Monday, January 2nd, 2017

George Michael

The work of George Michael is often divided into three sections: Wham!, the Serious Pop Years, and the less prolific, more eclectic post-coming out years. But contrary to this narrative of bubblegum popstar turned sophisticate turned ‘troubled’ elder statesman, there’s a thread of humanity, humour, and honesty running through his work that connects it all. Ideas about sex and politics and intimacy are reprised in songs decades apart, as are sonic explorations of dance music, rhythmic rock’n’roll, and soul music. Unlike someone like Bowie, or his 80’s contemporary Madonna, George evolved rather than reinvented. He always cared deeply about pop and his commitment to the elevation of the pop song — especially the pop single — to an artform is rivalled only by the Pet Shop Boys.

A lyricist, songwriter, producer, and performer, he approached his work with a totality of vision that meant the music and the words were always perfect translations of each other — hear the longing in “Careless Whisper,” the dripping sex in “Too Funky,” the carefree sunshine in “Club Tropicana.” This understanding of pop as a complete form allowed him to inhabit others’ work completely — his version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” is probably the best example, but his relatively recent cover of “Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright has a quiet desperation that surpasses the original. It is also emblematic of a lineage of gay pop performers whose sexuality is crucial to a full understanding of their work.

George was gay and his songs were about loving and longing and grieving and fucking as a gay man. Unsurprisingly he was ridiculed for it, specifically for his lack of shame regarding his ‘lifestyle.’ But George was always a radical — in his lyrics and politics — and after his forced coming out and arrest for ‘lewd behaviour,’ he only became more so — turning a toilet into a disco in the video for “Outside,” openly criticising the British Government’s war on Iraq, and telling interviewers about how he liked to get stoned and have sex with strangers on Hampstead Heath. In a pop landscape that praises Sam Smith for not wanting to complicate things (lose record sales) by referencing his sexuality in his songs, this is still astonishing. George leaves behind the songs of course, but also the encouragement to be who we want, fuck who we want, and not feel any shame for it. And that attitude is central to so many of the songs.

Scott Mildenhall on “Young Guns (Go For It)

Two days before George Michael’s passing, Wham! made their first appearance on BBC4’s run of Top of the Pops repeats. It was a strong episode in a strong year for debuts, but the performance of “Young Guns” stood out as a real bolt from the blue. This was an act who knew what they were doing, and there was no doubt about who was doing the bulk of it. All told, it was a convincing depiction of a man desperate to go out with the lads… if perhaps not in the sense intended. George might not have meant it to seem like he was flirting with Andrew in a subtextual love triangle, but this is nonetheless the song of a spurned companion, and whether or not any potential further implications of that were considered, it all still amounts to a stall-setting display of archness. “Death by matrimony” – it’s ridiculous; the perfect, Bond-like underscore to the frivolous male’s “Too Much Too Young,” in which the kitchen sink was not something to be chained to, but thrown wholeheartedly in. In his first hit single alone, George Michael had a chorus with almost as many rhymes as words, a dance routine far more than the sum of its performers, lyrics written from at least three contrasting perspectives, a humanly impossible key change, a self-harmonised middle eight and a two-part chant. It wasn’t quite the same as its American influences, but at this stage that happily seems to have been a long way from the point.

Olivia Rafferty on “Club Tropicana

I was endlessly taking trains up and down between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, at a point in my life where my other friends who had graduated from university were fleeing the coop for Australia, Hong Kong, Malta, America… Here I was, recovering after months of illness, silently shuffling up and down the country under grey skies, just waiting for the day I could take a plane myself. I remember pulling out of Aberdeen station, plugging in my headphones and starting to hear the chatter, the distant music growing nearer until I was enveloped by it: George Michael offering his tanned hand, and I’d flash my membership card to Club Tropicana. The song was originally meant as a sardonic take on the proliferation of package holidays during that time, but the sweetest part of it all was the sheer escapism that its sound offered. Even thirty years later, when I was sitting on those trains, a tiny jolt of glee would spark through me at the invitation to “brush your shoulders with the stars,” which, in my opinion, is one of the most wonderfully vivid lyrics I’ve ever heard. The whole song is packed with swelling tensions, from the low trumpets underneath “Club Tropicana drinks are free,” to the “cool, cool,” coda. It builds and it builds, and for those brief moments, those sustained notes could push you right up and out of any grey, suburban sprawl.

Lauren Gilbert on “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

Last summer, I found myself in a Chinese karaoke bar, with fifteen people from five countries, four first languages, a lot of alcohol and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” on the screen.  And instantly we were all on the floor, belting along and utterly failing to hit that high.  We were taking shots of baiju and dancing without thinking about how it would look. Those moments are why I love pop music, and keeping writing about it though words seem inadequate; those ephemeral moments of pure joy, of shedding our own thoughts to simply feel.

George Michael didn’t write music because it was easy or thoughtless; George Michael wrote pop music because he understood the value of exultation, of loving yourself and your body (if only for three minutes at a time).  Especially for those of us with bodies and lives that society may not approve of, we need joy to get us through the pain. We need those perfect, sublime moments, like sharing a microphone and an instant of connection.  Art need not always be serious to be important; sometimes, joy is enough.  Exuberance is enough; celebrating our lives is enough.  Come on, let’s go dancing tonight.

