They were adorable. George Michael with the greatest hair since Farrah Fawcett Major’s backswept wave of honey gold, and cheek bones that crested as plateaus of desire on a face of pure Dionysus. Andrew Ridgeley, his by no means slouch of a wing man, more plausible for the average girls sighing and screaming, reduced to swampy panties and utter hysteria at the waft of the Brit duo known as Wham! UK.
Squeaky clean, perfectly PG. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was pure bubble gum with a whole milk chaser. “Careless Whisper,” the angsty whispered ballad, suggested betrayal, but how? Who could be so reckless with either of these boys with the gilded tans, the pearly white teeth, the seemingly perfect manners.
As MTV was establishing dominance, Wham! was a panacea that worked for everyone – the little girls who understood the rush of hormones, the women who breathed in the young buck musk and pined for that youthful erotica, the parents who felt they were safe quarry for their daughters and the concert promoters, who made the pair’s first – and ultimately only American tour – a stadium-sized proposition.
Heck, George Michael even dated that paragon of chastity Brooke Shields, a woman whose virtue – in spite of supermodel status and controversial films roles – rivaled iconic ‘50s good girl Sandra Dee. You don’t get much more wholesome, and yet…
For all the “good boy” patina of Wham!, there was an undercurrent of erogenous intent that was palpable. Too good looking, too breathless, too somehow unsettled; the bruised heart of “Careless Whisper” with the swelling sax and churning melody was a bit too fraught to be more boy band fodder.
Originally coming from the realm of rap, I remember talking with the guys from Whodini on the first Swatch Watch Fresh Fest about the UK darlings that merged pop and soul. The Thomas Dolby-produced “Magic’s Wand” trio knew all about the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” duo; they had toured together and talked collaboration. There was some real and some street on the cute boys from England, no matter how many day-glo t-shirts, perfect blow drys and shapeless linen blazers they sported.
And then it was over. Rumbles and stray shards of gossip. Egos and credit-grabbing, conflicting notions of who, what and why; like so many ragingly successful acts before, the tension and outside influences won. Seemingly tragic, yet ultimately, the notion that perhaps the glorious looking Michael did have a musical bent a la Michael Jackson and Prince, something steeped in deep soul, filled with melody that wrapped around your ears and hung on.
When “Faith” dropped, the quick beats and the sweep you up vocal that brought a taut line between desire and fidelity, Michael was undeniable. If the new romantic wave that brought Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club and the Thompson Twins in on a tide of videogenics and synthesizers – and the accompanying “Faith” clip absolutely beef-caked the dark haired songwriting – Faith was a testament to swooping soul, revved up rhythms and languishing desire stretched across ballads with candle wax poured for emphasis.
That slow burn permeated the steamy “Father Figure,” a noir sort of dance song as much “West Side Story” dramatics as it was breathy come on/fidelity pledge. Slightly anonymous, slightly driven by the rhythm of a beating heart, Michael played a cab driver in the accompanying video without ever prissying it up for the camera. Just a regular working stiff with a 5 o’clock shadow and hours to go until he sleeps; but oh when he gets there…
All of this to sift through the rubble of what was. The news that George Michael was dead crashed our Christmas dinner via friends dropping by for thick slices of bouche du Noel, one more pop culture depth charge with unintended consequences. Because with all the loss this year – Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell, Guy Clark amongst many – enough is enough, and at 53, George Michael is way too young.
George Michael, the beautiful amatory, had passed into ether. After a series of stumbles and falls from grace – the Beverly Hills’ men’s room arrest for soliciting sex, the confession to being gay on CNN, the several arrests for drug use, the notorious law suit with Sony US that may’ve stunted his career – it’s hard to remember the price of trying to follow one’s muse and integrity.
Instead we have that hunk who knew how to thread iconics, to balance the come on and the reassurance with his quarry. When Michael was still ambiguous about his own preferences, “I Want Your Sex” was lobbed on pop radio with a force that made it ubiquitous. The horn’n’guitar slashed middle chunk was Bootsy Collins/George Clinton light, as the lyric empowered the listener to give in to their hedonistic desires.
For a guy who once made desire an innocent commodity, he was no decriminalizing whatever got you through the night. Never afraid to be the beefcake, he raised the stakes for everyone listening out in radioland or watching on MTV: find your passion, feed your bliss, let your freak flag fly.
Like Madonna, George Michael was working the boundaries of what was acceptable. So damned good looking, he could get away with unthinkable things – girls in merry widows’n’garters shot strictly for their bottom – and make most people crave more. One had to wonder what all the seemingly polite songwriter craved, too, because that kind of hungry isn’t something conjured as a matter of exercise.
