I thought that 2016 had already done its fair share of disposing of iconic artists, but it still had a few cards to play. So the irony of hearing George Michael had passed away on Christmas day seemed a cruel joke too far (one that social media predictably jumped on in its crass, insensitive way almost as soon as the news hit that evening). But like Prince and Bowie before him, the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing was perhaps the biggest surprise, given he was only 53.
I know that it’s the new norm in the social media age to bear ones feelings online, and to lace tragedy with hyperbole and flowery language, an arms race to see who is the most upset or struck by these events, but while Bowie and Prince have been ever-present in my life, they were never the soundtrack to my childhood. George Michael, in Wham! and as a solo artist was definitely that, even before I knew much about him, or – blissfully unaware as a 7 year-old – his life, I was dancing round the living room to Club Tropicana and Wham Rap and recording hits off the radio on tape (yes, remember that?) Like any child of the 80s (born in ’75, but growing up in that oddly bleak yet flamboyant decade), pop music was central to my formative years. And what a decade for pop it was, perhaps never bettered, with so many big acts to choose from, even the one-hit wonders were somehow brilliant (think Owen Paul, Jermaine Stewart, The Buggles, Cutting Crew, Nina, MARRS). But alongside globe-spanning heavyweights like Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, U2, Queen and Bowie, George Michael felt much more like one of us. The son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, born and raised in Kingsbury then Radlett, meeting Andrew Ridgely at school with dreams of pop stardom.
Forming Wham! in 1981, (I don’t know what you were doing when you were 18, but I was listening to his records, and wondering what my Geography degree would get me in life) they had a no.1 album within two years, with 3 top ten singles, including Wham Rap and the iconic Club Tropicana. The latter was filmed at the famous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, and when I found this fact out much later on in life, I spent 2 summers trying to find the place outside San Antonio, just to be able to stand where that famous video was shot, such was its legend. It seemed crazy that I could be walking around that pool (luckily, no white pants for me), replaying that video in my head, wondering – and wishing – what it would’ve been like to have been at one of those weekend parties there in the mid 80s with George, Andy, Freddie, Grace and the rest. He just made it all look so fun.
From there, the hits rolled almost non-stop, with staggering numbers: 100m albums sold, 7 UK no.1s, 8 US Billboard no.1s, his debut solo album, Faith, sold 20m alone, not to mention the list of awards, from 3 Ivor Novellos to countless Brits, MTV, Grammy and American Music Awards. But above all, he was a star, and a star all of his own making. George Michael did things his own way, and all his success came at a time when, if you were gay, you still had enough problems to deal with from daily life, but when you were a megastar, you’d be hounded relentlessly and mercilessly by the tabloids, rabidly obsessed with outing and shaming homosexuals. These are the same tabloids now eulogising him. It has ever been thus, the hypocrisy hanging rank in the air.. But Michael refused to be ashamed of his life. Much has been made of him not coming out until 1998, following his much-publicised bust (sorry, sting) in LA by an undercover police officer. But he didn’t care personally that he was gay, only that coming out publicly would affect his parents more than anything. In many ways, he was still the outsider from suburban London, but also, he didn’t exercise rigid control on his public or private life because he was ashamed, but because he felt it was none of anyone’s business. This infuriated the press, who simply attacked him further, and just made us root for him even more. His refusal to be a sexless, ashamed, out-gay man, is to be lauded, and still feels an outlier today, but in the late 90s, (having endured and survived the turbulent 80s) he was one of a few pop stars to be willing to put his head above the parapet. Even back then almost half the UK still thought same-sex relations ‘always or mostly wrong’. Many thought his career would suffer then, but of course, it was arguably one of the finest ripostes to a celebrity shaming there’s ever been: he made Outside in weeks after that arrest and ‘scandal’, lampooning at once the press, the LA Police, homophobes everywhere, showing that gay sex was still just sex, and making them all uncomfortable at the same time. A masterstroke, and one that many others would never have dared risk. He did it with gusto and humour, and I only loved him more.
