Since the news broke of pop idol George Michael’s death of heart failure on Christmas Day, the bit of floating info that surprised me most was that his pop duo Wham once played a 1984 benefit for the miners’ strike in England. By many reports, the crowd at the gig itself was equally taken aback (and booed because the boys were lip-syncing, an authenticity no-no of the day, which in more recent choreographed pop spectacles has become routine—Michael even apologized and offered refunds).
Wham back then, complete with exclamation point, seemed the clear antithesis of the miner-supporting Red Wedge. That musical branch of militant anti–Margaret Thatcher activism was organized by the folk-punk socialist Billy Bragg and associated with the likes of the Communards, Style Council, and Elvis Costello. I tend to remember it as hostilely confronting the apolitical New Pop of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, et al. And yet there Wham was.
My ignorance of this fact before now reveals the gaps in my attention to George Michael’s full story. I knew his queer politics were clear long before he was collared for cruising in a public bathroom in 1998. (Which he sent up outrageously in the “Outside” video, with its glittery urinals and snogging cops.) We now know that he spent millions of pounds quietly supporting AIDS charities, National Health Service nurses, and other liberal causes. But all this would have seemed strange to me as a vaguely lefty teen.
In high school, we used to make fun of Wham’s classic, sax-laden “Careless Whisper” (which I’ve just learned this week Michael wrote with Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham, when they were only 17, several years before its hit release) for the line “guilty feet have got no rhythm.” From a giggly teen viewpoint, “guilty feet” was a hilariously maladroit personification, too fleshy and too cerebral all at once. But now, as an image of a humiliated and stricken queer body, of a person too ashamed to dance in a culture of dance clubs, it doesn’t seem silly at all.
In the spirit of his frankness in his mature years, I feel compelled to confess that, unlike many of my slightly younger or somewhat older critical colleagues, it took me a long time to come around to acknowledging the extent of Michael’s artistry, particularly the special power of his voice. His crop of mega–pop stars in the mid-1980s came to mega-popularity just when I was of a mega-adolescent mind to enjoy condemning mega-popularity. I always knew that Prince crossed streams with his genius, but it took me until university (and the Truth or Dare documentary) to admit Madonna was awesome, and a little longer to re-embrace Michael Jackson, though I’d idolized him as a kid. I was much more a creature of punk, new wave, 4AD bands, David Bowie, Joy Division, and rap—most of which, unbeknownst to me, were already part of Michael’s repertoire.
There were George Michael songs one couldn’t deny—“Faith” and “Father Figure” were too obviously gorgeously constructed not to love. I rationalized that they were merely taking their cues from Prince, as “I Want Your Sex” did in a blatantly square way. (The “embrace monogamy” message of the video later became ironic, given Michael’s casual-shagging profile.) To me now, “Faith” is pretty much the best Prince number not by Prince, with a comparable rhythmic and harmonic fluency. But at the time, one could appreciate Michael as enjoyably kitsch ’80s pop, as an ersatz talent, whose later bold queerness just happened to lend him an extra-musical significance.
I didn’t know, for instance, that in the U.K. hits that Wham had before it broke in America—“Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” and “Young Guns (Go for It)”—it was already a peculiarly insouciant band. Michael tried out a Bronx hip-hop imitation in a zone between and before both the Beastie Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, extolling the burdens and the liberties of being on the British dole. (I’m glad he stopped doing the rap bit, but the influence was always there, and given the period, he didn’t acquit himself too badly.)
In a BBC Radio 2 documentary a couple of years ago, when the host complimented him on his general openness and honesty with his fans, Michael demurred, “With the big exception of the big gay thing, which for 15 years I never managed to say—but tried to say.” Anyone with functioning gaydar could pick up on that effort by the time of “Freedom! ’90,” one of a couple of videos in which female supermodels and swishy dancers mouthed Michael’s lyrics in his stead—including, “I think there’s something you should know/ I think it’s time I stopped the show/ There’s something deep inside of me/ There’s someone I forgot to be.”
The cover story was that excessive fame had made him camera-adverse, and later that he was feuding with his record company. But the sorcery of placing his voice into feminine and queer-reading bodies was a code for coming out without directly coming out. I was startled to be reminded this week that he did so officially only after the arrest. His reasons were very understandable. In the same documentary, he said, “It’s always about family, you know. … In the years that HIV was a killer … any parent of an openly gay person was terrified every day.” He was trying to protect his mother from that. Even after he came out, he added, “The press seemed to take some delight in the fact that this previously ‘straight’ audience that I had, they set about trying to destroy that. I think it frustrated an awful lot of men that their girlfriends wouldn’t let go of the idea of ‘George Michael,’ that he just might not have met the right girl, you know—which is what I think a lot of my friends and extended family still think, the Greek ones.”
George Michael seemed like the boring, jeans-company kind of hot to me as a judgmental teen, not the Bowie or Ian McCulloch type I aspired to. Now that I’m middle-aged, I envy any kind of hot, so I sympathize more with my female and gay friends’ primary reactions to him. I’ve also come to love that he was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in North London, emerging from an old-fashioned kind of immigrant background and name change for a pop singer, rather like a second closet. It explains both his long-term, for-all-ages vocal approach and why he was never a punk rocker. Subsequently, that’s why, given the era, he had so little cool cred. He was suburban, not abjectly working class, yet his parents didn’t even let him buy pop records. (He was hearing mainly Tom Jones and Henry Mancini at home but Queen and Elton John on the radio.) So his threshold for rebellion was much lower than for many of his London peers. Pop would do. Plus, the punk kids weren’t the beautiful people, and—at least after he met his more stylish adolescent bandmate—he wanted to be one of those.
