As millions of his fans and admirers celebrated Christmas Day, slowly the grim news pierced the holiday glow via news outlets and social media: George Michael, a prodigious talent who sold over 100 million albums worldwide and became one of the planet’s dominant pop stars during the ‘80s and ‘90s, was gone at the absurdly young age of 53. A cruel year already scarred by the shocking deaths of some of popular music’s greatest icons was not yet sated. It’s almost as if a deeply malevolent spirit has been writing the script and holding the puppet strings of 2016. Against a backdrop of heightened global anxiety in the wake of calamitous election results in the US and elsewhere that have rattled the foundations of a world order already wracked by escalating hatred, terror, violence and poverty, the refuge of popular music and entertainment, where so many of us look to escape bleak reality, has turned into a long contemplation on mortality and loss.
For much of the ‘80s, George Michael was as bright a star in the pop music universe as anybody. He scored a string of international smash hits first as half of the duo Wham! and then as a solo artist. Michael’s success would continue into the ‘90s but would level off and decline by the end of the decade, and at his nadir, he would find himself in prison. It’s now been 20 years since his last appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in America, yet Michael has remained a beloved and influential artist. Blessed with a sweet and soulful voice, George Michael was a gifted performer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer responsible for some of the most enduring songs to emerge from the MTV generation. Younger fans may not appreciate how popular and beloved George Michael was at the height of his success, but those of us who grew up with well-worn copies of Wham!’s Make it Big and the epic 1987 classic Faith understand very well the magnitude of the world’s latest musical loss. One might argue that George Michael never fully realized the extent of his commercial or artistic potential, yet what he did achieve remains a timeless testament to his extraordinary talent.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to parents of English and Greek Cypriot descent, Michael’s interest in music led him through several bands and a stint as a DJ before he and former classmate Andrew Ridgely formed Wham! in 1981. Two years later, the duo signed to Innervision Records, who released their debut single “Wham Rap!” in June 1982. The single failed to ignite much enthusiasm, but the follow-up “Young Guns (Go For It)” shot to #3 in the UK after a fortuitous appearance on Top of the Pops introduced the fresh-faced 19-year-olds to a large new audience. In the wake of Wham!’s first success, “Wham Rap!” was reissued and this time it climbed into the Top 10. Their biggest hit yet, “Bad Boys”, was released in May 1983 and soared to #2. It also became their first chart single in America, reaching #60. In July 1983, Wham! released their debut album Fantastic, compiling their three prior hits with newly recorded material, including their fourth single “Club Tropicana” which lodged at #4. Wham!, having enjoyed four straight Top 10 singles in the UK, was snatched up by Columbia Records. They were on the brink of international stardom, and when it came it was like a hurricane riding the bouncy waves of jubilant ‘60s soul.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was the big breakthrough. A high energy Motown pastiche with an irresistibly upbeat video, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” hit #1 in the UK and, thanks largely to ubiquitous MTV airplay, spent three weeks at the top in America. The follow-up “Careless Whisper” (actually a George Michael solo single, it was credited as Wham! featuring George Michael in the US), a mid-tempo ballad studded with a blazing sax solo, became another #1 smash. The duo’s album Make it Big was true to its name, reaching #1 and selling over six million copies in the US alone. Michael was already flexing his creative muscles, having written almost all of the album as well as producing it. Make it Big yielded two more smash hits: a third straight US chart-topper in the dramatic electropop “Everything She Wants”, and another ‘60s-inspired burst of dance-pop energy, “Freedom”, which hit #3.
In spite of Wham!’s success, George Michael yearned for more creative freedom and the ability to veer into more mature material. Wham! released a few more singles (highlighted by the #3 smash “I’m Your Man”) and a compilation album, Music From the Edge of Heaven, that gathered their last recordings (including “Last Christmas”, which has become an essential holiday staple over the years). A high-profile farewell show on 28 June 1986 at Wembley Stadium marked the end of the road for Wham!, but George Michael was just warming up. Already showing significant artistic progression, he released the solemnly beautiful ballad “A Different Corner” in April 1986. At first blush, with no percussion and lacking a radio-friendly melodic hook, it hardly seemed like a hit in the making, but the power and sincerity of Michael’s vocal performance pushed the song to #1 in the UK and #7 in America. “A Different Corner” boosted Michael’s confidence, validated his decision to go it alone, and offered a glimpse of things to come.