There was the usual narrative of the ‘troubled’ star, yet no one bared this truth more honestly than George himself, speaking of his demons and addictions openly and causing many of us that were teens or younger at the time to go back over lyrics and feel embarrassment over what was overtly personal and downright dirty songs, released in plain sight. But it was all part of a talent that wrote and sang songs that were emotionally inclusive and soul-baring. When he was playing the James Dean role on Faith, he was also singing about a quick shag on Fast Love, or more brazenly pushing the tolerance of radio stations and tv channels with ‘I Want Your Sex’ (famously writing ‘explore monogamy’ on his partner’s back in lipstick’. But for all his brazen nature, great copy and partying, tragedy and difficulty was never far away either. Watching Anselmo Feleppa, his partner, die of AIDS-related illness in 1993, and penning Jesus To A Child to commemorate him. Even the accidents and incidents that put him in prison briefly, the public shame heaped on him made him no less forgiving, and it was hard not to love him for that, particularly when you detest the right-wing press and their motives so much. All the while, he still looked for that next hit, writing dozens of news songs, fighting his label for control, and in recent years that next album that never saw the light of day, robbing us perhaps of a next chapter to his remarkable story.
And all through it, he was a trailblazer and a star. While he was releasing solo classics like Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, he was donating money to charities and individuals. Stories of giving a nurse fifteen thousand pounds anonymously for her IVF, or a concert for NHS nurses following his mother’s death, donating royalties to Childline, or Terrence Higgens’ trust for AIDS, making clear that having ‘more money than he could spend’ didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use it. In a world where celebrities now do much work for charity but do like to talk about it, he was the opposite. His work for LGBT charities was huge, and he also wore the position of a global pop star figurehead for a movement with zest, whatever the personal cost. The trail he blazed didn’t just inspire musicians and others from his music, but made it easier for people after him to be who they needed to be, and as his music success waned, his legacy’s impact increased only further.
Ultimately though, for those of a certain age, his death leaves a sizeable hole. From as early as I can remember, I danced to his music, wanted to be him – and yes, long before I had a clue he was gay, we all wanted to be him, or be with him, such was his attraction to women – and bought his records. The tapes I had from back then are mostly long gone – I still remember being so excited to buy the cassette single of he and one of my other childhood icons, Elton John, duetting on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me from Our Price in Redhill in 1991, when it really wasn’t cool to like either that much any more – but the records remain. So many hits, that it seemed like one of his records was permanently in the charts from 1981 to the late 90s, a staggering output, especially when success is so fleeting in the modern musical world. He did so much that seems normal now, but lost him friends, success and money back then, whether it was refusing to be in his own videos (Freedom, particularly, irked Sony, but it’s now one of the most replayed videos that era, chock-full of supermodels), suing his own record company for creative control, and simply be unashamed being out and gay when it was accepted to be a career-killer. Lesser artists would’ve been hit, but he just did what he wanted to, and that’s why people rooted for him.
I’ve dabbled as a DJ over the past two decades, and now the radio show I do is based around being the best wedding set you’ve ever heard. Understandably, Wham! and George Michael have always been high on my list of #bangers since the start. How can they not? So many of them have such happy memories for me, whether it’s listening to Wham! in Africa when I was a kid, or mesmerised by him joining Elton at Live Aid, or cracking up when the LA policeman sued him for making Outside, with George at the centre of his own joke. And every new year’s day for the last seven years, dancing to Everything She Wants at Bugged Out. Even last week, I played Last Christmas (how could you not?) on my radio show’s festive edition. It seems so sad that it’s now an epitaph, rather than a celebration of someone you hoped still had gas in their career for a long time to come. He also joins the list of artists I never saw live and that I’ll never get that chance to. Everyone I know that did was in awe. That voice of his had few peers.
As we get older, it’s inevitable that those we love, and revere and worship will slowly slip away before our eyes. Only a fool would be unwilling to accept this. But 53 is no age to go, discovered by your partner lying calmly in bed on Christmas morning. Not when you’re re-releasing a classic album in 2017, and planning a documentary that we’ll now never see. Nostalgia is a business all of its own these days, but when a chunk of your childhood becomes a freeze-frame of memories, and no longer a living, breathing person, part of that dies with them. It’s not overdramatic to say that, because while I listen to so much new music, there’s a huge part of me that’s still that little nerdy kid dancing round the room with a comb singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and wanting to be that flamboyant guy on tv in tennis shorts and a haircut bigger than my torso, bobbing around alongside Andrew Ridgely. Knowing that George Michael is ‘never gonna dance again’ is a sad, sad day indeed.