My mistranslation was partly geographical, too. The pop-positive exuberance of Wham crossed the Atlantic as part of the British New Wave–to–New Pop invasion, essentially a new British glam, which read differently here. In Ronald Reagan’s North America, pleasure-principle pop (e.g., Huey Lewis, Survivor, Tom Petty) seemed like a celebration of the consumerist American dream paradise that the White House was selling.* Thatcher’s neoconservative ideology ran in parallel, but it wasn’t fueling a boom. Instead it was a regime of cuts and austerity, so what Wham and its New Pop company were pitching was a true escapism from bleakness, more like 1930s screwball comedy and Fred Astaire movies and less like a “greed is good” Wall Street or Bright Lights, Big City aggression. (See last year’s era-evoking movie Sing Street.) Colonials were further confused by Wham’s clean-cut image and by the bright-white “Choose Life” T-shirts they wore in the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video. Here, that was an anti-abortion slogan. But for their maker, prominent British designer Katharine Hamnett, it was about life over “WAR … DESERTS … EXTINCTION.” She disavowed the American connotation and called herself pro-choice.
Think of how George Michael described his love of pop to Rolling Stone in 1988 (thanks to music critic Maura Johnston for pointing me here):
If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.
From that quote, you get a broader idea what this rationing-era baby meant by “choose life.” And in many ways that’s a better idea than any in the gloomy nihilistic music I thought was cool in that moment. It took me time to grow into it.
Listening to his music now, I find that his almost effortlessly soul-inspired voice slid past me too easily then. His singing was all music, with minimal irony, perhaps too distant from a deep engagement with any particular tradition (I would call that the English disease, which Michael’s friend Paul McCartney has too), but sensually involved with any melody it ever met. Because it lived between boundaries, it took me a long time to recognize its suppleness and sureness, a little like his fellow commercial 1980s artist Daryl Hall—but the black R&B audience was fast to return the love, especially after he engaged effectively with the godhead Aretha Franklin herself, on their chart-topping duet “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.”
Such ambiguity was a huge part of 1980s pop. In fact, listening back to George Michael’s hits and even Wham (for which he composed most of the music), I hear now he seeded almost all of them with a sense of hurt and heart that made sense when he later covered Bowie, Elton John, or Nina Simone. The deaths of Bowie, Prince, and George—not to mention Madonna’s defiant and confrontational “Woman of the Year” speech—have thrown us back into that era, illuminating how much of our current world derives and yet deviates from there. (By comparison, the 1970s are magical but alien.) Out of the 1980s, we have the creeping conservative hegemony that has given us Donald Trump. But we also have the slow blossoming of respect and mutual protection that suggests a potentially loving and limitless diversity of positions and cultures.
Among the consequences of the mainstreaming of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s was a conservative backlash and a strategically acceptable gay-positive counterforce. Many of the currents of joyful sexual fluidity became more cautious. Marriage was an integrationalist goal, and it’s taken till quite recently for a nonbinary sensibility to reassert itself. George Michael’s deepening silence and many troubles through that time and afterward were ostensibly personal, his reactions to substance-abuse problems and the claustrophobia of his notoriety. But from another perspective, thinking of the friends and lovers he lost then (many of them memorialized in his music), his path also paralleled collective developments.
In the shade of his death, he seems both heroically and tragically part of the tale of a queer generation (gay men especially) cloistered and self-hating in their youth, who lived through the traumas, losses, and self-revelations of the AIDS era and endured the consequences of feeling left behind in their later years. I don’t want to relate the tabloid stories of his drug abuse, car crashes, jail term, rehab stints, and illnesses. But this well-built, energetic man died at 53 years of age. I’ve known others who died too young, almost exactly in his age bracket. They built grand personalities and then tripped over their guilty feet; they spent wonderful times “outside” but could not escape their own prisons, no matter how hard they tried.
When I hear him on his final album covering Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town,” singing, “Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved?” or Elton John’s “Idol,” singing “He was tight-assed/ Walking on broken glass/ Highly prized in the wallet size/ The No. 1 crush in a schoolgirl’s eyes,” I drink in how beautifully he sings those lines. But I also think about how his voice always got richer when he sang about pain, way back to “Careless Whisper.”
“The nature of being gay is that you are forced to challenge the general perception, otherwise you have to accept that something is wrong with you,” he told my colleague Ann Powers in 2008. In 2011, he sang a cover of New Order’s “True Faith” for a charity single: “That’s the price that we all pay/ When valued destinies come to nothing.”
The afterlife of George Michael’s destiny will remain with us. But it’s hard not to wonder what he and we might have gained, if it had been valued differently and hadn’t had to count itself as nothing for so long.
*Correction, Dec. 27, 2016: This article originally suggested that singer Robert Palmer was North American. He was English. (Return.)