George Michael emerged in the 1980s as half of the zippy synth-pop duo Wham!, who served fluffy, infectious hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” with the blitheness of teenyboppers doing a number at the annual varsity show. As fine as bandmate Andrew Ridgeley was, it was George Michael who clearly had the star appeal, to the point where his “going solo” (a phrase from “Wake Me Up…”) was as inevitable as Beyoncé’s departure from Destiny’s Child. A shy, earnest sort of guy, Michael became emboldened by mixing the techno-kitsch sounds of the duo with deeper tones borrowed from R&B, rock, and dance, and becoming a true artist.
George's passing reminds us that 2016’s death toll was one of the darkest ever; between him, Bowie, Prince, and Natalie Cole, it’s been a truly lousy year for music. George’s dying on Christmas was an extra sad twist, making it his “Last Christmas”—the Wham! ditty that became a season perennial. I wish he’d held out for at least one more royalty check.
When he did go out on his own, George was personally unsure, but obviously felt confident enough to duet with the greatest of all singers, Aretha Franklin, on the hit “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” After that, he cemented his status by coming up with diverse, textured work like “Careless Whisper,” “I Want Your Sex,” “Faith,” and “Father Figure,” knocking out the hits while astounding everyone with his versatility and charisma. (His dancing was always hopelessly awkward, but I found that kind of endearing, I guess. It was part of the eager, imperfect, but inspired package that George represented.)
George stepped into the popular NYC club the Limelight at one point in the ‘90s and everyone froze, especially as the VIP DJ zoomed in and engaged him in a long, serious talk about music. More than an idol looking for fan worship, George wanted to be taken seriously, while imparting wisdoms and soaking up trends. This night gave him the chance to escape into all those roles.
And all this time, I knew that George was as gay as that other George (Boy George O’Dowd of Culture Club) and in fact, Boy George angrily outed George Michael in the press for years, forgetting that he had been sexually ambiguous himself for an uncomfortable amount of time. And now it was George Michael who just wouldn’t say it. He had slick hair and a gyrating crotch and seemed gayer than a British fruitcake, but he was clearly going to stay in the career closet, unless catapulted out of there by scandal headlines. And that’s just what happened, as it turned out.
The only good thing about his being busted for lewd sex in the restroom of a public park in Beverly Hills in 1998—for which the authorities overly shamed him, knowing they had a celebrity by the tail—was that the incident outed him irrevocably. George had to come out and say he was gay, and after that, there was no turning back. He was “the toilet guy” forever and would never again dream of “dating” Brooke Shields. (In 2011, Brooke told an audience I was in that George had romanced her, but they basically talked a lot about fashion, with nary a kiss happening, before he decided they should break up. “I didn’t know,” said poor Brooke.)
The bad thing, though, was that in puritanical America, George never had another hit record, even though he mocked the whole incident with a video and was desperate to move on. The singer got busted again in England for the same thing, and by now the career damage was too strong to overcome, though he remained in the zeitgeist as a gay singer with vocal chops and lots of spunk.
In 2011, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and his people were quick to tell everyone that speculations were “unfounded and untrue." What I got from that was, “In other words, he doesn’t have AIDS.” In writing, I urged them to keep quiet and just concentrate on George’s health rather than try to demonize HIV in the same way we’d heard from show biz and the government for years. We don’t know yet what killed George Michael yesterday, though his team now says that George hadn’t been sick at all, he was just overcome with heart failure. But we’ve already learned that his music is unkillable by anything.