George Michael’s success continued to skyrocket as his January 1987 duet with legendary diva Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”, raced straight to #1 in the US. The fires of anticipation for Michael’s first solo album were stoked to a fever pitch, but nobody could have foreseen the magnitude and scope of his success with Faith. It was preceded by “I Want Your Sex”, a slice of minimalist sex-positive electro-funk that seems rather tame by today’s standards but at the time caused a bit of a tizzy at mainstream Top 40 radio and MTV. The steamy video (co-starring Michael’s then-girlfriend, American D.J. Kathy Jeung), required editing before MTV would air it, and some radio stations refused to play the song. Despite all the pearl-clutching, the track still hit #2 and the publicity surrounding the controversy only heightened the excitement for the new album.
The floodgates of superstardom exploded with the release of Faith and its cleverly-conceived old-school rock ‘n’ roll title-track. Suddenly George Michael rivaled Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson as one of the top pop artists in the world. “Faith” the single, with its iconic ass-shaking video, spent a month at #1 in the US and cemented Michael’s standing as a first-rate sex symbol. Michael himself was rightly proud of the album, boasting to Rolling Stone in a January 1988 interview, “I really think that anyone who doesn’t like anything on my new album has no right to say they like pop music. If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music.” He was right.
The sultry “Father Figure” became the second of four straight #1 hits in America from Faith, including the stunning gospel-tinged ballad “One More Try” and the kinetic dancefloor novelty “Monkey”. The album’s final single, the lovely jazz-influenced “Kissing a Fool”, landed at #5, giving Faith a remarkable six Top 5 hits in America. Critics loved the album as well, and it won the prestigious prize for Album of the Year at the 1989 Grammy Awards. Faith has sold over ten million copies in the US alone and over 25 million globally. Interestingly, all of the album’s singles charted higher in America than in Michael’s native UK, a dynamic that would change rather quickly.
Faith was the apex of George Michael’s popularity. For the all-important follow-up, he wanted to go in a more serious direction. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, released in September 1990, is dark and somber compared with its generally upbeat predecessor, with markedly less mainstream appeal. The first single, “Praying for Time”, is a stately hymn that passionately addresses the struggles inflicting so many around the world. Despite the heavy subject matter, “Praying for Time” became yet another #1 hit for George Michael in America.
The follow-up “Freedom ‘90” is a declaration of independence from the type-cast sex symbol caricature he became during the Faith period. The video features several supermodels lip-syncing the track while the jacket, jukebox and guitar from the “Faith” video are shown aflame. The lyrics speak to Michael’s apparent regret at the uber-commercial sexual imagery that helped make him a megastar: “Well it looks like the road to heaven / but it feels like the road to hell / when I knew which side my bread was buttered I took the knife as well / posing for another picture / everybody’s got to sell / but when you shake your ass, they notice fast / and some mistakes were built to last”.
George Michael’s tune had changed rather quickly in only a few years. He seems to have forgotten what he told Rolling Stone two months after Faith was released: “People have the perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it’s because that’s all you can do. Not because it’s all you choose to do, and not because it’s the area you love. If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
He was absolutely correct in that interview, but somewhere along the line he began to believe the callous dismissals by some critics and a portion of the public that viewed him as a lightweight merely pumping out commercial product designed for mass consumption. He needn’t have been so perturbed — he was already taken seriously by most, his talent widely recognized. Some were bewildered by Michael’s constant harping about his aversion to fame and his unhappiness with the superstardom brought by Faith. After an interview in the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar magazine in which he complained about his stardom, none other than Frank Sinatra shot back incredulously in a statement provided to The Mirror: “Now that he’s a smash songwriter at 27 he wants to quit doing what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for — just one crack at what he’s complaining about.” Old Blue Eyes had a valid point.
In fact, it seemed Michael wasn’t so averse to commercial success after all, once it became clear that his latest album’s performance would pale compared to Faith. Despite its decidedly non-commercial nature and Michael’s own admission in his lyrics to “Freedom ‘90” that he wasn’t going to go along with the demands of MTV and Top 40 radio, Michael was irate over the performance of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 in the America. “Freedom ‘90” reached #8 and the mid-tempo gem “Waiting for That Day”, the third and final Top 40 hit from the album in America, hit #27. It’s hard to conceive how the album could have performed better than it did (it reached #2 in the US and sold two million copies there), but Michael accused Sony Music (which had absorbed Columbia Records in 1988) of botching the album’s promotion. A planned Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, reportedly a more upbeat collection, never materialized, and Michael sued Sony Music for failing to adequately promote the album. He eventually lost the suit, and the episode ultimately proved a disastrous move that halted Michael’s artistic momentum and mired him in limbo for half a decade.
It’s unfortunate that Michael’s preoccupation with the perception of him as a serious artist while still hoping to sell vast quantities of product caused him such angst over what is actually his finest album. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is deeply compelling throughout, with Michael’s vocal prowess on full magnificent display and his songwriting at its peak. The gorgeous and heartbreaking “Mother’s Pride” and his jaw-dropping cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” are both career highlights, as is “Cowboys and Angels”, an exquisitely dreamy old-school waltz with a glistening vocal performance. Under the circumstances the album was substantially successful, but just as with Faith the overall experience left Michael unsatisfied.
