Damn it, George Michael – another beloved pop legend gone in 2016, dying on Christmas at the far-too-young age of 53, or four years younger than Prince. This one really hurts, because George Michael was a true pop visionary, one of the great Eighties glam eccentrics. No one else could have scored a classic like “Faith,” his biggest, best and weirdest hit. It’s one of the briefest Number One smashes of recent decades – under three minutes. Yet every moment is coded with sexual and stylistic provocations – the stubble, the black leather jacket, the acoustic guitar and handclaps, the breathy gasps and careless whispers, the paranoid lyrics, the way he sabotages his own straight-boy makeover by tricking out that leather jacket with a string of pearls. Even when George was draping himself with scantily clad supermodels, he made it seem like a statement of principle.
George always took his pop devotion seriously, which is why he redefined the art of pop stardom in the Eighties. For him, every hit meant a radical revision of who he was and what he stood for. So when he rocked that leather jacket in “Faith,” it was a renunciation of his frivolous past, just as setting that jacket on fire in his “Freedom ’90” video meant no, really, this time he was renouncing his past. But whatever his next disguise was, he made it witty and seductive. This guy got how the erotics of fandom worked. As he sang, “I know all the games you play, because I play them too.”
If you want a glimpse of the original, no-filter George the world first met, check out his bizarre 1984 TV appearance on the BBC chat show 8 Days a Week with Morrissey, both gents sitting side by side to debate pop arcana from Joy Division to breakdancing. George wears a sequined tank top and sparkly earrings, casually toying with his Farrah locks as he speaks. “I literally have never seen a film as bad as Footloose,” he laughs. “It was just so atrocious.” Yet it’s surprising how respectfully he and Morrissey defer to each other – they might be from different scenes, but they share the fierce conviction that these fan questions matter. (Surprise: George is the much bigger Joy Division booster of the two, especially Side Two of Closer.)
He first arrived with Wham!, the ultimate boy-boy duo – “every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy.” Of all the 1980s British Invasion upstarts, Wham! paid zero lip service to postpunk artiness – they came on as just two shamelessly ambitious teenage boys in tight shorts performing “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do).” “Success does not go hand in hand with credibility,” he told Smash Hits in 1984. “Look at what’s happening to the Smiths now.” George was schooled in Motown tunecraft – especially Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland. But nobody could guess exactly what Andrew Ridgeley did. In their first big Rolling Stone interview in 1985, they got testy about it. Andrew: “My role is everything people don’t see because they’re not in pop bands.” George: “He just plays the guitar and has a good time.”
Either way, Wham! made themselves an easy target. As Dead or Alive’s late, great Pete Burns said, “They’re just two toothpaste ads with a microphone, aren’t they?” (And he meant that as a compliment.) Eighties kids argued over whether Wham! even counted as New Wave; the exclamation point was seen as evidence for both sides. Make It Big cracked America with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper,” “Freedom” and “Everything She Wants,” where George bitchily arches an eyebrow at his pregnant bride: “You’ve shown me you can take – you’ve got some giving to do.” Harry Styles ended up getting “Careless Whisper” lyrics tattooed on his feet – “never gonna” on his right foot, “dance again” on his left. Now that’s true pop immortality.
Wham! signed off with two killer farewell hits, “I’m Your Man” and “The Edge of Heaven.” But George’s solo blockbuster Faith was the apex of everything he wanted and everything he was, from dance-pop glitz to obsessive late-night ballads like “Father Figure.” In the infamous “I Want Your Sex” video, George provided MTV with an intro telling the kids at home “This song is not about casual sex” while scrawling “explore monogamy” in lipstick on the bare flesh of his make-up artist. Faith‘s best song wasn’t even one of the hits – the deep cut “Hard Day” was a beatbox funk groove where George overdubbed a duet with himself, chanting “Don’t let me down” to a taunting falsetto voice. The twin Georges bicker over sex and money and respect until they break down into their climactic call-and-response: “Do you trust me?” “Yeah.”
That inner conflict is all over Faith, with regard to George’s hotly debated sexuality. He blasted into the music game at a time when pop stardom practically required boys to pose as gay, but forbade them from coming out in real life. It’s insane how the Eighties, now cherished as the queerest of pop decades, was so closeted at the time. Freddie Mercury didn’t just deny being gay – he threatened to sue press outlets who dared to suggest otherwise. So Faith was a pop starlet struggling to figure it out for himself in public but spinning off more questions than answers. (As he sings in “I Want Your Sex,” there’s things that you guess and things that you know.) For him it was complicated by his own inner denial – and then there was teaming up with Elton John for the ridiculous MTV smash “Wrap Her Up,” with both men drooling over Marilyn Monroe, Joan Collins and Grace Jones. Last week I was karaoke-ing (“Last Christmas,” of course) with a couple of women who grew up in the Eighties – they interrupted the song to give heartfelt speeches about how their whole ideal of teen romance was shaped by the dream that George Michael might be straight. That’s part of the role he played in his fans’ lives. (And speaking of “Last Christmas” – how did I never hear Taylor Swift’s version until last week? Talk about a songwriter built for Tay to interpret. I only wish George Michael lived long enough to cover “New Romantics.”)
But George tired of the hustle faster than anyone would have guessed. Listen Without Prejudice was where he abdicated, despite muted beauties like “Praying for Time.” In “Freedom ’90,” he could only express his quest for artistic authenticity by bringing in Christy Turlington to do his lip-synching for him. His summer-’92 hit “Too Funky” was a slight but welcome comeback in disco-supermodel mode; Older had low-key ballads inspired by a dead lover. It took a 1998 bust in an L.A. park men’s room to motivate him to come out, but with typical wit he turned the episode into his “Outside” video, complete with beefcake cops. For his final album in 2014, Symphonica, he teamed up with an orchestra to do a set of lounge songs, some his own (“One More Try,” “A Different Corner”) and others identified with torch singers like Nina Simone. One of the highlights, as it happens, was “Wild Is the Wind,” a song defined by the late David Bowie.
I once saw a Patti Smith show in October 2004 (with Television opening) where she announced she had a song stuck in her head all day, after hearing it on the radio, so she wanted to give it a try onstage. Then she wailed “Father Figure,” a ballad so perfect for her stern voice it was truly frightening. When Patti moaned the words, “If you ever hunger, hunger for me,” you could hear this was a song she was always meant to sing. (She covered it a couple more times on tour that month.) The moment was a glorious tribute from one cracked pop devotee to another. And only a moment like that could do justice to the strange, beautiful, timeless spirit of George Michael.