2016 has got another one – precious George Michael. An amazing performer, songwriter and activist, Michael’s legacy will be as it was during his lifetime – bold, brave and very mainstream.
Don’t believe me? Have you had your annual singalong to Last Christmas over the last few days?
If the answer is ‘no’ then you’re either a) lying; or b) dead inside.
Michael’s music was and will always been fantastically catchy. And it’s a skill he perfected freakishly early. Last Christmas, was released with Wham! in 1984, making Michael only 21 on its release. He also wrote and produced it - all by 21. As that wasn’t enough for that year, 1984 also saw Michael and co-Wham!-er Andrew Ridgely release the sax-ually glorious Careless Whisper and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go – a type of concentrated hitmaking that today’s popstars (and any musicians, really) can only dream of. Go-Go in particular was the epitome of ‘80s happy, with those fabulous “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirts, hyper-coloured sets and a cheeky "jitterbug" reference to annoy the parents forced to hear the song booming out of bedrooms stereos around the world.
In 1986/7 Michael broke up Wham! and went solo. His debut record, Faith, bore a single of the same name as well as the controversial I Want Your Sex (sometimes called I Want Your Love by those with delicate constitutions). Made for the MTV generation, both songs provoked viewers as well as listeners – dirty enough to titillate but strong enough sonically to be undeniable. Outlets around the world banned it because of an “AIDs fear”, with the New York Times quoting “A BBC spokesman” who denied the song because “At a time when we are trying to help fight AIDS, this single goes against the grain. It tries to encourage sex.''
Looking back now it’s incredible to think music was considered so dangerous. However, it was a responsibility that was not lost on Michael – the final 10 seconds of the film clip simply say “explore monogamy”, held as a static title card over silence. He was not an advocate either way by then, but was also not willing to be unnecessarily scared, shamed or silenced.
It was a stance that got Michael the respect of fans as well as his contemporaries. I love this clip of Madonna presenting him an MTV award at the height of her own domination of the format –
Michael’s fame and influence continued with his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice (1990). Featuring Praying For Time, Waiting For the Day and the incomparable Freedom 90, it was a break from the pop machine in many ways, but never from great songwriting and performance. The first two singles confused an industry who had become accustomed to Michael’s tight buns and huge smile selling his tunes – he made a point of not appearing in either film clip, talking much more about God than sex and settling into more introspective grooves. By the time it came to Freedom 90, however, he gave the industry the pretty pictures they wanted. Only this time it was with him framed behind the camera, looking on as supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford lip-synched his words. The song was also wonderfully autobiographical, singing about being “a young boy”, who was “every little hungry school girl’s pride and joy”. Denying his former life of playing it up for “the boys at MTV”, he instead proclaimed “I won't let you down” if you “have some faith in the sound”. Seeing this on rage on a Saturday morning as a 10 year-old was life-changing. A pop star so knowing, so simple, so honest – “I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me – Freedom”.
Fast forward to the 1990s and into the non-musical controversy. 1996 saw album Older, and while the clues of Michael’s sexuality had long been there for those who wanted them, his arrest in 1998 for ‘lewd act’ in public gained headlines (and stirred up homophobes).
In response Michael refused to apologise or deny his position, instead responding with a glorious mock recreation of the event for the single Outside. It featured on his best-of Ladies And Gentleman (1998), and indeed, showed him at his best.
Following the best-of Michael released a covers album, Songs From The Last Century (1999), co-produced with Phil Ramone, and then what would be his last original album, Patience (2004). It included six singles and was the result of an industrial struggle, but he emerged triumphant and king of the dancefloor.
Beyond his own work many will remember Michael’s generosity when working with other artists. His work with Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and others is all there to find again now, however his performance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1991 remains one of the most powerful vocals of all time. So good, it was dangerously close to being ‘a better Freddie than Freddie’ in terms of its passion and commitment. His version of Somebody To Love so perfectly delivered the sadness of being left behind but refusing to give up – an unlikely combination of pop and gospel that worked beautifully.
So, 2016. You have been a bastard when it comes to taking musicians. The ground-breaking art of Bowie; the folk genius of Cohen, the glorious genre ascension of Prince, the powerhouse of Sharon Jones – and the list goes on. In taking George Michael you took someone younger, who had battled prejudice (despite asking us to listen without it), but won because he refused to play the game once he understood it. And for that, baby, you will always be my man.