Let’s face it: ‘Trip’ sounds like any number of Teddy Riley records with Boy singing it. I think there may be a significant number of people who hear that record on the dance floor and don’t know that it’s Boy George--and don’t care. All they know is that it’s a slamming Teddy Riley groove.”
Quartararo said that the main reason for the disparity is that pop stations rely more on research.
“The more research-oriented they are, the more image-conscious they become and right now they’re really research-crazy,” he said. “Pop stations are more perception-oriented while black radio just plays a song because it’s a good song.”
“Live My Life,” the first single from Boy George’s “Sold” album, was a much bigger hit at black radio than at pop radio. So George expected black radio to be the path of least resistance again.
“It was clear that that was the route to take,” he said. “You go where you’re wanted in this world. They seem to be a bit more open-minded on black radio at the moment as regards Boy George. They’re not looking at it in a political way at all. If they like the record and it has a good groove, they’ll play it. That’s the way music should be.”
What’s the main reason for George’s fall from grace?
That’s a tough one.
“He had so many negatives,” said John David Kalodner, an A & R executive at Geffen Records. “I think it’s the combination of everything about him. He didn’t do much to help his career. He was a big superstar and he did everything he could to turn everybody off.”
George’s drug use was a major factor, especially because he had such a young following. But if drug problems alone banish artists from the airwaves, such commercial hotshots as Guns N’ Roses would be out of the business.
George’s bisexuality was also a factor. “It definitely limits you in the Midwest,” said Kahane. “It alienates a very large audience--both male and female. Kids outside of the major metropolitan areas aren’t receptive to that.”
Ironically, the flamboyance that made him a star also hurt him.
“It’s not that George has changed so much, it’s that society has changed so much relative to George,” Virgin’s Quartararo said. “Our society is much more conservative than it was six years ago. Society is much more willing to pass judgement on an artist like that right now.”
Another problem, according to Kahane, was the fact that George didn’t grow musically. “I don’t think he ever transcended that first record,” he said. “Culture Club’s first album was so fresh and vibrant, but after that, the music just didn’t hold up. He never grew musically from that Motowny pop sound.”
Overexposure was another key factor, especially because George’s image was so extreme and cartoonish.
“He really went over the top,” said Ron DeBlasio, who co-manages X. “The only person he didn’t take pictures with was Morton Downey Jr. He was there at every opening of every manhole.
“After a certain point, he should have laid low and kept quiet. When Joan Rivers starts mentioning you in her act and the mention of your name automatically gets a laugh, you’re in trouble.”
But perhaps the biggest factor in George’s decline is that audiences like to align themselves with winners. At the moment, they see George Michael and Whitney Houston as winners, but they see Boy George as a loser, and worse than that, as a schmuck --someone who had it all and lost it all through stupidity and self-indulgence.
Said Kahane: “When people think of Boy George, they think of drugs. They think of a loser. And pop radio doesn’t play that. He needs to put an image out there that is much more consistent with what a winner is all about.”
George didn’t sound tense or uncomfortable as he discussed the factors that contributed to his decline.
“The difference between me and a lot of artists is that I’ve never tried to be anything else than what I am,” he said. “What you see is what you get. I’d rather be a schmuck than be schmaltzy.”
What does George think is the main reason for the backlash?
“I think it’s easy to kick a freak when he’s down,” he said dryly--and if there’s a trace of bitterness in his remark, there is also a lot of truth.
George said that the press in England has been especially harsh. “The journalists here are like terrorists,” he said. “I’m not like that. I don’t take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”
George acknowledged that the drug convictions hurt him. “I think maybe the fact that I was so high-profile and my addiction was such a public fiasco is one of the reasons,” he said. “But there are many people who have had drug problems. I still hear Doors records being played on white radio, so I think it’s a little bit hypocritical to single me out.
“I think it’s just general prejudices,” he said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t like me in the beginning and the drug thing has given them an excuse.”
George also agreed that he was overexposed. “It’s very easy for that to happen,” he said. “Nobody ever questions success. Obviously what I did in the past was very stylized. You can only eat so much of something.”
If he had it to do over again, George would be more mindful of overexposure. “I think the best pop careers are built on illusion--the idea that if you can’t have something, you want it more,” he said.
How about the gay image?
“I think it really depends on who the person is whether he feels affronted by it or comfortable with it,” he said. “I’ve always said if you can’t deal with it, that’s your problem. Obviously, a lot of artists throughout history have been very dishonest, and are they happy?
“My sexuality would be the same whether I was Boy George or Bob Smith. I’ve always been very up-front about that, and I think it did a lot of good. I still get letters from kids who say, ‘You changed my life.’ ”
What are the chances that George can make a full-scale comeback?
“Less than fair,” said Kahane. “I think he has about a 25% chance of being received again at pop radio. It’s sad because the guy is really talented. He was the flavor of the month, but I thought his songs were so strong that he could transcend the image. I know that George (Michael) thinks he’s amazingly talented. I think everyone feels a little sorry for him because he had such a bright career and then he kind of flushed it down the toilet.”
In the interview, George seemed at peace with himself, not desperate to claw his way back to the top. “I believe that everything happens when it should,” he said. “I believe in my karma and I believe if I deserve it I’ll get it and if I don’t, I won’t.”
George said he is trying to keep his sense of humor about his fall from superstar to cult figure. “There’s something beautiful about being a sort of folk hero,” he said. “I don’t have record sales but I have peace of mind.”
George is reapplying for his visa, which would allow him to enter the U.S. “I think if I could come to America I could make a bigger wave,” he said.
“Being in England, I can’t feel the response from America. I’m like a stand-up comedian: I have to work on emotions and response. And here in England, the record was completely ignored. If you blinked you missed it. Here they don’t seem to be into me at all.
“A lot of the time, people forget that what I went through was a personal thing as well as a public thing,” he added. “It would be nice if they remembered that. I’ve come through all that stuff, and I think I’m a better person now. I can do a lot more good by exposing the fact that I’ve overcome those problems rather than sort of being pushed aside. People can learn something from my experiences.
“I’m not a politician. I’m not trying to get votes, I’m just saying, ‘Look, this is the record and I’d really be happy if you played it.’ I’ve had a tough two years but I’ve tried very hard to get over it and I am getting over it and I think other people should give me some courtesy for that. I’m not asking for a medal, but I am asking for a chance.”