George Michael: An LGBT statesman of a different storyEditorial, Online Only, Top Highlights, Section 4A, Entertainment News Saturday, January 28th, 2017
George Michael came to prominence at a unique point in time, just after the androgyny of the 1970s David Bowie and New York Dolls had changed our perceptions of what a pop star could be, yet before the cultural acceptance of homosexuality that came in the 21st century.
George Michael was not alone in the 1980s closet. The era produced some of the most prolific gay musicians including the all gay (and out) trio Bronski Beat (“Why?” and “Smalltown Boy”), Morrissey (The Smiths), Pete Burns (Dead or Alive), Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), Andy Bell (Erasure), Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü), Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland (The B-52s), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes To Hollywood), Ricky Martin (Menudo) and of course Boy George (Culture Club).
However, George Michael would go on to become one of the world’s most famous solo artists and sex symbols. He would sell more than 100 million albums internationally, making him one of the most successful artists of all time with eight No. 1 hits in the U.S. His debut solo album, “Faith” sold 20 million copies alone. Yet, even from the onset, his sexuality played a prominent role in both his music and in the persona of ‘George Michael,’ one he eventually began to disdain in his relationship with the media, especially the tabloids in the U.K.
With Andrew Ridgely as part of the internationally successful duo Wham!, George Michael broke onto the music scene first in his homeland of England on their track “Young Guns (Go for It)” with all of its pro-single male lyrics, studded leather jackets and belts and a swagger you couldn’t help but notice.
See me, single and free
No tears, no fears, what I want to be.
One, two, take a look at you
Death by matrimony!
Wham! “Young Guns (Go for It)”
Yet, even in this early incarnation, George Michael got quite controversial and political. With their re-issue of “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do),” they challenged the notion of working during the Thatcher-era and coal miners’ strike, all the while referring to D.H.S.S. (Department of Health and Social Security, responsible for unemployment payments in the United Kingdom).
I may not have a job,
But I have a good time,
With the boys that I meet “down on the line”
I said D.H.S.S.
Man the rhythm that they’re givin’
Is the very best
Wham! “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)”
But in 1984, Wham! really broke through with the bubblegum pop song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and its gay-boy friendly daisy-duke shorts, perfect tans and the infamous “Choose Life” T-shirts. The shirts were created especially for the band by renowned fashion designer Catherine Hamnett as an anti-nuclear weapon and anti-suicide message, not the ‘pro-life’/anti-abortion message as is commonly thought in the United States. This set the stage for a string of No. 1 hits in the U.S. and around the world including “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom,” “I’m Your Man” and “The Edge of Heaven.”
But it was the single “Careless Whisper” that really changed everything. Cited as Wham! featuring George Michael in the U.S. and as a solo single in the rest of the world, it became a huge hit – all the way to No. 1 in 25 countries in 1984, while selling an astonishing six million copies worldwide. This was the year of another huge band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, that was fronted by Holly Johnson, who would come out years later. Holly said, “I was sorry to hear about George Michael’s death.” It was the sexuality of their hit “Relax” that was famously banned by the BBC for its cover art. The song also went on to further notoriety with a golden shower scene in its S&M video. “Relax” would set the stage for even further prominence of male sexuality with George Michael’s first official post-Wham! solo single, “I Want Your Sex,” which would have its own ban of sorts with American Top 40 host Casey Kasem refusing to even say the song’s title, referring to it only as “the new single by George Michael.”
What followed was a long list of hits that included the album lead track “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Kissing a Fool,” “Hard Day” and “Monkey” – making for seven singles from that one album. This was followed by the album “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” which produced still more hits like “Praying for Time” and the rebellion of “Freedom 90” which alluded for the first time to George Michael’s closeted secret (though many in the music industry were already well aware and many fans had already easily deduced).
I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I told you so
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone else I’ve got to be
George Michael “Freedom 90”
Unfortunately for fans, what followed was several years of legal battles between George Michael and his record label Sony. Ultimately, he lost. During this time, he put out several singles including the live duet with Elton John of “Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me” and “Too Funky” which were among his first HIV/AIDS charity singles. Then followed the “Five Live” EP which was recorded at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 and was another charity release. But again on the B-side of “Too Funky” there is clear commentary on social and political issues with “Crazyman Dance.”
I wrap them around my body
Outside these skyscrapers
I wait for the night to hit me
And boy, does it hit me
George Michael “Crazyman Dance”
These are among the tracks that were the planned for “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2” which never saw the light of day; some its tracks did get released as B-sides and on the album “Red, Hot + Dance.” Another planned album that ultimately was lost to more legal issues in 1993 was “The Trojan Souls.” It was to be a duet album featuring artists such as Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, Sean and Sade. The music can be found deep within the confines of the Internet.
At this point, a relative quiet period had ensued while George Michael began his first male relationship with Anselmo Feleppa, the Brazilian designer who was his partner until his death in 1993, and who inspired the ballad “Jesus to a Child,” which is considered to be one of his best songs of all time. Again he reveals his true nature so delicately and emotionally.
