RIP George Michael, MTV superstar whose songs, sexuality will endure
The images of George Michael come in waves. The shades. The stubble. The denim. The earring. Hair so impeccably coiffed you have to take a deep breath or two.
Michael sang, too, and odds are you can belt at least half-dozen of his greatest hits right now, from Faith to Careless Whisper to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. But in the early days of MTV, few stars shot out of the gate more ready for their close-up than Michael, a pop star every bit as camera-ready as Michael Jackson or Madonna.
Those images flooded back into the minds of a devastated generation when it was announced that Michael, 53, had died at his Oxfordshire, England estate on Sunday, Christmas day. His longtime manager said he died of heart failure.
Michael sold 100 million records, won a couple of Grammys (including Album of the Year for 1987's Faith) and graced innumerable locker doors and bedroom walls over a career spanning three decades. The man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou had the goods as both singer and songwriter, no doubt. But his appeal and influence run deeper.
From his teenybopper days in Wham to his controversial path as a grown-up (and occasionally troubled) celebrity, Michael grasped and embraced the communicative power of the music video like few others. The “CHOOSE LIFE” T-shirt he wore in Wham’s video to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go? A cutesy but clever message of hope, adaptable to any viewpoint in any moment of despair, and a pretty indelible visual to boot.
But it was only after going solo that Michael revealed his true artistic passion: Sex. Not only did he sing openly about it (“What’s your definition of dirty, baby? What do you call pornography?”), he projected it in videos like Freedom ’90 (which featured supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista) and I Want Your Sex (including disclaimers assuring shocked aunties worldwide that he was really singing about monogamy). By 1989 he had already won MTV’s Video Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement. That’s the kind of impact George Michael had in his prime.
True, Michael also had a mighty fair run as a punch line. Again, look at the videos, and it’s not too hard to see why – you giggle at the over-enthusiastically peppy Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go; you roll your eyes at the over-the-top sax solo from Careless Whisper; you squeal as he wags that stylishly ripped denim in the video to Faith.
Yet MTV’s spell was powerful in those days, and Michael, used the network to spread his unique pansexual appeal around the globe. During a decade-plus when coming out as gay wasn’t an option for one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, he compensated by wowing both sexes at once. He was A-list handsome, rugged as an action hero but chic as a supermodel, a look that played from Soho to Chelsea to Malibu.
He did not come out of the closet entirely by choice – that decision was made possible largely by a much-publicized 1998 arrest for solicitation in a Beverly Hills park bathroom.
“I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way,” Michaels told CNN in a coming-out interview. “but I do not feel shame, neither do I think I should.” And then he added, no doubt a subversive twinkle somewhere in his heart, “I have to admit that maybe part of the kick was that I might get found out.” He later parodied the incident in the video to his single Outside.
While this millennium saw Michael make fewer American headlines for his music than for run-ins with the law (including another arrest in a public bathroom and several drug-related charges), he nonetheless reigned as one of the United Kingdom’s premier icons of pop music. He kept releasing music, toured intermittently (including a stop in Tampa in 2008) and performed at major world events like Live 8 and the 2012 London Olympics. At the time of his death, he was working on a documentary about his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.
There is added sadness in knowing Michael’s death came on Christmas, a day when one of his biggest hits was already being played worldwide. Wham’s Last Christmas is one of the most popular holiday songs of the past 30 years, a song since covered by the likes of Ariana Grande, Jimmy Eat World and Carly Rae Jepsen.
Of all his indelible hits over the years, that’s one you can go to sleep knowing you’ll hear for as long as you live. For all the sexual desire he projected on MTV and his records, what Michael really gave the world, as Last Christmas reminds us, was his heart. He really was someone special.
-- Jay Cridlin