© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

George Michael: A Father Figure For Political Pop

George Michael performs at the Sports Arena in San Diego, Calif.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
George Michael performs at the Sports Arena in San Diego, Calif.

The world may forever remember him as the '80s Wham! frontman who turned serious in the '90s and in the next century retired from fame while generating tabloid infamy. But George Michael's skill at singing, writing, producing and playing on most of his hits set him apart from most teenybop idols, as did the quality and durability of his tunes. More than 30 years after their release, young people know "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Careless Whisper" and "Faith."

Yet beyond the distorting lenses of nostalgia and gossipy notoriety, the singer born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was a political artist who jettisoned most of fame's trappings soon after they shackled him. Like many teen idols, he rebelled against his bubblegum role. Unlike many, he had the talent to transcend, and his victory no doubt inspired successors from Robbie Williams to Justin Timberlake.

It didn't hurt that he could write and sing soul music with effortless power and grace. Like perhaps only Annie Lennox, he sang with Aretha Franklin without making a fool of himself on their 1987 chart-topper "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me." He also acquitted himself well with Mary J. Blige in a 1999 remake of Wonder's "As," a UK hit, and on the duet version of Whitney Houston's "If I Told You That," in which he so mirrors the diva that one must listen closely to keep track of who's singing what.

Years before the U.S. mainstream briefly took him seriously, R&B radio stations pumped Wham!'s 1985 chart-topper "Everything She Wants" between Prince and Rick James. Unlike so many other white soul men — but not unlike Elton John — George Michael didn't need to be sold to black audiences. They decided they liked him on their own.

Part of this was that Michael was an outsider, too. His swarthy good looks read "ethnic" and set off gaydar upon impact. The U.S. remembers Wham! arriving as a seemingly overnight sensation with "Go-Go," the lead single off their 1984 album Make It Big. But the duo's first album, 1983's Fantastic, radiated homoeroticism and cheeky critiques of heteronormative life. The duo's earliest single, 1982's "Wham Rap," a UK Top 10 upon re-release in 1983, repudiated respectable work and advocated living on the dole — a daring move in Thatcher's England. And the jaw-dropping video positions Michael as a leather-clad bad boy who yanks his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley from his parents' clutches and leads him out of the closet with roof-raising gospel exuberance.

The Top of the Pops performance of "Young Guns (Go for It)" that made Wham! UK stars similarly positions Ridgeley as a newly married straight guy Michael saves from "death by matrimony." By "Everything She Wants," Michael already bristled against the traditional gender roles that came with opposite-sex attraction, and with his early solo work in the late '80s and early '90s, when his emotional connections with other men eclipsed his lingering physical attraction to women, he cast them aside completely.

Michael's coming of age as a gay man coincided with his artistic maturity the way Motown acts like Wonder and Marvin Gaye grew as musicians while writing about their blackness: Neither he nor they could separate one from the other. The rising AIDS death toll in the '80s and early '90s and the homophobia it inspired shaped Michael's solo career almost exactly the same way racism and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired much of Wonder and Gaye's greatest work.

Ann Powers On George Michael's Radical Impact

Like all teen idols, Michael was objectified, and his physical appearance scrutinized. Did he possess the exact ratio of male-to-female characteristics that makes pop heartthrobs attractive and not alienating to young girls, or was his particular combination of eyeliner and stubble somehow threatening? While the packaging and marketing of 1987's solo debut Faith — one of the biggest albums of that decade — blatantly commodified Michael's leather-and-denim-clad body with extraordinary success, 1990's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 removed beefcake from the equation completely. Ruminating on the pressures and personal costs of success, the lyrics of "Freedom! '90" were mouthed by supermodels in the song's David Fincher-directed video. The clip for "Praying for Time," a somber tune akin to early solo John Lennon, was nothing but text.

Today record companies and fans alike fill YouTube with lyric-only vids, but at the time that absolute break from Michael's teen idol past was tantamount to commercial treason. It kicked off a battle with Sony that resulted in both a lawsuit and a gap between albums that lingered for 5 1/2 years — an eternity in the life of a rapidly developing artist. He filled it via impassioned live collaborations with Elton John and Queen on remakes of their hits that bolstered his place in a gay pop continuum, as well as a corresponding "Cover to Cover Tour" that jettisoned much of Prejudice to favor righteous reinterpretations of pop and soul classics.

