How George Michael Woke Up the Eighties

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Slavko Sered/Shutterstock

George Michael made me take music videos seriously by not taking them too seriously himself. First time I saw him was as the star vocalist in Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Michael and Andrew Ridgely, both in white togs, dancing—and most impressively—prancing about on a soundstage eternity, somehow reminiscent of ‘60s-TV variety shows. In 1984 that gambit was retro enough to proclaim a new camp vanguard of ‘80s British pop which was experiencing post-punk, post-disco ascendance at the time.

When Michael appeared close-up in that music video, his hair unabashedly frosted and him singing to the camera and beaming a smile that instantiated the lyric, You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" seemed a happy act of gender-crossing identification. It was so resoundingly, bouncingly gay that some of us smiled, immediately recalling that the Wham! album was titled Make It Big. It was a slap, a tickle, a wink, a grin.

Plus, Michael’s lyrics shout-out to that most distinctively mellow-voiced white female pop vocalist of the baby boomer era was a sign of superb musical taste—and of his acumen that was to be proven to the world when his solo debut album Faith (featuring the uncanny anthem “Father Figure”) broadened the emotional scope of modern pop.

Two significant gestures made "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" historic:

First, in that close-up, Michael wearing a pink shirt and yellow fingerless gloves, hugs himself as he sings. But this was not narcissism—or at least not a garden variety blossoming of wannabe superstar ego. It jacked a good-looking boy-band singer’s vanity up so high it achieved stratospheric stardom, defying the straight heartthrob appeal that male ingénues had faked ever since the casting-couch was invented. Michael embraced his gayness for all the world to see. Add it up: The Doris Day reference (Terence Davies hadn’t yet paid tribute to Doris Day with "At Sundown” in The Long Day Closes), artificial colors (who needs La La Land?) and forcefully contrived happiness told viewers Michael used the music video genre to demand a gay place in the pop firmament, orbiting somewhere near Prince, Michael Jackson, and Morrissey .

Second, the silly dancing—part-chorus boy glee, then, alongside female back-up singers, part-cheerleader pom-pom pomposity. It allowed Michael to switch costume into white short-shorts that showed off lithe, tanned thighs. This also went beyond narcissism: Michael wasn’t just showing-off to flaunt himself. Bypassing the gender-bending shock produced by David Bowie and Boy George as well as the cock-rocking Heavy Metal studs, Michael's flaunting revealed something sexual in the world that was also exuberant. (As Michael jumps about, you can hear a comic voice boom “Jitterbug” in the background, name-checking a once-radical, wild dance fad that soon was widely accepted ) Everyone who saw "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" knew it. And felt it.  And, whatever their reaction, knew something more about themselves.

Back in the day when music videos were taken seriously and The Village Voice included that visual form in its annual national pop music poll, I had begun to chronicle the emerging art form and had raised some eyebrows by listing "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" as one of 1984’s very best. It’s still that—and more.  Cheerful, seductive, confessional—but a deceptively light-hearted cultural landmark. Honor and remember that now-lost frivolity; it is every reason George Michael’s art should be taken seriously.

Michael's voice was insouciant and he clearly learned how to jam from his British pop ancestors’ love of American R&B singing. His live-recorded Elton John-duet ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” perfected innuendo and passing-of-the-torch. They harmonized like twin bitches. So each star’s awkward phases of personal and public identity, embarrassment and pride, tell of shared gay experience and maturity. When Michael's ass-shaking became a too-public tabloid disgrace and when his showbiz appearances looked fiendish (sporting a toxic seducer’s goatee that updated the '70s porn star moustache cliche), the sun had gone down on a once-ecstatic career.  Yet who could forget the reprobate’s former radiance? Who is so without their own sins that they could not forgive his? Furthermore, any gay man who has heard "Father Figure" knows he is George Michael's brother.

 

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