After a year of shocking departures and fond remembrances of legendary ‘80s stars, it’s beginning to feel as if our memories of the decade lean heavier on the neon and Day-Glo colors of TV, music videos, and movies than the real-world tumult that was swirling underfoot. The actual ‘80s were a fight against prejudice and economic and political uncertainty that, yes, provided impetus for creators to pursue new forms of expression, but also did its damnedest to stifle and kill ‘em all. Lately, when I think back on the ‘80s, they’re a little less San Junipero and a little more San Francisco, whose blooming gay community was blighted by an AIDS crisis the Reagan administration ignored for years. Around the country it’s as though an entire generation was deleted. How can we have a dialogue about Prince, Bowie, and George Michael ratifying a new masculinity at the end of the century without enumerating the costs, without mourning the gay men left to fend for themselves by a public slowly warming to the idea of the culture but still blind to its struggles?
As we remember George Michael for the golden voice and impeccable style that made him a wonder to watch in and out of Wham!, it’s also important to evaluate how complicated all of this was to him personally. Here is a man who sang about freedom but wasn’t truly free, who sang about faith but didn’t get much in return. Michael’s ‘80s hit streak is full of unforgettable music — “Careless Whisper,” “Last Christmas,” “Everything She Wants” — but also carefully managed and deliberately slippery image control. “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” the requisite early stab at hip-hop, finds Michael singing “I’ve got street credibility” and “I choose to cruise” just a few lines apart, easing into machismo and taking it for a walk before altering it to his liking. Michael’s catalogue of music videos would play out just the same. The butch leather gear of the “Wham! Rap” and “Bad Boys” videos gave way to skimpy cowboy cosplay in “Club Tropicana” and pastel pum-pum shorts in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”; “Freedom ‘90” is supermodel karaoke, while “Too Funky” is a drag show. This constant flux was both marketing genius and thoughtful subterfuge, the artist showing us that we could be any kind of man we wanted at a time when he couldn’t.
In the closet, you are preternaturally aware of your mannerisms as they are broadcasted to and received by those around you. You are tuning your masculinity down to an audience, figuring out how much of yourself to give without arousing suspicion. For a while in the colorful ‘80s, we watched George Michael attempt to and succeed at having it all. He was a sex symbol to women, a pin-up idol to certain knowing men, and a pop dynamo to them all. Trouble only surfaced when he decided he wanted more. On an album appropriately titled Listen Without Prejudice, George Michael staked his claim to serious artistry, dramatically burning the iconic leather jacket from the peppy “Faith” video in “Freedom ‘90” and avoiding easy pop hits in favor of socially conscious ballads. An eerily prescient cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” foresaw Michael’s immediate future: Listen’s gamble on high-minded writing and virtuosic performance sunk its sales in the U.S. — stay strong, Joanne — and Michael sued Sony for trying to bury the project.
Michael’s scrap with Sony initiated a period of strife that rocked him privately and professionally, and, I think, deprived the world of half a decade’s worth of great music. First, he found his first love in designer Anselmo Feleppa, only to discover that Feleppa was dying of AIDS. Not long after Feleppa passed, the Sony suit was tossed out. After the trial and the personal tragedy, and perhaps feeling constrained by the times to share with fans or family, Michael’s mission seemed to shift from changing the world through song to torching everything. “I’ve spent much of the last 15 or 20 years trying to derail my own career,” he’d tell BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2007, “because it never seems to suffer. I suffer like crazy … but my career just seems to always *right itself … like a plastic duck in a bath. I think in some ways I resent that.” Elsewhere in the interview, he says he was never happy making the songs we consider his classics. The guy who wrote steamy bedroom jams like “Father Figure” and “I Want Your Sex” didn’t even have a gratifying sex life at the time. His was a story of the deceit of appearances, of escape from the wrath of a homophobic world, of pain hiding behind bleach-blonde hair and a platinum smile.
I think George Michael knew what he was in for on that fateful day in 1998 when he walked into a Los Angeles–area restroom and cruised a guy who turned out to be a cop in some ponderous sting operation. I think he got sick of being everything to everyone. You can hear it in the music, as he crept further away from radio on the gloomy textures and rueful candor of 1996’s Feleppa tribute, Older, and 1999’s stately jazz covers album, Songs From the Last Century. I hate that he needed to run. I hate that so much of his torment revolved around people’s simple refusal to come to grips with the realities of same-sex love and intimacy, that Michael making it his business to sell us happiness should cost him his own, and that his death at 53 kicked up a few of the same whispers about his HIV status that had plagued him decades earlier. I’m not sure if we live in a better world now. I don’t know what was won. Raise a glass on New Year’s Eve to George Michael, a modern pop St. Sebastian. He tried to show us how to loosen up. We weren’t ready.
*Update: This post originally used the word “write” instead of “right.”