In my eyes
No one guessed
Or no one tried
You smiled at me
Like Jesus to a child
George Michael “Jesus to a Child”
Also from the 1996 album “Older,” came two more revealing hits. First, “Fastlove” talks about the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ of the hookup, long before hookup apps or Web sites were prevalent.
But if you’re looking for fast love
If that’s love in your eyes, it’s more than enough
Had some bad love
Some fast love, is all that I’ve got on my mind
George Michael “Fastlove”
It was the track “Spinning the Wheel” that brought home the idea of a partner hooking up yet hiding in the darkness of night, all the while the cost being the Russian roulette of HIV/AIDS through such encounters.
Five o’clock in the morning
You ain’t home
You’ve got a thing about danger
Ain’t you getting what you want from me
You’ve got a thing about strangers
Baby that’s what we used to be
George Michael “Spinning the Wheel”
Silence would become the music for several years after this. Until in April 1998, a Beverly Hills cop would entrap George Michael in the public bathroom of the Will Rogers Memorial Park near the Beverly Hills Hotel. His name appeared on front pages around the world after helicopters and the press massed around his Los Angeles home. At age 34, his response was unequivocal. He went on television and told told CNN’s Jim Moret that he did not have his first gay relationship until he was 27 and that he had decided to keep his sexuality private because of the way he was publicly scrutinized earlier in his career.
“I spent the first half of my career being accused of being gay when I hadn’t had anything like a gay relationship,” Michael said in the interview. “So I spent my years growing up being told what my sexuality was really … which was kind of confusing.” Adding to this, George Michael recorded the song “Outside” along with a video that featured a bathroom disco with shiny urinals and George Michael as a cop. What ensued was further lawsuits from the arresting officer, which were ultimately dismissed in 2000.
Let’s go outside (let’s go outside)
In the sunshine
I know you want to, but you can’t say yes
Let’s go outside (let’s go outside)
In the moonshine
Take me to the places that I love best
George Michael “Outside”
In 2004, George Michael released what would be his fourth and final proper album, “Patience,” led by two singles in the years preceding. His anti-war, anti-George W. Bush, and anti-Tony Blair song “Shoot the Dog,” which revealed his strong feelings about how he felt Blair was being manipulated by the Bush Administration. Next he released one of his most titillating songs, “Freeek!” The track furthered his reputation that just a few years later would be covered by the British tabloids again in his arrest for cruising in a public park and two arrests for being under the influence of drugs.
You got yourself an ass with
Mind of it’s own bring something to the party
You got yourself addicted
You shoot up, it saves you time
You got yourself some action
Said you got your sexy Java
You got your speed connection
Free chat, fuck that, get a little harder
George Michael “Freeek!”
From a 2004 interview with Attitude magazine, talking about his No. 1 club hit “Flawless (Go to the City),” George said “Don’t you think that’s like my first proper queen’s record? They’re going to go mental to that one. I wanted to camp it up a bit more and so many people I know loved that record.” He added “One night I arranged to meet this guy. I told him who I was, but I don’t think he really believed me. Anyway we arranged for me to pick him up outside a station and he nearly had a heart attack ‘cause it was me! He then he said ‘but I love that ‘Flawless’ track that came out last year.’ And I knew I had to include it.”
But it was his track “Amazing” that is most revealing and even considered the antithesis to “Careless Whisper.” Written about his lover of 11 years, Dallas native and art gallery owner Kenny Goss, it may be one of George Michael’s happiest and most loving tributes. The song comes as a testament of true love and just how perfect it is in timing and gesture.
Tell me, I guess that cupid was in disguise
The day you walked in and changed my life
I think it’s amazing
The way that love can you set you free
George Michael “Amazing”
George Michael had a great deal of love and admiration from his peers which is part of what made him a leader. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2014 about their competition in 1984, Boy George jokingly said, “When George Michael came along I was like, ‘He’s called George? That’s not allowed!’” About George Michael’s death, Boy George commented, “He was so loved and I hope he knew it, because the sadness today is beyond words. Devastating. What a beautiful voice he had and his music will live on as a testament to his talent.” Pet Shop Boys added “Gone too soon. It’s so sad.”
By no means an angel, nor was George Michael the devil incarnate. He was not all that different than many of us. He had his challenges coming out of the closet. He had loves in his life. He, at times, had it hard at his job and at other times was wildly successful in work. An occasional cop crossed his path and gave him trouble, just for being gay. Yet, what makes this man a statesman of the LGBT community, is that he boldly went where others before him were afraid of. He did so proudly and, ultimately, publicly. The demons he had, he shared through his music so the rest of the community could recognize that we are not alone. But most importantly, he shared his love of life through his music so that all of us, LGBT or not, could smile, cry and laugh with one another.
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