Jonathan Bogart on “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”

Twenty-one years of age, he had been an assiduous student of pop music for most of his life; but his early-career embrace of the goofy (“Wham! Rap,” “Club Tropicana”) and the earnest (“Bad Boys,” “Wham! Rap” again) extremes of pop meant that he was rarely taken seriously as more than a feather-haired smile in a tan, a Leif Garrett for less shag-carpeted times. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” with its silly short-shorts video and frankly preposterous vocal melody, was not much better-received; but the Motown snap and swing of the beat at least showed he wasn’t just paying attention to what other hitmakers were doing in 1984. Smokey Robinson’s “Going to a Go-Go” was just under two decades old, though it had been covered by the Rolling Stones two years ago; but “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” bounces more like a classic Supremes song. Although the lyric’s emphasis on sheer pleasure, whether of sleep, dance, or comfort, sublimating the more fraught romantic tensions which had marbled 60s Motown with an adult understanding of teenage longing, still fooled most observers into thinking that Wham! had nothing to offer but surface pleasure and shallow glamour, and his voice soars like Peter Pan’s cock crow on “hit that high,” reaching Sylvestrian heights of orgiastic delight and needy drama. What few people who were not the teenage girls who bought the record bothered to ask themselves was what all that pleasure was compensating for; it remains, three decades later, the least asked question about pop.

That’s my take now. Ten years ago, I was trying to compile a list of 100 great pop songs of the 1980s and, not having been listening to pop in the 1980s and having primarily stuck to canonical indie retrospectives since, I was playing catch-up by cycling through MP3 compilations, one after another. I still remember how I teared up crossing campus when “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” startled me with its energy, its beaming smile, its swooping delight, its creamy middle eight. Nostalgia for nostalgia has always been one of my primary weaknesses as a pop listener, and George Michael at the high tide of the 80s gesturing towards the historical pop monuments of jitterbug, Doris Day, and Motown had me verklempt even after the initial giddy rush of its sugar-floss construction had faded. But it’s no creaky mausoleum: it’s pop as everything-at-once, past and present united by emotional openness. I fell in love with it then, and have only loved it more since. It still sounds like a smile when almost nothing else does.

Katie Gill on “Freedom

It’s no secret that George Michael could write a damn good pop song. This entire list is composed of damn good pop songs. But “Freedom” is SUCH A DAMN GOOD POP SONG. I will go on record to say that the first ten seconds of this song are some of the best ten seconds in music: powerful, kicky chords followed by a beautiful, wordless “doo doo doo!” The upbeat music, that bright, jammy tone of the entire song, those poppy opening notes signal the start of something high energy and wonderful. The energy pulses through the entire track, never stopping, like a happy, peppy 80s freight train. All of that contrasts wonderfully with the lyrics of an amazingly unhealthy relationship. This song is such a beautiful dichotomy: a song titled “Freedom” about the desire for a lack of it. Just look at some of these lyrics: “You could take me to hell and back/Just as long as we’re together/And you do.” In any other song, those lyrics would be sung out in the most overwrought, soulful, needlessly overdramatic Adele-esque manner possible with backing as sparse as a clear-cut forest. George Michael sticks them in a bright, upbeat pop song where you can hear the smile on his face as he sings, piano happily playing along in the background. It’s a genius move. “You’re hurting me, baby” he sings, as happily as possible. “Freedom” is  simultaneously a conventional pop song and one that’s absolutely not conventional. And you know what the amazing thing is? It’s not the best song out of George Michael’s career. It’s an amazing song and I’ll pull for it any day but it’s certainly not the best. We’ve truly lost someone amazing when he can put out music as good as this and then follow it up with music that’s even better.

Mallory O’Donnell on “Careless Whisper

Feckless, frankly self-indulgent lyrics not held in much esteem even by their author, a famously overripe sax solo and a tacky period video better relived, aghast, than described by me. What isn’t to be loved and admired about “Careless Whisper?”

As flamingly ridiculous as it is, it delineated the moment at which the world had to start taking George Michael seriously. No longer merely a sexy, fanged moppet, he emerged as a capable performer of huge, searing ballads that could be achingly stylish while still plucking viciously on your heart-strings. “Careless Whisper” was a pivot for Michael. Though it was included on the second Wham! album, it was released as his debut solo single (quasi-solo in the US). From early on it set the pattern for his output – for every “Faith” there would be a “Father Figure.” Undoubtedly, he would become a much more accomplished performer of ballads, his voice growing in nuance and power as he matured. But “Careless Whisper” threw down the gauntlet. It made it clear that no trope would be unturned if an element of passion could be wrenched from it — reveling in movie-theme mawkishness and torch song overstatement that many of his peers would have balked at.

But that’s pop for you, and that was George Michael’s mastery of the form. Pop as a genre triumphs globally because it can encompass any musical genre or stylistic maneuver. It isn’t about what choices you make, it’s about making those choices stick. While there’s a lot of flailing around here, there’s a lot of impact as well, enough that it has no real competition in its domain. “Careless Whisper” isn’t just any other mid-80s tennis shorts ballad, it’s THE mid-80s tennis shorts ballad,

Also, every moment from “tonight the music seems so loud” on out to those final wavering chords is just simply fucking devastating, you know what I mean?