Somewhere in the flyover, I smiled while I watched the deliciousness. The gorgeous on display, the throb that slowed down rhythms elicited, the blatant, almost voyeuristic way the camera moved across this body, that beautiful face. If hot girls had been flaunting their charm for years, Michael decriminalized a non-muscle-bound swagger that was confident, but looking for satiation.
Whether he was or wasn’t, who cared? He brought it – no matter who you were. Omnisexual in terms of his draw, everyone with sight would have to want him. Like Tom Ford, when he took over Gucci, Michael understood the sex-positive nature of lush, body scraping designs – second skins that melt and move with you.
It seemed, in the late ‘80s, like another galaxy had exploded with the brooding Greek songwriter. If he understood major chords and bright melodies, how to make a beat pop, rush or lean in, swirl desire like ice in a drink, the world – not just America – was guzzling it down. Faith was inescapable; the title track giving way to “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex” becoming the raison d’etre for a world crawling from the first wave of AIDS sobriety to reclaim their joy.
If “One More Try” suggested an elegiac Elton John ballad and “Kissing A Fool” felt like a torch ballad that was equal parts Dean Martin and Sara Vaughan, the album was a carnival of beats and grooves that suggested the phases of a lycra bound aerobics class sweating to utter perfection. “Hand To Mouth” percolated, “Look at Your Hands” swagger with sweltering sax punctuations and “Monkey” took its staccato dance punch from bits of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” Bowie’s most brazen Let’s Dance pieces and a bit of Cameo funk whiplash.
The foment and churn took all the excess of Studio 54 and distilled it into a post new wave gasp and release. Who didn’t wanna get laid? And suddenly this caramel colored beauty with the great butt – which he had no compunction about shaking for the camera – and great mind – these were smart songs about the greatest frontier since Eve handed Adam that apple – emerged unapologetic and wide-open celebrating not just coupling, but being coupled.
Whatever may happen later, in this moment, George Michael made sex almost safe, something you, me, everyone must have. The collective panting could be heard any time his videos were on MTV. Staid ladies would whisper, rent boys would wink and the pretty girls would throw their hands up as they howled along with the songs on the radio or in the club.
Then came the high concept, grainy black and white “Freedom! ‘90” video. Exhausted by being the beefcake bulls eye of the new decade, Michael tapped David Fincher to vamp on the celebrated British Vogue cover that featured the five definitive supermodels of the era: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington.
The result was even more libidinous and pulse quickening than Michael’s previous work. As the women mouthed lyrics to the verses, strutting, rolling in the sheets, soaking in a large enough for two bath, coming in and out of the frames, the implicit fantasy was overpowering – and the underlying convergence of sex*music*fashion was intoxicating, all were one, one was all.
And if Michael was pushing away from being objectified, the man wasn’t eschewing sex, want or coital bliss in any way, shape or form. With a snake-hipped rhythm, as much Brazil as Nile Rodgers’ Chic, the song suggested the ultimate erotic thrust was freedom – to go, but also to stay.
At least, on the surface. But the man who tagged his “I Want Your Sex” video with a lipstick fuschia “Explore Monogamy” was always working three layers beneath the surface. If you plugged into the lyric or the iconography, “Freedom” suggested a man still looking for the climax, but unwilling to be the donkey to pin your fantasies to.
Between setting fire to the “Faith” leather jacket – hung deep in an almost empty closet – that cheekily proclaimed “Rocker’s Revenge,” or blowing up the “Faith” jukebox and signature guitar, Michael was serving notice. Listen closer – but why? with those glorious women and the rock steady dancefloor beat – you would hear the declaration of “clothes don’t make the man” in the chorus, the protestation of “living the fantasy/we won the race, got out of the place/ went home and got a brand new face/ for the boys at MTV” were clearer than anyone might have plugged into.
In the moment, many assumed the song addressed the dissolution of his musical partnership with Ridgley. But maybe it ran far deeper. The rest of Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was very much a work focused on betrayals, the empty nature of fame, the bankruptcy of hooking up. Did we know that at the time? Or were we all so punchdrunk on the fizzy goodness of the endorphins this music gave us?
Certainly there were other hits. “Cowboys & Angels” was a more sophistipop, humid and sweeping, something for Ibizia or the Riviera. “Soul Free” suggested Digable Planets, but with that sweeping pop still near the surface, the falsetto utter surrender to carnal pleasure. Even the big orchestral pop of Prejudice’s opening “Praying for Time” – ripe with social commentary to temper whatever follow -- suggested Michael needed more.