Although his next studio album wouldn’t appear until 1996, George Michael didn’t disappear completely. In late 1991 his live duet with Elton John, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, became a surprise #1 single in the US, besting the #2 peak of John’s classic original studio recording. It was Michael’s final chart-topper in America. The following summer, Michael contributed three upbeat dance/pop tracks (which presumably had been intended for Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2) to the AIDS charity collection Red Hot + Dance, including “Too Funky” which became a Top 10 hit. Still, his legal troubles with Sony dragged on, and he was unable to capitalize on the song’s momentum. In 1992 Michael performed with the remaining members of Queen at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert held at Wembley Stadium, and the following year the performance was released as the Five Live EP. His stirring rendition of “Somebody to Love” became a Top 30 hit in America.
Michael was finally able to disentangle himself from Sony Music and in 1996 came his first album in six years, Older. Released on Dreamworks in the US (the very first album issued by the new label founded by entertainment titans David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg) and on Virgin internationally, anticipation for the album was fierce. Michael unleashed the first single, “Jesus to a Child”, in January 1996, and it quickly rose to #1 in the UK. In America, it debuted all the way up at #7, but then faded quickly. At nearly seven minutes, the reflective and poignant ballad was a hard sell at Top 40 radio. Its follow-up “Fastlove”, a sleek dance-pop jewel notable for a prominent interpolation of the R&B classic “Forget Me Nots” by Patrice Rushen, had much more staying power, reaching #8.
It was George Michael’s final appearance on the Hot 100 in America. Older is a predominantly low-key, melancholy album, largely inspired by the death of Michael’s partner Anselmo Feleppa three years earlier from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. The delicate “You Have Been Loved”, a heartrending ballad sheathed in grief, is a particularly moving tribute. Older yielded multiple international hits, including “Star People” and “Spinning the Wheel”, but in America, the more sophisticated and downbeat material didn’t connect with mainstream audiences. Less than a decade after ruling the airwaves with multiple smash hits from Faith, George Michael was no longer pop radio’s darling in America, and a 1998 incident that generated lurid headlines slammed the door shut for good on his chances of ever regaining that status.
Rumours about George Michael’s sexuality had swirled for years among fans and in the press, but it was widely known to many in the music industry that he was gay. Michael was determined to remain closeted, though, indignantly denying such rumors in his 1988 interview with Rolling Stone: “I’ve always thought that people speculated so much because I was so quiet about my private life, and secondly because I’ve always had a very ambiguous sounding voice — I’m not exactly Bruce Springsteen to listen to, you know. What bugs me is that rumor is always accepted as fact. I’ll be sitting with a bunch of friends when I hear rumors about other people in the music business, and I’ll say, ‘Why the fuck do you believe that? You know what happens to me all the time, you’re constantly defending me, but a rumor comes from someone else, and you believe it, you eat it up, and you spread it.’” But in the same breath, Michael maintained it’s nobody’s business anyway: “I’ve never been concerned with who was doing what with who in bed, you know? I’ve always thought that people ought to get on with what they’re doing in their own beds.”
It was only with his arrest on 7 April 1998 for “engaging in a lewd act” at a public restroom in a Beverly Hills park in which he was snagged by a police sting operation that his sexuality became widely known. Michael himself seemed somewhat relieved that he no longer had to live in secret, and later in the year he even parlayed the incident into a sexy dance-pop single, “Outside”. A playful celebration of outdoor sex complete with a video featuring hunky policemen making out, “Outside” became a #2 smash in the UK but in America Top 40 radio programmers, generally more conservative than their international counterparts, wouldn’t touch it. George Michael’s commercial viability in the US had tanked. His 1999 covers album Songs From the Last Century, a double-platinum success in the UK that reached at #2, only managed a lowly apex of #157 in America, selling fewer than 200,000 copies at a time when CD sales were near their historic pinnacle.
George Michael’s final studio album was 2004’s Patience, a rueful title that acknowledges the eight long years since Older. It includes two singles that he’d released two years prior, the aggressively sexual dancefloor banger “Freeek!” and the overtly political “Shoot the Dog”. Both were major hits in the UK, but Michael’s record label didn’t even bother to issue them in the US. Once Patience was finally released, it was generally well-regarded by critics and fans alike. A mix of slick dance-pop and ballads, the album debuted at #1 in the UK and yielded the major international hits “Amazing” and “Flawless (Go to the City)”. In America, only die-hard fans seemed to notice. The album reached #12 before quickly falling away, failing to even reach gold record status in sales, and none of the singles scratched the Hot 100.