Katherine St Asaph on “Everything She Wants

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is the Wham! song — the George Michael song, probably — most people would name first, but “Everything She Wants” is perhaps the one that’s osmosed deeper, in bits and clips: the disembodied earworm of “somebody tell me” I’m sure I’m not the only one afflicted by, the overfamiliar vocalisation before the chorus, the part the Spice Girls interpolated. And aside from the ’80sisms of the video (including one long shot of George Michael attempting to look angry, and what People Magazine claims passed as “stunts”), it holds up. The track seems shambolic at first, the drum-machine booping like a kid’s first time using the percussion settings on a Yamaha and the arrangement, just a quick chord progression, thinner than you’d want. But “Everything She Wants” is not the sort of song that calls for symphonic synths; it’s exactly as minimalist as it needs to be. (The track’s eventual Todd Terry remix, though not his best, heeded this.) The lyric would be mean-spirited, almost an MRA screed, were it not so obviously a polite fiction, in which confessions and marriage and babies transpire in six months and lines slip past the radar like “I don’t know what the hell you want from me, boy.” (The lyric sheet claims it’s “…but, boy”; no such “but” is sung.) It’s an unresolved complaint for an unresolved song. “Everything She Wants” meanders, putters around, arrangement dutifully panting alongside it, because George Michael was a good enough songwriter to know the point is that cry into the void before which all else recedes.

Katherine St Asaph on “Last Christmas

Some takes are so wrong that they smash through the very filaments of the universe. I’m not saying that the Awl’s piece calling “Last Christmas” the “most horrible holiday song ever made” killed George Michael. It came out in 2011, after all, and I only read it this year thanks to the site’s flipping old content as, I guess, some sort of parody of the Facebook algorithm that still juices the clicks. The timing’s only “coincidental” insofar as it can be coincidental for someone to just happen to complain, around Christmas, about the second-most-popular track on Christmas radio. But it’s still jarring. It’s a kind of jarring we’ll have to get used to, as rock demographics catch up to more and more artists and add their once-fusty catalogs to the celestial jukebox of nothing but hits. Right now, though, it’s odd: lurching from a world in which “Last Christmas” in the tastemaking sweeps is OUT! to a world in which it’s a beloved standard.

This world happens to be the correct world, as millions of lovelorn listeners (nudged along in their love by Clear Channel playlisting) demonstrate each year. “Last Christmas” is our best secular Christmas carol. Unlike “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or Paul McCartney’s Lovecraftian monstrosity of a tune, it is listenable as a song, not just a carol. Unlike “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which in its insistent overfestiveness recalls that hundreds-strong holiday party no one likes as much as they claim, it’s believably a love song. (Who on the planet has thought about an actual lover or potential when listening to “All I Want For Christmas Is You?”) Unlike “Fairytale of New York,” it hasn’t got cult-classic status to be consumed by. Unlike “Santa Baby” or “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” it is immune to takes, unless they’re takes about the Christmas cover-industrial complex, which are fair but also kinda takes about hating joy.

And unlike almost every Christmas song, “Last Christmas” stands up after Boxing Day. There are sleigh bells in the mix, kinda, and the synths approximate minor-key jingling. But the story really takes place on Christmas for three reasons: to make a pile of money for Band Aid, to get to mine holiday nostalgia in the video, and to acknowledge the fact that unless you’re lucky enough that your coupled periods overlap the right seasons, the winter holidays are godawfully lonely, and holiday party hookups usually end poorly. Never mind the mulleted Fezziwigs and treeside meet-cutes of the video, the details in the song are brutal. It’s explicitly about a hookup, not a breakup (the timeline doesn’t make sense otherwise), and it hits all the notes of inevitably running into them next year: wistfulness, avoidance, disgust, self-loathing, real hope, false hope. Listen after the 25th, and it’s a New Year’s resolution: this year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special (the saccharin conceals the burn). Listen before the 25th, and it’s an oncoming trainwreck: this Christmas I’m gonna do it again. No lessons are learned, except to maybe try to crush on someone less prone to cardiac regifting. It’s the Carly Rae Jepsest of Christmas songs, which explains why Carly herself covered it, as did Taylor Swift and pre-bunny-ears Ariana Grande before her. (Idea for the pop column I don’t have: You can taxonomize pop stars by whether they cover “Last Christmas, “Christmas Wrapping,” “Santa Baby” or attempt to canonize their own song.) In its simplicity and angst and Jepsen-adjacency, it’s the pop-punkest of all Christmas songs not by the Ramones, and Wham’s snow-soft vocal and thin arrangement takes to emo surprisingly well. (A semi-popular example is Jimmy Eat World‘s; my favorite is Sarge‘s.) And in a season full of dehumanizing false cheer, it’s the most human of Christmas songs; we as a species and a society are just plain bad at coupling, and worse at giving up on it. Deny it or not, we’re all at continuous risk of being kissed and fooled again. And whether it’s to save us from tears or facilitate them, thank God there’s a song for it.

Thomas Inskeep on “Last Christmas”

It’s the biggest-selling single in UK history not to have hit #1 (stopped, famously, by “Do They Know It’s Christmas”), and, not including said Band Aid single, is one of only two additions to the Christmas canon in the past 30+ years (the other being Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but you knew that). And why? Because it’s so brilliantly, gloriously, sad: “Last Christmas I gave you my heart/but the very next day you gave it away/This year, to save me from tears/I’ll give it to someone special,” George sings. Many of the greatest Christmas songs are sad, and George understood that. Which is also why “Last Christmas” has become such an absolute perennial. The fact that he died on Christmas Day, 2016, is the ultimate “fuck you” from 2016 to the world, and frankly will forever make his classic all the more sad.

