If marketed properly, a new recording from George Michael could become another gay anthem. ''I told myself I was straight, but I shouldn't have worried, 'cause my maker had a better plan for me,'' Michael sings on ''An Easier Affair.'' This bright and breezy tune, about how life is easier now that he's vowed not to live his life ''with other people on my mind,'' is on par with some of his greatest hits. It's certainly more explicitly gay than ''Freedom '90.''
But at the moment the song is unreleased stateside. It can be found only on a new greatest hits compilation. Yes, another one. It was only 10 years ago that Michael released Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, a greatest-hits set spread over two discs, one ''For the Heart,'' the other ''For The Feet.'' The new Twenty Five () is a greatest hits set spread over two discs, one ''For Living,'' the other ''For Loving.'' (An additional third disc with videos is also available.)
You don't have to be a cynic to realize this new release is a marketing gimmick, pure and simple. Though more than half of the original set's songs do not repeat here, it's not a result of Michael having had that many bigger hits since then. At least in the United States, he only registered modest success in the past decade with ''Amazing'' and ''Flawless (Go to the City),'' both from what the 44-year-old said would be his last album of new material, 2004's lackluster Patience. Neither is bigger than 1987's ''I Want Your Sex'' or his duet with Aretha Franklin, ''I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,'' both of which are exclusive to the first compilation.
The new set includes the Wham! hit ''Last Christmas,'' which was omitted from the first one, with reason. A ubiquitous holiday-season staple -- though admittedly a refreshingly cheerless one, not to mention good -- it sounds a little odd to listen to it any other time of year, or on a regular artist retrospective. The new set also includes a new duet with Mutya, a former Sugababe, a popular girl group in the United Kingdom, as well as a new version of ''Heal the Pain'' from Michael's stellar album Listen without Prejudice Volume 1. This time, he sings the song in duet with Paul McCartney. It's as winsome as ever. But was a remake really necessary? It all seems a bit too indulgent.
Gimmicky by nature, greatest hits sets are a quick and easy way for a label to profit from an established artist, particularly one past his prime in moving significant units of new recordings, as Michael is. In this case, it's hoped to be a marketing twofer: tickets to Michael's first North American tour in over 17 years -- long since he peaked as a major hitmaker, and the first since he came out a decade ago -- went on sale mere days after the set's release. The title even stems from the first round of world touring and the release everywhere but here of the set in 2006, or the year Michael marked 25 years in the business.
Greatest hits sets are a great way to celebrate your favorite artist, or appreciate anew someone who deserves more respect. And Michael certainly deserves that. A silky-smooth, soul-dipped crooner, Michael is one of the very few white singers who had notable chart success on the American R&B charts, back in the early days of his solo career. And even today he remains a major pop star in Europe. He's made his fair share of bad decisions in the past decade, and some level of blame for his lack of success in America must go to our scared-straight mainstream pop culture -- though blame is also due to his mostly lackluster work over the past decade. But while certainly inconsistent, Michael is an exceptionally strong songwriter, in both music and lyrics. Even his mediocre melodies get stuck in your head. And his lyrics are usually smart and knowing, not showy or uninspired.
His new song ''An Easier Affair'' won't help him over America's play-it-straight hurdle, sure, but it does show that he's still got the talent when he sets his mind to it. It also suggests he's taken a page from his one-time duet partner Mary J. Blige and decided to focus on the positive. Gone is George the Bitter, the one who couldn't stop whining about his lack of stateside success at the HRC Equality Rocks benefit concert at RFK Stadium in 2000. Hopefully this time in concert he'll be as upbeat and inspirational as is ''An Easier Affair.''