Two years after Patience, Michael released the career retrospective Twenty Five (an update on his successful 1998 compilation Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael). After this point, his flow of new music slowed to barely a trickle. Michael released a holiday single “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)” in 2009, and two covers in 2011: a slow and seductive take on New Order’s “True Faith” and a lovely rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You and I”. His 2012 single “White Light” is a polished and modern electronic pop triumph inspired by his near fatal bout with pneumonia the prior year. It was ostensibly the first single from his next studio album, but the album never materialized. Michael issued what would turn out to be his final release, Symphonica, in 2014. A lush collection of orchestral renditions of some of his own songs as well as a nicely-chosen selection of covers, Symphonica proved that Michael’s voice was as supple and powerful as ever. His sublime take on Terence Trent D’arby’s “Let Her Down Easy” became his final single.
Sadly, during the 12 years since his final studio album, George Michael has been noted more for his legal and health issues than for any of the music he released during that period. In February 2006 he was arrested for drug possession. In July of the same year, eight years after his Beverly Hills arrest, Michael was nabbed for public sex in London’s Hampstead Heath park. The following year he pleaded guilty to drug-impaired driving. In 2008 he was arrested in Hampstead Heath again, this time for possession of crack cocaine and cannabis. In 2010, after crashing his car into a London photo shop, Michael was again convicted of driving under the influence of drugs, which landed him a month in prison.
In October 2011, Michael cancelled a show at the Royal Albert Hall because of a viral infection. Less than a month later he was admitted to a hospital in Vienna shortly before a scheduled performance after experiencing chest pains. He was discovered to have pneumonia and he ended up spending nearly a month in the hospital, including several days in intensive care during which time his condition was reportedly life-threatening. In 2013 he fell from his moving car and suffered a head injury which required another hospitalization.
George Michael leaves behind a stellar musical legacy but a personal history fraught with pain. He was never quite comfortable with his success, or even in his own public persona that he created. A tense anxiety and restlessness seemed to be part of his emotional make-up, and he veered from supremely confident to the point of arrogance to tremulously vulnerable in the wake of crushing personal loss. His Wham! partner told Rolling Stone, “He leans to introspection, and he’s very analytical, and he screws himself up on that a lot. I don’t think his attitude to life is very carefree.” That statement proved to be true over and over again.
Of course, not all was bleak… George Michael was also an inspirational figure to many. Although he didn’t choose the timing and manner of coming out, once Michael became an openly gay pop star he was unapologetic and positive about his sexuality, refusing to conform to a polite and unobtrusive brand of gayness so that he wouldn’t offend. He told The Guardian in a 2005 interview, “You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are so clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening. 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.” His rebelliousness and refusal to hide in shame after his 1998 outing by police set an example for young gay artists and individuals to take pride and ownership of who you are, no atonement needed. Michael also donated huge sums of money to LGBT charities, as well as those supporting children and cancer patients. He was part of the landmark 1984 charity single by Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, performed by a formidable cast of British artists to raise money and awareness to fight starvation in Africa. It remains one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.
The story ends on Christmas, 2016. Such a cataclysmic loss for pop music reduced to a simple, stoic police statement: “Thames Valley Police were called to a property in Goring-on-Thames shortly before 2 p.m. Christmas Day. Sadly, a 53-year-old man was confirmed deceased at the scene. At this stage the death is being treated as unexplained but not suspicious.” Michael’s manager has stated the star died of heart failure, although this has not been independently confirmed. The star was found unresponsive in bed by his boyfriend, Fadi Fawaz.
It seems likely more details over Michael’s death will eventually emerge, but in the end, what does it matter? Done is done, and George Michael will now forever be remembered as a dazzling talent who, like so many before him, saw it all unravel as he discovered that fame and fortune does not necessarily equate to happiness, and that heartbreak and loss can shred pieces from your soul whether you are a multimillionaire pop star or a clerk scraping to get by on minimum wage. Humans can be broken, and every flight to the sun eventually descends laboriously into the dust. George Michael’s gifts and talent resulted in a catalog of exciting and often deeply personal music that has brought and will continue to bring joy to millions of fans around the world.
He was also human, hurt and fractured like all of us, looking out for angels, just trying to find some peace. As a year marked by pain and upheaval for so many crawls tortuously to its conclusion, one of George Michael’s most powerful songs seems more relevant and appropriate than ever, 26 years after its release: “It’s hard to love / there’s so much to hate / hanging on to hope / when there is no hope to speak of / and the wounded skies above / say it’s much too late / so maybe we should all be praying for time”.