Jessica Doyle on “Edge of Heaven

“Edge of Heaven” may be the Wham! single no one else remembers, but I loved it for its cheer and its stair-step chorus when I first heard it, which was about a quarter-century before I managed to pay any attention to the lyrics. In retrospect: how did anyone accept this as good clean fringe-jean-jacket-clad fun? (I can’t swear this appeared on Nickelodeon’s Nick Rocks, but that was how I watched music videos at the time.) There must have been fun to be had in hiding in plain sight, if one could manage it, and however George Michael felt about himself offstage at the time, he makes it sound like the dirtiest fun imaginable: there’s not an ounce of self-loathing in his voice, striding along, unabashedly, gleefully insincere in the pleading of “Won’t the heavens save me.” Later–both seeing the trend emerge, and shaping it–he got tired of hiding. That he was courageous later does not make the earlier works acts of cowardice. 1986 is gone (and good fucking riddance: I’ll take 2016 over 1986 ten times over). It’s part of the wonder of pop music that it is both inseparable from and permanently free of its time. The era that spawned “Edge of Heaven” is gone, and George Michael helped make it history, but there’s life in his voice, salacious, amused, defiant, always.

Kat Stevens on “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me

River deep, mountain high, valley low! George and Aretha start off on opposite corners of the map and cheerfully hike their way across rocky terrains to reunite in the middle. They stick to the paths trod by Tammy and Marvin, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina: George’s voice is strong and steady, giving Aretha’s powerhousing vocal room to let rip. After several years of X Factor-style goal-achieving, daily-struggling, this-is-my-journey solo songs, it’s refreshing to hear adversity being overcome via the power of teamwork – we made it through this together! Ambition can’t succeed alone, without the support of faith, family or friendship.

None of this meant anything to me in 1987, in fact I can’t even remember why I asked my sister to buy me this particular song for my birthday. But buy it she did — my first 7″ single of my very own, and I was damned if I wasn’t going to listen the absolute shit out of it. Except I was too small to reach the living room record player so I had to ask my sister to do that for me, as well. (To this day I’ve never properly got the hang of vinyl). I don’t think she minded too much — her bedroom walls might have been covered in Prince posters, but the shelf above the record player was full of Wham! picture discs. And there’s worse things to listen to over and over again than a whirlwind of unconditional love, loyalty and sheer joy.

Ramzi Awn on “Monkey

George Michael’s voice doesn’t need the extra production on “Monkey,” but it doesn’t hurt either. Down to the careful whisper on “do it again,” this meticulously mixed number one is the definition of infectious. The wall of sound highlights the record’s trademark guitar faithfully, and the tune is effortless. The hook is just another example of Michael’s uncanny ability to anticipate what people want to hear. He fought for freedom, and he won.

Ian Mathers on “One More Try

At this point in his career, there’s a complex, tortured ambiguity to many of George Michael’s best songs (surely related to or partially fostered by being in the closet, but not reducible to just that), and naturally this comes out most strongly in the ballads, a form he excelled at. It’s not just his amazing voice and absolute artistic control of what he did with it, although Michael in peak form can sound like he’s just talking to you in the midst of belting it out and vice versa, and he can layer a line like “I wrote the song, I know it’s wrong” (to say nothing of the last two lines here) with even more nuance and shades of emotion until it feels almost mythopoetic. It’s not just his amazing songwriting, both lyrics and arrangements, although even on a track like the minimally arranged “One More Try” (which sounds simultaneously smooth and ragged, sparse and lush, hymnal and destitute). For a man who, especially in the mid-80s, was living both an extremely public and extremely private life, who was both exposed and hiding and furious at the press for both, giving us a song as bittersweet and beautiful as “One More Try” was both an expression of his mastery of the art of the pop form and quite possibly a necessary release valve. The most important part of “One More Try” is that we can never know whether his narrator is right or wrong, either at the beginning of the end of the song. Is he right to be suspicious of the new (or renewed) relationship on offer? Where is the line between cutting yourself off from good things because of past pain and walking right into an obviously bad situation because you’re afraid you might be too guarded? There are things I don’t want to learn, he says, and the very real and present problem when it comes to emotions, relationships, sheer human nature is that we’re almost necessarily very bad at telling for ourselves where the line is between lessons we’re right to want to avoid (because they don’t help; because they’re abusive; because we already know them) and those lessons we’re afraid of that we have to learn if we’re going to be healthy. Both can involve pain, so just avoiding pain isn’t enough (as Michael knew so keenly). And when he ends the song by admitting that whatever else is happening, he simply isn’t willing to try and then, voice rich with despair, acquiesces to that one more try, we don’t know whether he’s found the strength or desperation to be vulnerable, or if he’s ignoring his better judgment in a moment of weakness. Further, we don’t know whether either impulse is actually correct, because we know virtually nothing about his ‘teacher’ (fittingly enough, this is among other things the inverse companion to “Father Figure”, which comes two tracks earlier on Faith; the singer of each could easily be directing themselves to the other, but that’s not the only possibility). But whether or not the singer is making the right or wrong choice, for the right or wrong reasons, the song itself is so beautifully laid bare and vulnerable in depicting this process most of us have been through that whether it feels like tragedy or triumph or, most fittingly, both, it strikes you right to your core.

