Thank you, America. You’ve got taste, style, and you know a good drag queen when you see one.– Boy George, 26th Annual Grammy Awards, 28 February 19841
At the Conservative Party Conference in October of 1987, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lobbed a rhetorical Molotov cocktail in the ongoing culture wars by telling her base that “Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay.” 2
Thatcher’s ominous warning would be part of a larger campaign by the Conservative Party in the ’80s, particularly in 1987, when the party would attack the Labour Party for its queer-inclusive moves. (Including incorporating queer-positive literature in libraries and primary schools.) The Conservative Party’s work in combating this growing acceptance of queerness in local government and local institutions would eventually lead to Section 28, legislation that prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. The language of Section 28 led to gay-straight alliance clubs shuttering as well as stifling teachers who feared the penalty.
In the midst of Thatcher’s attack, the queer community was also dealing with the AIDS crisis. Not only were young gay and bisexual men dying of a terrible and debilitating disease, but they were also forced to contend with the stigma and ostracization surrounding the disease. The queer community’s response to the disease and Thatcher was through protest. Of course, comprehensive and profound advocacy and education against the disease were further hampered by Section 28 and cultural homophobia.
Thatcher’s dire prediction at the Conservative Party Conference was reflective of fear and concern partly exacerbated by the growing mainstream success of the New Romantic scene, which saw pop stars and pop bands gain audiences of impressionable kids. Conservatives were mortified at the seeming gender ‘free for all’ that was taking place on the pop charts, and they were convinced kids were being led to a pop Sodom and Gomorrah by their idols. Teens would plaster their walls with posters of beautiful young men who wore makeup. Though the movement was underground throughout the late ’70s, its followers muscled into the crossover, mainstream culture, dominating the pop charts with pillowy, swoony ballads or pulsing, shiny dance songs. The art of the New Romantic movement owed a lot to queer culture, and it was flourishing at a time when powerful institutions like churches and governments were looking to oppress queerness.
On the forefront of the mainstreaming of the New Romantic scene was Culture Club, a multiracial pop group led by frontperson Boy George (born George O’Dowd). The band was formed in London, nourished by the club scene. George not only sang lead on the band’s records but penned the broody, moody tunes, documenting his tempestuous love affair with drummer Jon Moss. Although a disciple of glam rock, punk, and New Wave, George’s sound was also heavily influenced by Black popular music – particularly, Black American pop like Motown. Like much of the New Wave scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, George was also inspired by reggae. His feathery, soulful tenor bore the hallmarks of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Jermaine Jackson. Writer Tom Bromley perfectly described George’s voice as a “purer, almost Tamla pop sound”.3
Though Boy George and Culture Club were remarkable talented, capable of crafting some top-shelf, canny pop tunes, it was the image of the band, expressly George’s, that set them apart; from the beginning, George took on a flamboyant, androgynous public persona: he wore dramatic makeup, his drag almost approaching Kabuki. He developed a sartorial style that picked and chose from punk, Carnaby Street, vintage shops, Hollywood Glamour, and New Wave. His signature bowler hat and dreadlocks made him a visual wonder – perfect for MTV.
From the band’s debut single, “White Boy”, in 1982, Culture Club enjoyed eight top ten UK hits and six top-ten Billboard chart hits. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Karma Chameleon” have become ’80s pop standards. After four studio albums, Culture Club imploded, and George embarked on a solo career. By the time Boy George released his solo album, 1987’s Sold, he was a pop culture mainstay. Not only did George sell millions of records but he became a popular figure on the chat show scene, his savage and sharp wit made him the Oscar Wilde of the ’80s. Whenever he appeared on someone’s couch, he would be reliable for dropping some memorable lines.
Sold was released on 8 June 1987. It came at a challenging time in George’s personal life, struggling with drugs for several years and losing friends to addiction. The album was released when George was piecing his life together and when contemporary British culture was seeing the deleterious effects of Thatcherism and its accompanying social conservatism. Sold is a pop record that hopes to achieve several goals: namely to prove George’s talents and star power. But it’s also an album that works to mimic some of the multicultural influences of ’80s dance music. As on his work with Culture Club, George festoons Sold with sonic cues from Black pop music.
