When George Michael died on December 25th 2016, it was proof yet again that 2016 was a precision targeted missile, aimed at anyone and anything good about life: Prince, Bowie, Lemmy (a few days before January 1st, counts), Juan Gabriel, Anton Yelchin, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, and a potentially better USA were taken away from us too early. Then add in all the senior legends that, having lived a long and legendary life, died leaving the not-at-all-subtle sensation that an era was dying, the whole 20th Century. Among the latter was Leonard Cohen, followed by Michael less than 50 days later, both of which are on my all-time top 5 favorite singers-songwriters, both of which I never got the chance to see live in concert, both of which I wish I had discovered earlier. Much earlier.
Other than by VH1/MTV “Best of the 80s” documentaries, the first video of George Michael I ever watched was “Freeek!”, the first single from Patience, and in true George Michael fashion, he shocked my impressionable, 13-year-old self. In true fashion to someone with an undiagnosed OCD and still ridding himself of self-imposed Catholic guilt, he kinda grossed me out. It was an overtly sexual song about untethered, modern sexuality, promoted by one of the most overtly sexual videos you could make back in 2002, and if I recall correctly, it didn’t get much rotation on an MTV I was just being allowed to watch. Here is the link to a mastered version, but be warned, it’s NSFW for 2021 standards. “Freeek!” is a goddamn sci-fi masterpiece with director Joseph Kahn firing on all cylinders, with better worldbuilding than some feature-length cyberpunk pieces. I wasn’t able to understand back then that both song and video were an over-the-top lampooning of what would become an oversexed decade, overwhelmingly coded by straight males. Because “Freeek!” (the song and the video) are almost exclusively centered on the male gaze and heterosexual sex, but cutting in abject imagery in between scenes of hot bodies writhing together, and more importantly, George Michael appearing in every other shot, as a chaotic-neutral observer of a world whose promise of sexual freedom did not include people like him. Among many others.
It’s no surprise a chishet, a 13-year-old boy might find that video repulsive; it was literally trolling people like me, hormones and moral confusion about sexuality. I wrote him off, after all; he was too gay, back in those days when gay was an adjective modifying something as bad, weak, cheesy, unworthy of men. I knew that homosexuality was natural and normal, at least I was taught that, but teenhood and heterosociality has a way of dismantling the most enlightened education.
However, a few months later, George Michael would release the second single, “Shoot the Dog,” in which he aimed his wit and a rocking beat towards Bush Jr. militarism and, in particular, Tony Blair becoming Dubya’s obedient lapdog, throwing out the window any of the Cool Britannia capital he had gained in the ’90s. People forget that, back then, this was a bold move: An explicit protest song, with its target set clearly against the inevitable war in Iraq. The Dixie Chick’s “shut up and sing” cancellation was right around the corner, Bono wasn’t saying much other than “give peace a chance” bullshit and the upsurge of post-9/11 jingoism hadn’t plateaued yet. Sure, being openly against the war against Iraq was much more acceptable outside the US, starting with the UK, but when George Michael released this song, he probably knew he was burning any last chance of regaining popularity in the States. He was never one to use provocation as a cheap resort; there was always a clear agenda, sometimes straightforward, sometimes… even more straightforward but tongue in cheek.
At that time, I should’ve taken the chance to further explore this singer so unlike the year 2002: Danceable and smart. Politically outspoken but still being a pop singer through and through. But the face of straightness, all the codes of self-limitation took priority over my actual tastes.
Covering political issues was not a product of musical maturity for him, as it is the case with one too many pop artists (coughManOfTheWoodscough), they were woven in Wham!’s very first single “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)”, and its references to the unemployment and misery of Thatcher’s era … delivered with a jaunty synth-base and rap, though sung in a new-wave infused cadence, typical when white Europeans took on the genre back in the 80s. Luckily for everybody, George Michael wouldn’t try his hand at hip-hop again, but it showed one of his greatest skills: His flexibility inhabiting and adapting sounds from an endless range of sources, and then turning them into something uniquely his own. At the heart of his style is classic Soul and R&B: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin. But then he could easily take on electronic dance music in “Flawless (Go to the City)” or power ballads like “Praying for Time.”