Josh Langhoff on “Praying For Time

At the beginning of August 1990, Iraq bombed Kuwait City and claimed Kuwait for itself. Amid cries of “Sovereignty!” and stage whispers of “oil!”, the U.S. wasted no time sending soldiers to the Persian Gulf, where they mostly waited: at bases and aboard ships, in numbers eventually exceeding half a million, for the January 1991 deadline authorizing them to bomb the Iraqi military back to its home turf. And what music did they listen to during those months of hypervigilant boredom? “Against a backdrop of growing danger in the Persian Gulf,” wrote Greg Sandow in the September 14 Entertainment Weekly, “anxious listeners — especially those near military bases — have adopted [‘Praying for Time’] as an anthem for our troubled time.”

However widespread that phenomenon, Sandow’s review shaped how I — and probably other young fans — heard the song. On their faces, the war and the song had nothing to do with one another. George Michael’s “wounded skies above” line probably meant the ozone layer, not bombs and Scud missiles, and he focused his song’s outrage on greed and hypocrisy, not war — witness his sublime Dickensian insult, “Charity is a coat you wear twice a year.” But songs become what we need them to be. “Praying for Time” became both march and dirge, accruing horror upon horror with each perfectly written line. Michael’s expert songcraft meant there was satisfying fun in writing the rhymes on school notebooks or singing them in the shower. As they rolled along, those rhymes gathered rhetorical force, leading to a magisterial shrug of a conclusion: God has turned his back on God’s children. There is no hope to speak of. It’s much, much too late. This was no “Voices That Care”; it was subversive Ecclesiastical nihilism that somehow went #1 in the U.S. and, through sheer repetition, shaped my conception of God as thoroughly as the 8th grade confirmation classes taught by my minister father.

Michael’s absent God didn’t read as scandalous. “You’re looking for God in the wrong place,” was the message I took home. God was not keeping score for the coalition forces vs. Iraq, or for rich people vs. poor people. God was much bigger and therefore more difficult to see. Unfortunately, we shining cities on hills tend to disagree with George Michael’s conception of God; and if anything, our prayers for time just made things worse. A decade later we “finished the job” in Iraq, spreading divinely-sanctioned democracy and killing God’s enemy Saddam Hussein. A power vacuum opened up, and religious minorities who had lived in relative security became victims of genocide. One such young family fled the country and settled in my parents’ town. Now, after several years, they’ve run out of ways to stay away from their homeland. Today my helpless parents, whose charity is a second skin, watched this family they love return to the country we helped destroy. If God did creep out the back door in 1990, who could blame him?

Edward Okulicz on “Freedom ’90

In 1990, this was my favourite pop song. I watched the chart show every week and willed it to go Number One, and kept getting annoyed that it didn’t. Perhaps it was too long for radio play, but it wasn’t too long for me.  I taped it one of the few times I did hear it on the radio, and taped the iconic video onto a VHS tape, and bathed in this song’s opulent cry of self-actualisation over and over again, as if I responded to it instinctively even if I didn’t relate specifically to, or understand, it.  Particularly when taken as a whole package with the video, it’s George Michael’s version of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” — same director, same message, even a similar palette — don’t accept of, or for, yourself, anything less than what it is you desire. Images from his past self are blown up, and looking back, the symbols of the Listen Without Prejudice era would be blown up and abandoned as well, and replaced with new symbols that he would abandon when he no longer needed them either. They were but skins on the surface, and you could admire them or strip them away and just listen to the pop songs underneath. That’s what the song’s about — clothes do not make the man, as the indelible pre-chorus reminds us.

And what a pop song this one is — a rich mesh of pop, funk, soul and dance. “I won’t let you down, I will not give you up, gotta have some faith in the sound, it’s the one good thing that I’ve…. got” by itself would be one of the best choruses of the decade, but when you add on “FREEDOM! FREEDOM!” it’s even bigger, it’s even more universal, even more irresistible. The way he bites down on “so that’s what you get for changing your mind” and “there’s someone I forgot to be” is obviously autobiographical, particularly in light of his sexuality, portraying feelings of pain that set you up for the euphoric pay-off of the chorus, but they also tell a happy story of getting onto a path of self-expression and utlimately freedom. You live, you make mistakes, you change, you are reborn, and it repeats. You take what was good with you and burn everything else, if you want to. George Michael’s music was a torch in the dark for many fans, and “Freedom” is an endlessly transferable lesson and the song’s an endlessly thrilling medium for it. Listening to it again for the first time in some years has been like re-connecting with an old friend, and the morning of the 26th, I did my morning ritual with this blasting in my headphones over and over again, and as we march in to 2017 I still feel like listening to it over and over again like I did in 1990.

John Seroff on “They Won’t Go When I Go

I am wary of offending the gods by taking our Wonder for granted but it must be said I’ve always liked George Michael’s version of “They Won’t Go” better than Stevie’s original. Some of that is apples and oranges. Stevie created the piece as a bitterly righteous baroque gospel with classical airs and Moog ornamentation; Michael stripped the song down to lyrical melody and raw anguish, two of his musical specialties. He’s in rare form here, his echoing voice caramel rich whether in self-choir or solo, on the verge of dramatic collapse throughout. Michael’s emphasis on “I Go” is wounded and personal, never metaphor, yet without rancor for “They.” It’s difficult now not to see the man in the song as we remember him in passing: sadly, irrevocably, incontestably, regretfully ascendent.

