If you were watching Adele’s tribute to George Michael at the Grammys on Sunday (Feb. 12) and didn’t immediately recall the song she was performing — even on second take — don’t feel too bad. “Fastlove” was a decent-sized hit for Michael upon its release as the second single from 1996’s Older album, peaking at No. 8 on the Hot 100 in 1996 — but as that LP title would imply, this was already relatively deep into George Michael’s career, long after the peak of his stateside impact. As merely his 19th-biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, it doesn’t seem to have the legacy of some of his biggest smashes: It wasn’t in Keanu, it has only a fraction of the Spotify plays of a “Faith” or “Careless Whisper,” and its hip-hop-edged dance groove just isn’t the sound that generally comes to mind when we think of George Michael.
Why “Fastlove” for Adele’s in-memoriam performance, then? Well, first off, it’s important to remember that while Older feels like late-period George Michael to U.S. audiences, in the U.K. he was still hitting his commercial stride — in Michael’s home country, the album was certified 6x platinum and spawned a staggering six top-three hits, including the chart-topping “Fastlove.” In fact, in the U.K., George Michael never really fell off: 2004’s Patience was also a blockbuster there, and as recently as 2012, the singer-songwriter was still scoring top 40 hits with one-off singles. To a British artist like Adele — who, as a 1988 baby, might’ve been first exposed to George Michael through his Older era — it makes sense that the song would feel as much like classic material as anything off Faith or Make It Big.
What’s more, “Fastlove” is a great George Michael song — one that plays to many of the artist’s obvious strengths, and some of his subtler ones as well. It’s addictive right away, its G-funk-borrowed synth whine mixing with a couple undeniable vocal call-outs and a thick, bubbling bass line for instant midtempo bliss. Over it, Michael lays one of his best lyrics, an expertly composed extended pickup line that plays it frisky (“My friends got their ladies, they’re all having babies / I just wanna have some fun) and coy (“I do believe that we are practicing the same religion”), and ends up just fun and clever enough to narrowly avoid being sleazy. And while Michael will always be most underrated as a producer, “Fastlove” stands as one of his richest dance-pop stews, its sax hook sidling up to the chorus like a free drink sent from across the bar, and its late-game Patrice Rushen lifts beating Will Smith to the punch by a year.
Of course, the production didn’t make it into Adele’s performance — would’ve been cool to see Adele reborn as a ’90s dance-pop diva for five minutes — but it’s not surprising that she decided to rearrange “Fastlove” into a string-drenched ballad for her performance, as unlikely a transformation as that would seem for the song. In Adele’s hands, it became an absolute wrecking ball, her trembling vocal locating the mournfulness fans may have never realized was hiding in lyrics like “Had some bad love / So fast love is all that I’ve got on my mind.” Sadly, her performance was plagued with issues that forced the once-burned singer to call for a near-unprecedented total restart in the middle of the first chorus. But it would be even more sad if the performance was ultimately remembered as a snafu, because all the mishap really did was raise the stakes for her proper performance, which ended up being one of the most magnificent she’s ever offered on an award-show stage — one that paid mesmerizing tribute to both Michael and one of his finest singles.
If “Fastlove” isn’t the George Michael we first think of, that might really be more on us than him — the song showed a confident performer at the height of his craft, with only the thinnest of veneers continuing to separate his public image from his personal self. (One of the song’s lyrics — “Stupid Cupid keeps on calling me / And I see lovin’ in his eyes” — is often thought to have an intentional double meaning, hinting at a potential male love interest.) To have it reinvigorated by Adele — who should be applauded for not taking the easy way out with a big Michael torch song like “Careless Whisper” or “One More Try” — was an inspired and left-field choice, and will hopefully get casual fans on this side of the pond who only know the artist’s big early hits to investigate how awesome his catalog stayed well into the 21st century.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com