George Michael, the British songwriter-pop-star who, in his four-decade-long career, landed ten number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over 115 million albums worldwide, died of heart failure on Christmas Day at the age of 53.
He broke onto the music scene half of a teen-pop sensation, Wham!, with his friend Andrew Ridgeley. Some of those songs are so exuberantly poppy they border on parody now: The Saved by the Bell-style sax of “Careless Whisper” (credited to Wham! featuring George Michael in the U.S.) the toddler-like phrasing of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” And some, like “Last Christmas,” so totally capture an exact aching feeling — in this case, a heightened sense of melancholy surrounded on all sides by oppressive cheer — they seem like songs you’ve never not known.
In the grand tradition of boy banders the world over, Michael left his duo and embarked on a sultrier solo career. The first single off 1987’s Faith so scandalized American Top 40 host Casey Kasem that he refused to say the name of the song — “I Want Your Sex” — on the air. (It was among the first songs with the word “sex” in the title to climb to the top of the charts, after Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” in 1982.) MTV, then in its infancy, had no qualms about giving the racy — though pro-monogamy — video plenty of airtime, though Michael filmed a safe sex PSA which MTV required to be played before the video.
Where he was direct in his songwriting — about crushes, lust, love, sex, and everything in between — he was evasive in his public life, until a 1998 arrest for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public restroom in Beverly Hills forced his hand. He came out as gay in an interview on CNN. “I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way,” he said. “But I do not feel shame [about my sexuality], neither do I think I should.”
George Michael said hiding his sexuality made him feel “fraudulent,” but he kept the secret for a near-unimpeachable reason: To protect his mother. As he later told the BBC, he would never judge an individual for electing to not come out, “because it’s about family. In the years when HIV was a killer, any parent of an openly gay person was terrified. I knew my mother well enough that she would spend everyday praying that I didn’t come across that virus. She’d have worried like that.”
While speaking with CNN, he said that he had previously been in a relationship with a woman, and that he believed he was always honest in his songwriting: “I want people to know that the songs I wrote back then about women are about women — there was no bullshit there — while the songs I’ve written recently have been fairly obviously about men.”
In 2014, during an interview with the BBC, Michael reflected that coming out made his life more challenging. “For some strange reason, my gay life didn’t get easier when I came out. Quite the opposite happened, really.” But long before he came out and throughout the rest of his career, Michael was a vocal supporter of LGBT rights and AIDS awareness and prevention. He supported a number of charities, including Terrence Higgins Trust, a U.K.-based organization that supports people with HIV and AIDS, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Childline, a confidential phone counseling service for young people. And eventually, he was plenty brazen in interviews about his sexuality and his total disinterest in catering to any squeamish straight people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept him. As he told the Guardian in 2005, “Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say, ‘I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.’”
Though it is still technically possible the final five days of the year will be a corrective to the 360 that came before it, it seems all but decided that 2016 will enter the history books as a banner year for rigid, toxic masculinity. Not to suggest the universe is invested in what happens to us — all available evidence would indicate indifference, at best — but, as has been noted on across social media, it feels like a bit of cosmic cruelty to lose George Michael in the same year we lost Prince and David Bowie (complicated legacy and all), men who decided for themselves what “being a man” ought to entail; who took social norms as little more than a light suggestion; who did not see traditionally feminine attire, physicality, or vocal stylings as weak or less-than.
A 1990 New York Times review of Michael’s then-hit single, “Praying for Time” describes how Michael “emits an extended yelp of despair: ‘It’s hard to love when there’s so much hate / Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of.” It was the lead single off his album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, his first in three years. As for another track, “Praying for Time,” Michael said that the song wasn’t inspired by any specific event, but “life in general”:
“It’s my way of trying to figure out why it’s so hard for people to be good to each other. I believe the problem is conditional as opposed to being something inherent in mankind. The media has affected everybody’s consciousness much more than most people will admit. Because of the media, the way the world is perceived is as a place where resources and time are running out. We’re taught that you have to grab what you can before it’s gone. It’s almost as if there isn’t time for compassion.”