In Memoriam: George Michael
by Drew Fontaine
With the recent loss of George Michael, 2016 continues to be an extraordinarily fatal year for beloved musicians (highly convincing conspiracy theories notwithstanding).
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, he formed Wham! with a friend from Hertfordshire, Andrew Ridgeley. The duo released four albums in the early Eighties, jockeying for position on the British pop charts with Culture Club and Duran Duran . The Motown-nouveau bounce of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (which soundtracked an indelible Zoolander scene) and the sax-drenched melodrama of “Careless Whisper” scored big hits, as did holiday weeper “Last Christmas.”
In 1986, differing musical directions led to an amicable breakup of the band. Michael embarked on a smashing solo career. Ridgeley did…not.
Michael reannounced himself with the lusty single “I Want Your Sex” on 1987’s Faith. It marked Michael’s transition from squeaky-clean teen popstar into mature, self-assured artist-as-sex symbol–a leap replicated today by artists like Nick Jonas and Zayn Malik, but bettered perhaps only by Michael Jackson, Ricky Martin, and Justin Timberlake.
The title track and production throughout Faith gave the public to Michael’s immense vocal talents: a glossy yet soulful expressiveness matched with incredible, expansive range. His talent for interpretation also set him apart from the vast majority of chart-toppers. Witness him stealing Elton John’s own song, then doing the same to Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder. The live vocal talents of pop luminaries can run the gamut from transcendent to godawful, and Michael’s talents placed him solidly in the former category. The man could flat-out SANG.
1990 brought the follow-up Listen Without Prejudice, in which Michael took the liberation themes from Faith a step further. The highly autobiographical music video for “Freedom ’90” found him burning his iconic leather jacket from the “Faith” video, singing “Sometimes the clothes do not make the man,” and taking cheeky lyrical jabs at MTV’s image-fixation. Of course, the music video became a gigantic smash on the very same network, thanks in no small part to its five supermodel subjects: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Tatjana Patitz.
A quieter professional period followed, until Michael’s 1998 arrest for “performing a lewd act” in a men’s room precipitated a public revelation that he was gay. Considering the circumstances, Michael handled coming out of the closet with honesty, aplomb, and even grace.
It’s fair to say that there will never be another pop star quite like Michael because his career was so much a part and parcel of its time, and inextricably tied to the rise of MTV. But it’s more accurate to say that there will never be another quite like him because of the man himself, his, voice, and his songs. Rest in peace.