George Michael was the cause of my first encounter with musical snobbery. It was 1996 and I was at college. I was getting the bus from town back to the college with some friends, clutching in my hand a freshly purchased CD of George Michael’s just released Fastlove single. I’d been awaiting its release impatiently, back in those days when a song would have weeks of radio airplay before you were finally able to own your own copy of it. Now I could take it home and play it on repeat ‘til my heart was content (or I’d grown sick of it, more likely).
But my excitement was tempered somewhat by the reaction to my purchase of one of my friends: “Oh, are you one of those people that likes bad music?”
I knew immediately what she meant. This was 1996 – peak Britpop-era. Indie and rock music (so-called ‘real’ music) had conquered the charts. Oasis and The Prodigy scored No 1 singles. The likes of George Michael were sneered at by my peers. Those peak Wham! days were long forgotten and now irrelevant. 90s pop star Jarvis Cocker waved his bum at 80s pop star Michael Jackson at the BRITs and was proclaimed a hero.
But I liked all of it. To me, Fastlove was a really good tune; the way Don’t Look Back in Anger and Firestarter were really good tunes. That was the most important thing to me, although of course you’re influenced by what comes with it as well: I enjoyed Oasis’s almost parodic self-confidence; I loved the unhinged aggression of The Prodigy. There was something about George Michael that appealed to me as well, his cheesy 80s past aside. But at 18, I might have had difficulty articulating what.
I was never a full-blown fan. Only the occasional song from his catalogue would worm its way into my soundtrack, but when it did it was always a favourite. Also, he was too classically beautiful for me to develop a crush on. But I found a lot to admire in him. He was, like Madonna and Prince, very much his own kind of pop star. Although we now know he was holding a large part of himself back, his songs and image and interviews were all very much expressions of his own uncompromising personality. There was no shady Colonel Tom Parker or Simon Fuller type figure manipulating the wants and desires of his fans.
And his vocal range was astonishing – with the ability to raise goosebumps with an even average song. But most importantly, he knew his way around a melody – no matter whether you like songs like Last Christmas or Wake Me UpBefore You Go Go or not, there’s no denying their craft.
Looking back now, if you listen to the tone of his songs, they tread that fine line gay men tread between the melancholy of our existence (A Different Corner, Heal the Pain, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me, John and Elvis are Dead) and the euphoric release of allowing ourselves to be who we are (Faith, Freedom ’90, Too Funky, Outside). There were clues in his appreciation of women as well. In his videos it leaned more to the aesthetic than objectification – the Freedom '90 video is a classy appreciation of some of the most beautiful women in the world, rather than the exercise in titillation it could have been.
Two years to the month after I bought Fastlove, George Michael was arrested in an LA toilet for cottaging. His reaction to his abrupt outing was both hilarious and galvanising. He took ownership of his behaviour. There was no excuses, no playing down, no blame apportioned anywhere but with himself. He did what he did and he was what he was, so what. The funny and euphoric single Outside, and its accompanying video, were the perfect response to the world’s shock and distaste. It combined what the world loved about George Michael – his infectious pop songs, his sexy videos, his sense of humour – with this new element of his persona. He was saying: “I’m still me, this is just another side to me.” And it worked.
For gay men, his response was a revelation. For so long – literally a century or so, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s trial – the idea of being publicly homosexual had been steeped in shame. Occasionally, a gay male pop star punched his way through to the A-list, but Boy George was too weird, alien-like and androgynous to be too threatening to the mainstream, or relatable for gay men. Meanwhile, Freddie Mercury went from closeted everyman rock star to fulfilling the Tragic Gay archetype, dying as he did of complications from AIDS at the age of 45.
George Michael was different. The Outside video is the response of a naughty child who is quite pleased he’s been caught so he can show off about what he’s done. You can see it in the singer’s sly smirk over his shoulder as he purrs “I think I’m done with the sofa…” You can hear it in the sarcastic lyrics: “And yes I've been bad, Doctor won't you do with me what you can,” mocking the idea that homosexuality can be cured. He was showing us a new way to say “I am what I am”, now with added middle finger.
He took (and continued to take) ownership of both the ‘homo’, and the ‘sexual’. As he would say in a later interview: “Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.” Finally, a gay public figure we could relate to.
As such his loss is a great one. He was a frequent reminder to the mainstream of a gay life well lived, at least eventually, and the struggles mentally and socially we go through to settle into that life. His legacy is incredible, one that reaches beyond those perfect pop songs. I hope he continues to inspire and galvanise young people in death as he did me in life.