Jonathan Bradley on “Too Funky

“I am not trying to seduce you.” Setting the scene for “Too Funky,” George Michael invokes not Dustin Hoffman’s nebbish Graduate but Benjamin Braddock’s poised, mature counterpart. “Would you like me to seduce you?” asks Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, and then arrives a piano flourish and a prowling house beat, exercising itself in preparation for what is to come. In Thierry Mugler’s video, Michael appears only in shadow, subsuming himself within high fashion and high celebrity while the cream of 1992’s supermodels shimmy in the latest and most preposterous accoutrements. But he lurks in the background because he is behind a camera — he is not in the spotlight, but he is charge — and he retains that commanding position in the song. Focused yet playful, “Too Funky” works its sample of Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy” without losing its poise. Imagine his contemporaries singing words like “You’re just too funky for me/I’ve got to get inside of you”; Prince or Michael Jackson would gasp and squirm, allowing their desire to overcome them. Even while exuding sex, however, Michael holds back in reconnaissance, musing “I’d love to see you naked” before attending to the way the object of his attentions is “sinkin’ all that cheap red wine” — a piquant visual that adds unexpected intimations of setting and character to a song that spends most of its time on sensuous details. As the rhythm works harder and harder, new movements enter the arrangement and overlapping hooks intrude. Michael demands, “Baby, why do you do this to me?” and new interjections, some unfinished, interrupt: “Everybody wants to love like that,” “You’re such a—,” an exultant “Yeah, yeah!”. There’s no consummation — though the sampled mater scolding us to turn the radio off as the song ends might suggest the whole thing is a pop masturbatory fantasy — but Michael sounds throughout like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he wants to be going.

Olivia Rafferty on “Jesus To A Child

This song is dark, tentative, yet hugely powerful. George Michael immortalised his first real love — designer Anselmo Feleppa, who was diagnosed with AIDS — within this song and the album from which it’s taken, Older. Michael depicts this love through Christ imagery. Feleppa is Jesus: both the enlightened teacher and the sacrifice; Michael is the child: the innocent and the blessed. But despite the wide use of Biblical metaphor, the song remains intimate. The God Michael writes about is not a stained-glass God, not a righteous God, not a golden hand pointing from the clouds. It’s God incarnate in his most human form, with relationships intimate and secret. It’s that wavering between immortality and humanity — between open and closed doors — that this song is balanced upon. The steps on this tightrope are marked by every chromatic step in the melody. The result is that he resolves their hidden relationship, and Feleppa’s very real, very human death into a celestial event: “heaven sent and heaven stole.”

Claire Biddles on “Fastlove

As with any artist who comes out after they have already released a large body of work, it’s tempting to go back through George Michael’s pre-1998 catalogue and look for suggestions of his sexuality. In retrospect, “Fastlove” is laced not so much with coy hints as with clear statements. When George announces that “My friends got their ladies, they’re all having babies/but I just wanna have some fun” he distances himself from heteronormativity just as he did when introduced to his friend’s fiancée in “Young Guns (Go For It).” The pivotal come-on “I do believe that we are practising the same religion” reads as a delicious testing of the waters for a same-sex partner — they’re the same as you, but are they the same as you? “Fastlove” is about gay sex, and about anonymous sex, and about how they can mean the same thing. I don’t have to be the one to tell you how George writing about fucking a guy he had just met in the back of his luxury car, in the middle of his most ‘respectable’ period, was radical.

For me, George’s specific genius was his ability to express sexual enjoyment and emotional longing simultaneously, while understanding that these two states of being were not mutually exclusive. “Fastlove” is the perfect expression of the parallel desire for something immediate and need for something permanent. It’s there in the music — when the steady soul base is infiltrated by the spiralling saxophone line; the secure shot through with the unpredictable — but it’s distilled so exactly in the lyrics. I could write pages and pages about the line “In the absence of security/I made my way into the night” — how it’s phrased as the opening of an epic novel; how “the night” is presented as the opposite of “security” and all that entails. But the magic of it — the magic of the whole song — is how potential is contained within condensed possibility, just like the night itself. We can’t know what it will entail.

Edward Okulicz on “Spinning The Wheel

I imagine for George, a difficult thing during the period between him coming out to himself and coming out in full to other people was re-learning what is possible about love, what relationships are about, and how to write, speak and sing honestly about them. And if we learned nothing else from “I Want Your Sex,” we learned that George is open-minded but sure of what he wants. But what if the two halves of a couple don’t see eye to eye? “Spinning The Wheel” is funky and jazzy, but its story lives in a place of uncertainty, and George’s narrator is scared. Love can make you feel safe, but the AIDS epidemic is terrifying, especially to someone who’d lost their first love to it. It enables George to give a masterclass in pop-soul drama, singing of his fear of losing his current lover and perhaps himself in the process. That the word “ass” appears in the lyrics almost feels out of place, but he uses it to criticise his lover — you would risk your health and mine just for an ass?, he demands to know. His performance is rich and full of tenderness and fear, but also steely — “I. Will. Not. Accept. This. As. A. Part. Of. My Life.” — and as he recounts his lover’s indiscretions on the clock face, we know he’s moved on with sadness but no regrets for the choice. It’s a song of strength, of rejecting any relationship not on equal terms in favour of self-determination. In the era of PREP, perhaps the beginning of the post-AIDS era in the Western world (and the rest of it, hopefully), when gay men are learning to trust again despite other diseases, people who take uninformed consent as consent, and people who lie to other people’s faces about what (and whom) they’re doing, this song’s message still resonates strongly with me. Like a straight relationship, a gay relationship has to be built on trust and communication, and the story here is one that doesn’t get told in its specifics so often. And it still needs to be told.