Working with Culture Club producer Steve Levine, George headlines a mainstream pop album that operates as a natural continuation and evolution from his work with his band. One of the most significant collaborators is Lamont Dozier, the legendary Motown tunesmith responsible for some of the most popular and successful hit records of the ’60s. George was never shy of his love of Motown and the teaming of Dozier and George works really well. Dozier wasn’t content on resting on his iconic Motown laurels, and worked as a performer and songwriter throughout the ’70s and ’80s, penning hit singles for British pop star Alison Moyet, Peabo Bryson, Simply Red, Near the decade’s end, he would be nominated for an Oscar for writing the Phil Collins hit, “Two Hearts” for the caper comedy, Buster. Though Dozier’s contributions to Sold would not rank among the songwriter’s best, he – with George – manage to sprinkle some genuine pop magic on their collaborations.
Upon the release of Sold’s first single, a cover of Bread’s 1972 hit, “Everything I Own”, it would have been understandable to declare Boy George’s solo career an unqualified success. The song – a plaintive ballad that was reworked into a reggae-pop tune – became a number one hit record in the UK. Levine, who had folded reggae sounds into the work of Culture Club, creates a loving tribute to Ken Boothe’s hit cover of the song from 1974 that was the first to set the track to reggae. The original version by Bread featured an angelic vocal by lead singer David Gates, who wrote the paean to his late father. Like George, Gates had a beautiful voice, capable of sounding pure and lovely. Boothe’s version, which is the one that inspired George and Levine more, has a stronger, more muscular vocal performance but lacks the heartache of Gates’ original. With George’s melancholic vocals, his hit version is a good bridge between the two. On George’s take, his airy tenor betrays a pleasing grit he had developed since his Culture Club days.
When the single went to number one, George, with self-deprecating candor, chalked it up to pity for his travails, writing, “The success of ‘Everything I Own’…was really a national sympathy vote.” He went on to say, “Everyone felt sorry for poor little George.”4 Though he’s speaking from first-hand experience, it feels a bit modest for George to dismiss the success as merely an empathetic public – especially given how vicious the British tabloid press can be. The song fits neatly into what pop music was doing in the mid-’80s. So many British pop stars who emerged from New Wave and the New Romantic movement and who were stepping into mainstream pop, dressed their records with sounds of reggae, soul, or gospel, harvesting Black music history and Black culture. So in that respect, “Everything I Own” sounds right at home in ’80s pop radio.
Thirty-five years later, “Everything I Own” is the track on Sold that makes the biggest impact and endures the longest. It’s a very good record – as good as anything George and Levine did with Culture Club. It continued to highlight George’s affection for reggae music, and it shone a spotlight on his singular vocal talent and pop charisma. The subtext of a queer star crooning a lovelorn ballad originally written to a dead father also creates a multi-layered listening experience: is George singing to an errant lover, or is he pleading to his withholding father? So much of queer experience (including George’s own) is defined by a disapproving or distant father. George is quite candid about the difficult relationship he shared with his father. It makes the line, “I’d give you everything I own / Just to have you back again,”5 all the more poignant because many queer people lament their estrangement from their family.
But Gates’ lyrics are universal enough that they could also tell the story of lost love. When the song states, “I’d give everything I own / Just to hold you once again,”5 we can also imagine George lamenting a failed relationship with a lover. Again, having a queer performer sing openly about a love affair would be subversive in 1987 when openly queer artists rarely addressed their sexuality on their records, much less records that would become number one. Singers like Elton John and George Michael were either semi-closeted or lyrical coy, allowing for their legions of teenage female fans to fantasize that they may be available romantically. Despite George’s outlandish flamboyance, when he gazed balefully and soulfully out from the posters, album covers, and music videos during his Culture Club days, he was a favorite for many young girls, who lusted after him, not despite his femininity but because of it.
Like John and Michael, Boy George of Culture Club was a wily and canny wordsmith, able to maintain the illusion that these young girls had a chance with him without being a galling hypocrite. Writer Daniel Blythe recognized George’s appeal to straight audiences, saying, “[Boy George] knew how to manipulate the media, and [Culture Club] stayed in the public eye, attracting both male and female fans.”6 However, much of this changed when he and his bandmates won the Grammy, and with a toss of his hair, he declared himself a “drag queen”, which essentially confirmed his queerness in front of millions of television watchers (as well as his industry peers). Yet, because “Everything I Own” doesn’t occupy itself with using pronouns, plausible deniability reigns. Like the best pop music, the tune can be enjoyed and interpreted in many ways.
