Wednesday, December 28, 2016
2016 has been a crap year. Along with everything else, we saw the deaths of far too many people who meant so much to so many people. Some belittle that mourning, but I don’t—I’ve been one of the millions of mourners. As the year draws to a close, we’ve been subjected to ever more loss including George Michael earlier this week.
Like many people, I was shocked and saddened when I heard that George Michael had died. For me, he was so many different and varied things all at once. I’ve found myself remembering them all.
Michael became a role model for many gay men: “George Michael’s work had a unique, profound effect on LGBTQ people”, is how Patrick Garvin put it in a piece for the Boston Globe, and I have no doubt he’s right. But I’d been out for at least 15 years by the time Michael finally came out, and I’d already finished my career as a gay activist and was living happily here in New Zealand with Nigel. So, I didn’t need him as a role model as younger gay men did.
However, there was also a clear sexual ethos in his videos with Wham! and in his solo career, which was liberating (as well as, you know, sexy…). I particularly remember sitting in a gay video bar in Chicago called Take One (long gone) watching the video for their hit single, “Club Tropicana” () and fancying Michael quite a lot (and also thinking bandmate Andrew Ridgeley was cute, too). At the time, Michael was around 20 and I was 24. And yet, at that time, I didn’t know for sure Michael was gay, so it was more of an appreciation than anything else.
I also appreciated his politics and his charity work, some of which was largely unrecognised at the time. All of that was laudable.
It was, of course, his music I liked the most about him. I liked something from all of his albums, though, as with most performers, not necessarily everything on every album. On the other hand, I very much liked Songs From The Last Century, his least-successful album. Among other things, I liked his cover of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” [LISTEN], which includes male pronouns. His performance was probably influenced by Nina Simone’s version [WATCH], which had been used for a TV commercial in the UK and became a hit again. I still like it when I don’t have to “fill in the blanks” with song lyrics.
Among his many solo recordings, two stand out for me. The first is “Freedom! ‘90” (video up top). The sarcasm and cynicism of the lyrics appealed to me, as did the use of female and male models lip-synching rather than Michael himself appearing. Visually, the video was well done, and the destruction of elements from Michael’s earlier music videos was especially good, I thought. And, the chorus is great. Pop music at its best.
But one of my favourites of his videos was for “Outside” (video below). The video mocks his arrest for “lewd conduct”, allegedly the result of entrapment. So many people—especially Americans—are so annoyingly prudish about sex and this video takes that on. It struck me as kind of a giant and well-deserved “fuck you!” to all the self-righteous idiots who were quick to condemn Michael over it. The cops kissing at the end of the video is probably a middle finger to the American cops, and the final words serve the same function for the moralisers. I like all of that about this video, but the men’s toilets turning into a disco always makes me smile.
That gets at one of the things I admired the most about Michael: His openness and directness about his sexuality (after he came out, of course). He didn’t try to be, or present himself as, some sanitised, wholesome guy who happened to be into other sanitised, wholesome guys. Instead, Michael was what he was: Gay, sexual, and himself. The sexuality in his videos, then, was clearly authentic, not merely contrived for marketing purposes (though it undeniably helped with that, too).
Like so many iconic singers we’ve lost this year, Michael was unique and a huge presence. I may not have needed him as a gay icon, but I was pleased when he became one because I knew—and still know—how important they are. Mostly, though, I just enjoyed his work—audio and visual, because he was a master of both.
He will be missed by millions, including me.
Footnote: I was working on this post, in fits and starts due to being so busy (and tired) this week, and then Roger Green posted a comment asking about my reaction to the death of George Michael. This post mostly addresses that comment, but it’s not actually part of this year’s “Ask Arthur” series. Even so, I’m tagging it for that series.