While this is one of his most mature songs, it has an incongruously perky but enjoyable remix, the Forthright version (this was actually the version serviced to radio stations in some markets) that takes the serious song and whips it up into a frivolous dancefloor piece more than worthy of the word “ass,” and one you can enjoy without thinking about the danger mentioned in the chorus  at all. I’m so grateful for both versions, for both Georges — the thoughtful soul who only wanted love, and the hedonist who wanted everything.

Thomas Inskeep on “You Have Been Loved

Think back to August 1997. George’s album Older had already been out for a year, spinning off a quintet of top 3 singles in the UK whilst being largely ignored in the US. And then the heretofore unthinkable happened: Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris. We all know what became, in essence, the world’s song of mourning: Elton John’s rewrite of “Candle in the Wind” into something even more mawkish and morbid (give most of the blame for that to lyricist Bernie Taupin). But what has largely been lost to history is the other song to which people responded so profoundly, especially in the UK. “You Have Been Loved” had already gone to British radio as the sixth single from Older, so it’s not as if this was a cash-in, just a matter of serendipitous timing, if you can call it that. The week that “Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About the Way You Look Tonight” entered charts all over the world at #1, “You Have Been Loved” played its bridesmaid in the UK. In light of Diana’s death — not to mention that most knew of the friendship between George and Diana — the song took on added resonance and became a profoundly moving, albeit unintentional, tribute to the late Princess. “You Have Been Loved” was included a few months later on the Diana, Princess of Wales: Tribute compilation, alongside a number of suitably somber songs, both previously released and newly recorded. “Loved” is the second song on the double-album, behind only “Who Wants to Live Forever” by Diana’s beloved Queen, and immediately prior to Annie Lennox’s “Angel” (also quite fitting). It’s simple, but jaw-droppingly stunning in its simplicity. The “chorus”:

Take care my love, he said
Don’t think that God is dead
Take care my love, he said
You have been loved

Does anything better, more succinctly sum up loss? No, no, it doesn’t. And now, heartbreakingly, we can use “You Have Been Loved” to memorialize George, as well

Ian Mathers on “I Can’t Make You Love Me

Befitting someone as enamoured and enriched by popular music as George Michael was, he was an enthusiastic and exceptional interpreter of other people’s songs as well as his own. There’s much to be written about his selections, both live and on record, choices that were more and less faithful to the originals, and so on. But I don’t want to talk about any of that here. I want to talk about the fact that his performance of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (originally recorded by Bonnie Raitt in a very good version) is maybe the most purely gorgeous and heart-rending vocal performance I can think of. Part of this is Michael’s incredible restraint, which isn’t the same thing as saying the he sings quietly or undramatically; rather when he sets a line like “and I will give up this fight” soaring there is still some enormous reservoir of deep pain behind that voice. The large, partly orchestral band playing behind Michael makes the song a beautiful pillow for that voice and Michael sings those lines with such tremendous precision and passion that this, more than any other version, taps into the dark irrational truth in the core of the song, the way we are all so prepared to feel ourselves unlovable just because one person doesn’t love us the way we want or need right now; the way we allow one person’s reaction to be some sort of verdict on our basic worthiness. The song is, on the one hand, about the same basic wisdom found in Björk’s “It’s Not Up to You,” the letting go of feeling like we can control other people or like the intensity of our own feelings can change another person. But on another hand, it’s the primal cry in the face of unrequited affection that fears that we are unworthy. Other versions of this song can make me feel wistful about relationships and almost-relationships past. George Michael’s reading, somehow containing both that ultimate hurt and, in its demand for honesty and relinquishing of claims, an impossible and moving resilience, makes me want to curl up into a ball and weep like a baby. It is both one of the best and most painful sounds I have ever heard.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Outside

Imagine having a deep, dark secret that could potentially ruin your entire life and career. Imagine not being able to fully enjoy a day of your existence because you need to hide something. Imagine that such a secret is who you really are. Imagine feeling that it is your fault for being that way, and not the retrograde, wrong ideas of virtually everyone else. Imagine getting caught in the act and getting exposed; your worst nightmare, a reality. For George Michael, and for millions of queer people, this isn’t an hypothetical situation, but a description of a pain that is very real. Now, imagine that you’re incredibly famous and one of the most celebrated singers of your time, which also means that, for certain media crooks, there’s a price tag on your disgrace. George was forcibly outed, shamed by the press and, since then, viciously scrutinized by the Law. But then, as true artists do, George fired back. It could have been the end of his career, but he took a different look at it, owned up,  had a laugh and raised perhaps the greatest middle finger in musical history. “Outside,” with its lush disco stylings and gorgeously low-pitched melodies, is a provocation from beginning to end. The lyrics show a man who’s no longer ashamed, and are an invitation to take your desires wherever you wish. The video took on those who trapped and caught him — The LA Police, specifically; the moral police, in general — but also commented that Jesus saves us all in the end. “Outside” is all about liberation, his and ours, and put those ideas on both public sex and gay sex into revision. George faced an 80-hour community service penalty and a 1,300-dollar fine, but it would not cost him any more. He turned frailty into strength, shame into pride and “Outside” into an international hit. They say success is the best revenge, and George certainly got both, but the bigger point was about something else:  the continuing destruction of heteronormative bullshit.

