What Makes a ‘Gay Icon’?
“In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see,” Lil Nas X proclaims in the video for his chart-topping single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” For the openly gay rapper/singer, Montero — inspired by his birth name — is a place where one is free to be who they are. The unabashedly queer video caused a minor media frenzy when it was released earlier this year, but the controversy revolved less around Lil Nas X’s sexual orientation — he’d already come out at the end of LGBTQ Pride month in 2019 — than the profane religious imagery of the clip itself, which depicts the 22-year-old riding a stripper pole to hell, performing a lap dance for the devil, and sprouting demon’s wings.
Rock musicians like David Bowie and Elton John flirted with androgyny, and both spoke publicly about their bisexuality as early as the 1970s. But the idea of an out-and-proud male pop star being embraced by the mainstream, and before his debut album has even dropped (Montero is due this summer), would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago. Ricky Martin — who announced he was a “proud homosexual” in 2010 after years of speculation, including an infamous interview with Barbara Walters that Martin recently said still haunts him — rode a wave of success driven largely by a loyal female fanbase eager to watch him shake is “bon-bon.”
Martin had reason for concern. A year prior to the release of the Puerto Rican singer’s English-language debut, which launched his career into the stratosphere, British pop star George Michael had been publicly “outted” when he was arrested for soliciting an undercover cop in a public restroom in Beverly Hills. While his music continued to perform well in the U.K., he never scored another hit in the U.S. again.
For American audiences, the first glimpse we got of Michael was in the video for Wham!’s 1984 hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” in which he pranced around in blue and white hotpants, a magenta top, and fluorescent yellow gloves, vamping in close-ups for the camera. The ‘80s were nothing if not a playground for the flamboyant, so a male entertainer — especially one from across the pond — wearing eyeliner and earrings divulged very little about who he was fucking.
Just a few years later, that iconic image was eclipsed by one of a stubbled Michael in the video for the title track from his first solo album, Faith, donning a black leather jacket, steel-toed cowboy boots, gold aviators, and blue jeans that were practically painted on, and shaking his ass to the delight of millions. Michael’s appropriation of these totems of hyper-masculinity may have assuaged doubts about his sexuality among straight audiences, but, in hindsight, it scans as an obvious, if subconscious, attempt at misdirection. The singer was in a relationship with model and make-up artist Kathy Jeung at the time, but, privately, he identified as bisexual.
Why George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’ Was Political, Subversive Pop Seduction
As recently as 2004, Michael seemed to subscribe to antiquated notions about environmental factors — including an absent father and doting mother — being the primary cause of his queerness. Which makes one of Faith’s biggest hits, “Father Figure,” a curiosity worthy of analysis in its own right. Putting aside the song’s association of love with a “crime” being juxtaposed with a lyric like “Greet me with the eyes of a child,” “Father Figure” sees Michael casting himself in the role of a proxy parent, an intriguing but perhaps predictable development given the prevalence of “daddy” culture in the gay community.
In his 2018 song “Seventeen,” Troye Sivan recounts a sexual encounter with an older man he met on Grindr. The Australian singer-songwriter is part of a new generation of LGBTQ performers who have come of age in an era where increased connectivity and visibility has arguably saved them countless lost years. “Seventeen” is clearly about sex, but it’s also about the kind of self-discovery that gay men of Michael’s generation were frequently deprived of in their formative years.
It wouldn’t be until the release of 1990’s under-appreciated Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 that Michael’s ambivalence about his identity became more evident in his work. The swapping of pronouns in “Cowboys and Angels” results in an ambiguity that served to both obfuscate and authenticate his sexual fluidity. “Freedom ‘90,” in particular, conflated Michael’s personal and professional struggles, not simply because they were happening simultaneously, but because they were inextricably bound. When he declares, “There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” it’s both a bald-faced rejection of the pinup image he’d cultivated and a desperate plea for self-actualization.
Ultimately, Michael’s vow of loyalty in “Freedom” — “I won’t let you down/So please don’t give me up/‘Cause I would really, really love to stick around” — wasn’t fully reciprocated by the American public or his record label, with whom he famously tried to break ties. The dispute put Michael’s career in a legal purgatory that led to several years of only sporadic musical output, including the AIDS awareness compilation Red Hot + Dance. One of the songs he contributed to the project, “Do You Really Want to Know” is a deceptively buoyant pop-house anthem about safe sex that boasts more of Michael’s wooly wordplay: “If you knew every woman and I knew every man, we never would have made it past holding hands,” he sings, before later reversing “man” and “woman.”