By the time Michael reemerged with 1996's Older, a mournful work largely shaped by the AIDS-related death of his Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa, to whom the album was dedicated, the singer had drastically cut his hair and trimmed his goatee in a recognizably gay style that was akin to Freddie Mercury morphing from '70s glam-rocker to '80s macho "clone." To anyone with ears and eyes, this was a coming out.

Everyone else learned the truth in 1998, when Michael was arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" at a men's room in Beverly Hills' Will Rogers Memorial Park — the kind of sting that threatened and ruined the lives of many men, like wailing '50s crooner Johnnie Ray. But rather than breaking Michael, the event emboldened his creativity, as if he'd unconsciously wished it upon himself, and it inspired the self-satirizing single and music video "Outside," a U.S. flop but a #2 UK hit that fueled substantial sales of Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.

When his 1999 standards album Songs from the Last Century got no higher than #157 on the U.S. charts, and it became apparent he would never have another hit single stateside, his output grew more daring. "Shoot the Dog" from 2002 celebrates spliffs and castigates Tony Blair and George W. Bush so blatantly for the preamble to the 2003 Iraq invasion that it was left off the initial US release of 2004's Patience, Michael's final album of new material. While Madonna's cover of "American Pie" was met with near-universal scorn, Michael's tenebrous 2003 treatment of Don McLean's "The Grave" — among folk's most visceral responses to the Vietnam War — won the support of its author. Initially given away on Michael's website in late '08, "December Song (I Dream of Christmas)" isn't as catchy or as well-known as Wham!'s "Last Christmas," but it offers further proof that despite tabloid media caricatures of him as a perpetually stoned and lawbreaking has-been, he could still release music of childlike beauty.

Nevertheless, decades of personal loss, record industry machinations, being a perennial tabloid target, and a near-fatal 2011 bout of pneumonia during his orchestrated European Symphonica Tour ultimately took its toll. After that wrapped up its rescheduled dates the following year, he effectively retired just as the next wave of white pop-soul singers picked up where he left off. Today, Adam Lambert, Sam Smith, Troye Sivan and other gay men like them don't have to code their material to simultaneously appeal to straight and LGBT audiences. Their private and public sides can align without the tribulations suffered by singers of previous generations.

For LGBT folk who grew up with him, George Michael was almost always essentially out anyway; only briefly during Wham!'s commercial peak did demands of the closet chafe against his music. Although contemporaries like Bronski Beat, Soft Cell's Marc Almond and Erasure's Andy Bell initially eclipsed him as forthright gay artists, Michael sustained his gifts and shared them with a mass audience who felt the pain of what it meant to be gay men living through the worst of the AIDS crisis, even if they couldn't understand it as such.

"Jesus to a Child," "You Have Been Loved" and much of the rest of Older are in their own way even more political than Michael's satirical material. So intimate that they irrevocably shook their composer's well-being, those elegies hurt like Nina Simone's best work does. To hear them is to bear witness to surviving a plague that killed off your lovers and comrades. No one can write and sing songs like that and remain forever steady.

In the wake of his death, Freddie Mercury gained sainthood from the media that vilified him while he was alive, and the same is already coming true for George Michael. As a gay man who danced to the earliest Wham! singles, witnessed the New York stop on the duo's teen-intensive first tour, sang along at Madison Square Garden circa Faith, marveled at the commitment he summoned on the first U.S. date of his 1991 Cover to Cover Tour, and then returned for the triumphant second gig of what would be his final North American trek in 2008, I find that predictable treatment infuriating. But it's mixed with so many euphoric memories of Michael and his music right now that I barely have headspace to accommodate that rage.

Though he undoubtedly despaired in secret and his offstage willingness to embrace fleeting pleasures is well documented, he was steadfast when it came to his fans, and sang of love with a devotion that rivaled any father figure. He made good on our faith, as well as his.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barry Walters