Maybe we should’ve known there was trouble in paradise. Maybe in the growing media invasiveness, it was only a matter of time before the cage match of fame crashed into the increasing gotcha reality of the way we consume our heroes. Or maybe the quickening cycle of obsess and cast off was to blame.
Beyond that lung busting duet with Elton John on the elder’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” or the Aretha Franklin-teaming “I Knew You Were Waiting,” Michael’s star faded. Still huge in the Far East, still a dance floor king in South America and Europe, America was more intrigued by that bathroom bust – and barely registering the ongoing drug problems in the UK.
Perhaps it was the battle with Sony. While malfeasance happens (and there are those who allege Michael was right), they are also the distribution system; ultimately the ones defining and driving the marketing when you’re on a global juggernaut. Turn them against you, watch your star grow cold and fall from the sky.
In some ways, being arrested for soliciting sex gave him the freedom he’d sung for. Out and free to live the life he wanted, Michael also reached towards the sun of music that was more evolved, more adult. If Older wasn’t a blockbuster, he sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” on “Fastlove, Pt. 1” and offered a velvety pulp fiction flare to the title track, boite-tempered trumpet bleating in the recesses, cocktail piano rising and brushes hitting the cymbals and high hat with a raindrop plop of perfection.
Michael’s voice, which always conveyed a whiff of ache, somehow smoothed, strengthened. If the winsome young man had reluctance and a slight bruising, this was something settled and confident. The invitation, once fraught with urgency, was now seductive. But most of us – myself included – missed it.
And that’s the shame of fame. When it’s at its apex, inescapable to the point of nausea, often no one recovers. Rare is the Madonna or Elton John, who navigate the turns and manage to maintain some form of intrigue. But they are both creature of design, image, dare I say marketing? And they’ve both had an uncanny knack for aligning with strong business people – Guy Oseary for Madge, David Geffen for Elton – at the critical juncture where their expiration date should have been passed.
When fame burns out, there is the lifestyle that one has become used to. Can you afford it? Or must that fall away? And if you can negotiate the fiscal reality, what about the mocking of media, who delight in your foibles? the lack of the raving cheers that have met your various endeavors?
Yes, there was James Corden’s original “Carpool Karaoke.” A riff to set-up his piece of “Comic Relief” that poked a sharp stick in the eye of the obvious, talking about the whole gay reality of which Michael was so much a face for. Beyond the all-out sing-along moments that would become a design key for Madonna, Michelle Obama, Gwen Stefani and so many others, there was that twinge of the unspoken – and the notion that perhaps it’s never truly okay in some rooms.
For George Michael, who actually served time for his last pot bust, he met every moment like a gentleman. Telling the British press there was a karmic reality to the short jail term, he never lost his dignity, always – in public – maintained that higher elevation.
But what or who he was when he was alone remains – for most of us – a mystery. No doubt, he had great times, lived a life that made sense for who he was: a gay man of certain beauty, aging and facing a changing world, a world where his music is more nostalgia, but indelible in ways most never achieve.
Having lost Prince, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, songwriter Andrew Dorff most recently, this is another unthinkable loss in a year of too much and too many.
Fifty-three is so young. No doubt in the coming days, every miniscule detail of his last several months will be combed over, will be sorted and read like tea leaves. Was it drugs? A broken heart? A heart that malfunctioned? His own hand? Some other misadventure?
The statement said he passed peacefully, no signs of trouble is all we have. No doubt there is more. But in this TMZ world in which we live, does it matter? He’s gone. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe that, and the freedom that comes from turning the music up way too loud, screaming along at the top of our lungs, wiggling like a noodle or hotstepping like the catwalk is our natural domain is all that we need to remember this life that for a few years burned so bright and so hot.
Today, Boxing Day as I finish writing, I think that I shall turn the music up, find the beats that move my bottom, bounce around and laugh. If there is a lesson from this wretched year, we never know when our time is coming. It’s a given, but somehow it is more urgent than ever – and I want to feel all the ecstasy I can.
It doesn’t mean being stupid, overindulging or putting myself at risk. It means, as Aunt Mame proclaimed, “Life is a banquet, and most of poor-sons-of-bitches are starving to death,” and as Scarlett O’Hara declared, “I shall never go hungry again!”
Go find someone you love, call up a friend you’ve not spoken to, have the small indulgence, go for a run and feel the energy, strength and life pumping through your body, flirt wit that guy or that girl, your wife or your boyfriend just ‘cause. And absolutely, turn up the music and dance – George Michael’s music was absolutely like that, just like it developed into something more ruminative so you could take that rapture even deeper.