Sivan, who’s 26, has said he couldn’t relate to Michael growing up, and the unapologetic, joyous portraits of queer desire that he and Lil Nas X convey in their music feel far removed from the scarce, thinly veiled songs about the gay experience that existed around the time they were born. Michael’s long-awaited third album, 1996’s Older — the release of which coincided with my own sexual awakening at the height of the AIDS epidemic — reinforced the myopic vision of gay life as one of danger, sadness, and misery that my generation was taught in school and by the media. Michael’s lover, a Brazilian fashion designer named Anselmo Feleppa, had succumbed to the disease in 1993, and the singer’s grief seeps into nearly every grim note of dirges like “Jesus to a Child” and “You Have Been Loved,” which contrasts Anselmo’s mother’s loss with Michael’s own mortality: “Well, I’ve no daughters, I’ve no sons/Guess I’m the only one living in my life.”
Many of the gay men who survived the plague have invariably suffered a form of PTSD, triggered by the nagging suspicion that they unjustly escaped death while their lovers and friends perished. Two highlights from Older, “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” depict starkly different responses to that collective trauma. An ode to one-night stands nostalgically dressed up in the sultry disco stylings of a period when such behavior couldn’t yet kill you, the former song pushes back against the oppressiveness of heteronormativity — “My friends got their ladies, they all have babies/But I just wanna have some fun” — but ultimately exposes Michael’s pursuit of pleasure as an attempt to mask his pain: “In the absence of security, I made my way into the night/Stupid Cupid keeps on callin’ me, but I see nothin’ in his eyes.”
In “Spinning the Wheel,” wherein every act of sex is a game of Russian roulette, Michael puts himself in the position of the lover left at home, waiting and wondering: “You say, ‘Give me time, and I’ll do better, I swear/Give me time and I’ll lead you back to despair’/And I don’t wanna go back there.” On the next track, “It Doesn’t Really Matter,” Michael — born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou — circles back to his rejection of so-called traditional family values, acknowledging the irony of his desire for stability when he confesses, “I changed my name to be rid of the things that I want from you.”
Openly gay singer Adam Lambert has called coming out “an act of defiance,” and while Michael was given little choice in the timing and manner of his own, he was far from contrite in the music video for “Outside,” released just a few months later to promote his first greatest hits album. The tongue-in-cheek clip, which features Michael dolled up in a police uniform, attempts to destigmatize “cottaging” — cruising for anonymous sex in a restroom — and public sex more broadly. His 2004 song “Freeek!” similarly embraces fringe elements of the queer community with a virtual-reality tour through cybersex fantasy and webcam exhibitionism.
After coming out, Michael instantly became a gay icon, but he was a reluctant one, tormented by the death of his first love and struggling to reconcile the fact that the massive success he’d achieved was sustained by pretending to be someone else. “George Michael” was a fictional avatar he’d created, one to which he’d become imprisoned. “There’s no question when I look back it really would have hurt me [if I had come out sooner]. I didn’t realized how much I was protecting my career,” he told Huffington Post in 2011. Ironically, it was just three years later that fellow Brit Sam Smith came out as queer in order to avoid the appearance of trying to protect their own career.
Michael’s final studio album, 2004’s Patience, included a ballad, “My Mother Had a Brother,” about his allegedly closeted uncle, who took his own life on the day the singer was born. Michael seemed determined, at the time, to carve out a different fate for himself: “I swear now that freedom is here/I’m gonna taste it all for you,” he sings. But his struggle with depression led to an appetite for drugs and a string of arrests in the 2000s.
During an interview on Good Morning America in 2008, Michael said he felt “cursed,” and it’s tempting to characterize the artist’s life and death, at the age of 53, as a tragedy. (Michael died on Christmas Day in 2016, reportedly of heart failure.) In his final years, though, he managed to find a sliver of hope: “I’m alive, and I’ve got so much more that I want to do,” he sings on his 2012 single “White Light,” a vow to make up for lost time. Ultimately, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou may not have ever found the gay Shangri-la that Lil Nas X describes in his video, but “Montero” might not have ever existed without him.
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