Though “Everything I Own” was both the biggest hit from Sold as well as its most memorable song, it would be a mistake to dismiss other tracks on the album. Going solo meant certain freedom for George to indulge in his musical muses. When with Culture Club, he was credited with writing tunes with the band, but on a solo album, there’s little to no compromise necessary. He also started to record alone at an opportune time for the band’s fortunes when they started to dim slightly. Though their first two albums were huge sellers, their third album, 1984’s Waking Up with the House on Fire, started to signel a slight reversal of fortunes for Culture Club, a slide that would continue with their last album of the ’80s, From Luxury to Heartache, which failed to give the band a US top-ten hit record. A band like Culture Club would have been overexposed in the music-saturated pop culture of the ’80s. Because of their striking visuals, they would have also been dismissed as merely pop fluff or a novelty band (despite their ability to write and play some fantastic radio-ready pop songs).
So, Sold would afford a musical maturity and growth that may not have been possible with Culture Club at that point. (It has to be mentioned that the times that George reunited with the band in the late ’90s and the late 2010s demonstrated just how strong and gifted the band really is.) And though, George was writing and recording Sold at a particularly difficult time in his life, he was paying attention to what was happening outside his own world, hence the protest title track.
George rarely included social, topical, or political issues in his writing. A notable exception was the Culture Club hit “War Song”. So, when Sold was released in the midst of the scourge of apartheid in South Africa, George, along with Lamont Dozier, and prolific songwriter Vic Martin, blasted the system of institutionalized racial oppression with the punchy title track.
Unlike most Boy George compositions, this song wasn’t cloaked in metaphor or poetry. Instead, George’s contempt and outrage over apartheid is manifested by frank lyrics, which included: “See, if Mr Botha was a man / He’d tip the hat / He’d pass the can / But he don’t talk for you and me.”7 The video included a militant Boy George singing with assembled crowds of protesters and factory workers, whilst images of P.W. Botha flashed chaotically before being blown up. “Sold” followed “Sun City”, a protest record by Artists United Against Apartheid, a supergroup of rock and pop stars who vowed to boycott Sun City, a popular, luxury resort town in South Africa, which hosted many world-class entertainers in its venue.
The concerns of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and apartheid occupied many musical artists, most notably Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Brenda Fassie. The murder of Steve Biko inspired musicians like Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez, and Labi Siffre. Disillusion, dissatisfaction, and anger at the responses of the Thatcher and Reagan governments further compelled activists to use art as a way to express their anger over the prolonged incarceration of Nelson Mandela, the gross human rights abuses, and the systematic failure to franchise the Black majority population of South Africa. Though George’s contribution to the fight would be considered minor, it is a significant step in his maturation as a singer-songwriter (he would later take on the anti-gay Section 28 in the 1988 acid-house rant “No Clause 28”).
Part of the power of “Sold” was the accompanying music video. Boy George came of age at a time in pop music in which visuals – particularly music videos – were an integral part of a musician’s work. MTV was a major marketing force in the ’80s, as it operated as a 24-hour source of ad space for records. Artists who solely relied on musicianship were quickly schooled on the importance of presenting compelling and exciting images. At the New Music Seminar in 1984, John Oates of Hall & Oates, expressed antipathy at the ubiquity of music videos, grousing, “I resent the fact that a kid grows up, dreams about playing a guitar, and all of a sudden has to be an actor.” Madonna retorted, “But when you perform on stage, you’re acting. That’s a performance, so if someone points a camera at you, what’s the difference?”8
The gap between Oates’ and Madonna’s viewpoints is key because Oates’ approach to music is centered on the timeless tale of a kid picking up a guitar and becoming a rock star. Madonna, on the other hand, approached pop music as pop performance art, so the inclusion of visuals, like music videos makes complete sense. (It has to be noted that though Madonna became a pioneer of the music video, Hall & Oates’ massive success in the ’80s was aided, in part, by their heavy presence on MTV.)
For Sold, George starred in a series of videos that worked to sell the album. One of the most notable things about his image on the videos is that he went for a far sleeker image, mirroring his musical growth. He sought to move away from the slightly cartoonish drag he donned during his Culture Club days. Because he incorporated grittier sounds of DJ Club Culture as well as soul and house, he looked to those subcultures when crafting his physical persona. George laid to rest the waterfall of colorful dreadlocks and the jaunty bowler hat and the over-the-top stage makeup; he edged away from the full-on drag to something more masculine in its androgyny.
