Una Mullally on George Michael: A gay man devoid of shame
‘Pop hunk transformed into a gay icon when few celebrities had the guts to come out’
It was 1990, and my neighbour had gotten a Casio SA-1 keyboard for Christmas. It was notable for its sound bank: preset sounds that allowed you to push a button and make the keys sound like a clarinet or a slap bass. It also had a demo button, and the tune that emerged, cheesily orchestrated, was Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
It’s an odd testimony to George Michael’s songwriting talent that his melodies ended up on cheap keyboards. But it also shows how instantly recognisable and long-lasting they are.
Much will be written and speculated about Michael’s more turbulent years before his death aged 53, but that will evaporate. What will remain are the songs and his voice.
The tunes veer from pop to funk, ballads to blockbusters, and most of them were written and produced by him. Not only was he a prodigious songwriter, but his production capabilities gave Wham! the sort of sound that, while undeniably ’80s, has come back around again to feel timeless.
These were not throwaway tracks. Like George Michael’s persona, they had an edge and a knowingness that made you feel like you were in on the joke listening to many of them.
Michael may not have been as prolific as many of his peers – four solo studio albums in 17 years and three Wham! albums in as many years before that. Still, his voice and persona are as iconic as any: all action-man stubble, arched black eyebrows, a swinging earring, and, later in his career, a refreshing honesty in a world of spin.
It’s hard to imagine the anxiety he experienced before he came out as gay in the late 1990s. But when he did, he lived his truth, and his fans loved him for it.
In April 1998, I was listening to the radio on my Walkman when a news report announced that George Michael had been arrested in Los Angeles. The details were murky, but it emerged that it was essentially a sting operation carried out by a police officer in a public bathroom.
Michael was arrested for cottaging, and the rumours that he was gay were finally solidified. This was a huge news story, a scandal. In the 1990s – and, in fact, up until recently – gay celebrities, or those rumoured to be gay, were hounded by the British press in particular.
Freddie Mercury, who died seven years before Michael’s arrest, was tormented by The Sun, which ran story after story about his worsening health due to HIV/Aids. A year after Michael’s arrest, Stephen Gately came out in a tabloid in order to get ahead of the story.
It was at this point that George Michael showed his resilience. Instead of issuing tearful, pearl-clutching apologies, instead of hiding away and setting up a crisis management war room, Michael went for it. When you’re out, you’re out.
Six months later, he released the single Outside on the back of his multimillion selling Best Of compilation. Outside took what would be for many a career-interrupting if not a career-ending incident (these were innocent, pre-Trump days, after all), and threw it back in the faces of those who sought to literally police the sex lives of gay men.
It was a brilliant FU to the homophobic jibes that followed his arrest, as well as a genius artistic move. One cannot underestimate the impact it had on the gay community.
Here was a man devoid of shame, owning his sexuality and behaviour, and making everyone who slagged him off look like the fools, not him. Instead of “toning it down”, Michael played it up.
The incident and his artistic reaction made him famous in a different way: the pop star hunk transformed into adult gay icon, in a landscape where few gay celebrities had the guts to come out with such panache, style and humour in the face of press hysteria. It changed the game.
While straight rock stars and pop stars were expected to be falling out of clubs with female models, “scandal” was still attached to anything other than heterosexuality at Michael’s level of fame, with only a smattering of pop stars out. His legacy is undeniably intertwined with that attitude, and one that bolstered his appeal to the LGBT community.
Half a decade earlier, Michael’s partner Anselmo Feleppa, who had discovered he had HIV during their relationship, died of an Aids-related brain haemorrhage. Out of this tragedy came one of Michael’s most intriguing songs, Jesus to a Child. This was in 1996, a year of such chart frivolities as Wannabe, Ooh Ahh . . . Just a Little Bit, Mysterious Girl and Macarena.
As usual, Michael’s sideways look at song, this time a heartbreaking, seven-minute ballad, cut through. His ability to channel sadness and longing repeatedly brought chart success.
In the aftermath of Michael’s death, stories of a sentimental and generous man have emerged. He donated millions to Childline, played a free gig for NHS nurses after his mother died, and donated the royalties of songs to Aids hospices and other charities.
News of his spontaneous donations have came to light on Twitter: from giving £5,000 to a student nurse in debt working as a barmaid, to ringing up a woman who appeared on the gameshow Deal or No Deal to give her the £15,000 she needed for IVF treatment. A Labour voter, he protested the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a satirical music video lampooning George W Bush and Tony Blair.
Signs of struggle
The last decade of Michael’s life saw a stop-start conveyor belt of scandalous stories about drug use, cruising, under-the-influence car accidents, arrests, driving bans, drug possession, and a prison spell in 2010.
With his private life made public, Michael seemed to shrug things off, but the signs of struggle with substances and rumoured stints in rehab were also part of his landscape.
2016 is a year that has taken so many queer icons from us, people who championed individuality, broke boundaries and refused to be pigeonholed or capitulate to conservatism.
Too often society can seek to smooth the edges of pop stars who are still real, still human, still with faults. George Michael owned his follies. The demons were surely there, but the talent surpasses them all.