The second time I discovered George Michael was in my first year of college, 2008. Now free from (barely) keeping up an act in high school, I had to pretend being an adult. The good part was that this meant a different circle of people, the bad part is that this was still 2008, and even studying at the very left-leaning School of Sociology, the precepts of what makes a man still were very much in place. Luckily we were the generation that started tearing down that artifice. I was in dire need of a singer that could help me process all that and the start of my OCD treatment. However, what led me to re-rediscover George Michael was as random as the fact that there was an entire network legal-procedural themed around his music. I’m talking about Eli Stone, that charming, weird comedy drama I’m still amazed managed to get a second season.
That seeded curiosity. I also had access to a computer that could properly download torrents. I dived deep into his discography, including Wham!, which deserves its own School of Studies.
The first thing you discover when you start listening actively to George Michael is that, yes, he’s goddamn underrated. And not just by the US market, who turned on him the second he started writing more complex stuff in Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. But that’s not to say there was anything simple about Faith or the Wham! era. The genius of pop is in creating something that is eminently listenable without having to actively listen, but George Michael did that while creating layered melodies, lyrics so full of ambiguity and introspection I’m still amazed they became Billboard Hits and, of course, his voice. His voice has a lot of the range and elegance of Freddy Mercury but with some of the bombast turned down and replaced with a stream of earnestness. He had this skill when singing of seamlessly turning from poised sex symbol to vulnerability and even fragility, sometimes through the course of one song. That was his secret; he could convey a full range of masculine inner life and contradictions through pop, and he made it look easy. There are very few male singers who can pull that off in this day and age. It’s either one extreme or the other, with the exceptions of, perhaps, Miguel, Dev Hynes, or Hozier.
His work was exactly what a confused 19-year-old needed right before I started replacing me having a personality with being in politics. Unlike Jeff Winger, I would never disown covering “Faith” in full 1986-George Michael uniform. I mean, I don’t even need the jeans, leather jacket, and sunglasses to start singing it.
His all-time masterpiece is Older, ironically, released when he was just 33. Every single one of the LP’s 11 tracks is a case of musical lightning in a bottle, including its title track. Here’s a story to make fun of me: As my second year began, we found out one of my classmates was getting married. He was a few months older than me. Her fiancée was some business administration guy, age-appropriate, but still, why on Earth would you want to get married fresh out of high school while studying at the Uni in the year of our Lord 2009? Dramatic as I was, I felt like it was the right time to listen to “Older” while returning home that day because I honestly did feel older and melancholy. Did I have a little crush on that girl? Probably, but I was 20, surrounded by intelligent women my age, who shared at least some of my interests and were all absurdly attractive. I had a crush on everyone. Did I make use of that unique chance? Of course not!
But the irony is that now I’m about to turn the same age George Michael was when he released Older, and I came to realize that actually my friends are all having babies, and I just wanna have some fun. I hadn’t listened to George Michael in a while, but now I’m rediscovering him a second time. He still makes sense, his tunes never wear out and he doesn’t lose an inch of edge. This is not one you can coopt to fill the tracklist of your bland covers album; are you listening Michael Bublé?
Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, considering this is the same person who performed for striking coal miners in 1984 with Wham!, and whose secret generosity went above and beyond what most people in his bracket of fame do. He went beyond charity singles; instead, he gave out the royalties of huge hits like “Last Christmas” or the sales of his greatest hits compilations to charity. Apparently, he was once a member of the Young Communist League. I’m not sure he remained one, but he did embody the values, including living in the UK instead of becoming yet another tax dodger (coughBonoPhilCollinscough).
George Michael’s discography is short, much too short, but exceptional at every turn. To some, it might come off as scattered and incomplete: A Vol. 1 of Listening Without Prejudice that never had a companion, a random LP of covers in Songs From the Last Century that is not a contract filler but a labour of love. And throughout, he kept trying new things, taking on new personas and sounds in an artistic project no different from a David Bowie or Prince. During the ’90s, it became too common for many stars of the ’60s through ’80s to fall into complacency with a view to Central Park. Artists like Sting, Bono, Phil Collins, Clapton; they all began to rake in additional fortunes in royalties from their back catalogs, waves of nostalgia and the CD era. So they settled into duplexes of cities like London or NYC and started living the life of wealthy people instead of the lives of artists, even if only super-rich artists. They became complacent, less and less interesting, more legacy than relevance. The exceptions were people like Prince, like David Bowie, Paul McCartney and George Michael. A limited output, but one clearly made by an extreme perfectionist. One that, considering the ease with which he gave his money to those in need, clearly was in it for the music first. An ironic twist of fate for any music purist out there, that perhaps one of the ultimate artists’ for art’s sake was one of the world’s biggest and poppiest superstars.
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