The apocalyptic, post-industrial wasteland of “Sold” is a stark contrast to the summery “Keep Me in Mind”, which sets the fluffy soul ballad in Barbados. As with “Sold”, the video posits Boy George in a multiracial setting, shoring up his affection for Black pop culture and affirming his popularity among Black audiences. As music journalist, Craig Seymour noted, “most important for me as a music lover, was that Boy George’s music was rooted in Black music such as reggae and R&B”. Seymour noted the importance of music videos and image when assessing George’s sound and cultural impact, but he also stated that Culture Club’s reach extended to “my larger world… because Culture Club was played on Black radio”. He acknowledged some homophobia but he also made the critical point that Black audiences “express[ed] an appreciation for his music.”9
When appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, George paid tribute to his Black audiences by sharing that early in his career, “I wanted to be accepted by the Black community so much, and now that I am, it’s a nice feeling.”10 By 1989, George would bring New Jack Swing into his sound, with his efforts being rewarded by seeing his single “Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip” peak in the top five of the Billboard R&B charts. By depicting post-racial or multiracial landscapes in his music videos, George was manipulating a reality to cast a world that would seem far more appealing to him: one in which various races, genders, and sexes congregated together to have a good time. In this world, he also presented a reality in which music became ‘raceless’ as well.
Though race, gender, and sex were essential themes in George’s visual agenda, his fascination and love of fashion meant that much of his visual work was devoted to creating arresting images. It seems a foregone conclusion that a fashion-centered artist like Boy George would have his own line of clothing, and no doubt much of this couture-focused imagery was fostered by his music videos. Fashion is also an industry, one of the few, dominated by queer men. The angst around queerness encroaching in worlds like sports, politics, or government is decidedly absent in fashion. George’s facility with fashion and his innovative approach to clothing meant that he was an ideal vehicle to create visually stirring moments, and the music video was the perfect avenue.
For the video of Sold’s final single, “To Be Reborn”, George turned to legendary fashion photographer, Jean-Baptiste Mondino. The product of their collaboration was a beautiful video, in which George appears in a number of pages of fashion plates, singing the sad ballad, as a hand is turning the pages. (Alek Keshishian famously resurrected the idea in his video for Madonna’s “This Used to Be My Playground”.)
More than 30 years after its release, Sold remains an underrated but significant work in the canon of ’80s pop. Boy George persevered and moved forward in his career, celebrating his eccentricity, his queerness, and his ‘otherness’ despite working at a time in which powerful forces like the government were looking to tamp down people like him. AIDS was robbing George of friends, colleagues, and collaborators, as it was decimating creative communities like the worlds of dance, music, fashion, and art. To be queer in the ’80s was to be saddled with either disapproval or oppression from one’s peers or to be reminded constantly of one’s mortality. Boy George is an essential figure in queer pop culture because his work strove to counter the prevailing conversation about queerness in the ’80s.
1 “Before RuPaul, Culture Club Brought Drag Queen Realness to America | GRAMMY Rewind.” Recording Academy/GRAMMYs YouTube Channel, 11 December 2020.
2 “Here’s What Section 28 Was All About.” Labour Party YouTube Channel, 28 February 2018.
3Bromley, Tom. Wired for Sound: Now That’s What I call an 80s Music Childhood. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
4George, Boy with Spencer Bright. Take It Like a Man: The Autobiography of Boy George. Sidgewick & Jackson, 1995.
5Gates, David. “Everything I Own.” Sold. Performed by Boy George, Sold. Virgin, 1987.
6Blythe, Daniel. The Encyclopaedia of Classic 80s Pop. Allison & Busby, Ltd., 2002.
7George, Boy, Vic Martin, Lamont Dozier. “Sold.” Sold, Virgin Records, 1987.
8 “Madonna at New Music Seminar 1984.” New Music Seminar YouTube Channel, 2 April 2012.
9Seymour, Craig. “A Black Gay Music Critic On: How Culture Club Saved My Life.” Medium, 10 October 2020.
10Hall, Arsenio, Hall. Boy George Interview. The Arsenio Hall Show, 25 September 1989. Paramount Domestic Television.