Anthony Easton on “Secret Love

This is perverse to admit in an obit thread, but George Michael is one of those people whose genius I always acknowledged, but whose personal power never hit me. Maybe it was internalizing distaff sexuality five years wrong in either direction — after the global fame but before the critical revival. But, his 1999 album Songs from the Last Century always haunted me. An eccentric 20th century canon, resting on Phil Ramone’s sumptuous production, Michael’s optimism is complicated here. It’s an album of love songs, and of sex songs, with one song about money, but mostly, it is about how outré desire is constructed. It’s also queerer than it could have been. He doesn’t change the genders, he slightly outs Ricky Martin, his cover of “Roxanne” is more sympathetic to the sex worker than the “rescuing” john. He smoulders through a few torch songs, including the definitive reworking of Roberta Flack — it liquefies desire, flowing between race, gender, and sexuality, arguing that the 20th century’s mark was a move outside of identity. In Michael’s versions, a number of songs on the album were songs about how to be queer — the liquidity of desire flowing over a narrative of presentation, but not didactic, and not aspirational. They were, cheerfully and presently full of a selfhood that had an explicit freedom.

The best example of this was the cover of Doris Day’s “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane. We have a femme gay man covering a song from a femme straight woman, who for the purpose of this movie is butching it  up as a cowgirl. Michael is claiming himself as part of the drag of history — but he sings it in a kind of perfect reversal. Day’s original begins with a clear, sad, mournful tone, and never quite moves into exhalation — even if it is a song that has been coded about coming out, one never quite gets the joy that comes from telling. She sings out, but she doesn’t SING OUT. The reveal in the last half of Day’s version never actually tells people. (though it does tell “golden daffodils”.) Michael’s version swings, as brash and bright as any version of “Fly Me to the Moon.” It is a glistening, delightful, propulsive version. Even in the beginning, it does not cotton to any melancholy.

The song works as a kind of double corrective. It makes the kind of winking code of queer discourse, in the Russo sense, a historical artifact. But it also functions as an apology for Michael’s own glass closeting. It does not historicise desire, it is optimistic for the new possiblities of that same desire. In the words of Munoz:

“Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”

Mallory O’Donnell on “Freeek!

While George Michael is justly celebrated as a gay icon, he is rather undervalued as an icon for all free thinking, sexually aware human beings on the planet Earth. Gay, straight, male, female, somewhere in between or somewhere beyond, as soon as we discovered him he was ours. And damn if he didn’t give as good as we asked of him and more – sometimes, perhaps to please us, going to extremes. But he always spoke to us of a world without fear of sex, without prejudice towards each other based on what sex we were or what sex we liked. In the 80s, then the 90s, then the oughts, he was there awaiting discovery or rediscovery, and some of his songs seemed like sacred texts for this crazy new world of freedom and libidinousness that we all thought we were working towards.  A world that until very recently seemed tantalizingly within reach.

“Freeek!” isn’t exactly heavy on social message, but it is witness to real-world change. It’s a song that couldn’t exist without a pop music market amenable to sexually frank material, a market Michael himself was one of the key architects and luminaries of. “Freeek!” is the sound of an advocate taking it easy, luxuriating in the ability to strap on a giant rubber suit and celebrate being a big old freak in no uncertain terms, the old worry of the 90’s evaporating into bold waves of color. Emerging in 2002 with all the remixes and trimmings, it meant a similarly older, less confused (maybe) listener in me got to rediscover George Michael all over again, updated through the filter of new club and house tracks we’d both clearly been salivating over (see also “Flawless.”) The rebirth here was in my perceptions, though, not in Michael’s music — for as long as he was here he never really went away.

Claire Biddles on “Flawless (Go To The City)

I thought I had no critical faculties to apply to dance music. It’s embarrassing, but I barely even know the difference between genres — I could probably identify house music but I wouldn’t be able to single out what makes it house music. I like to dance but I don’t know anything about dance music. Then last year my friend Frances introduced me to the idea of different kinds of musical knowledge — historical, textual, technical, emotional — and how everyone possesses different combinations of these, and how they are all valuable. This made me think differently about dance music. What if dancing is a form of knowledge?

George Michael had told me this already of course, in “Fastlove” — “looking for some education/I made my way into the night” — with the night representing sex, of course, but also the mythical Night Out, where dancing and sex are one and the same. “Flawless (Go to the City)” describes the Night Out too — “it’s no good waiting/you’ve got to go to the city” — but it also takes place inside the Night Out, to the extent that it is George inhabiting a pre-existing dance song — a 1999 hit by The Ones — that you can imagine him having danced to in a club. His songs were danceable before of course, but few were recognisably dance music — “Flawless” makes real the nights that had previously been abstract in his lyrics, from the night in “Fastlove” all the way back to the guilty feet in “Careless Whisper.”

It exists in the Night Out and it is understood in the Night Out. I remember dancing to it in a bar in Soho and looking up to see my hands moving in circles above my head, a physical enactment of George’s layered vocals. Learning through dancing. Yelling “YOU’VE GOT TO GO TO THE CITY!” on a dancefloor in the middle of one, a line that means the minimum on paper but everything in context, in reality, when dancing. When the potential contained within the written word becomes real.

Mark Sinker on “Round Here

I can’t pretend my own critical generation was especially smart about George Michael when he first emerged. The hermeneutics of suspicion glowered out in every direction; the closed-off belief that if disruption and transgression (as punk and its aftermath had taught us) could be good, than everything good must in its turn be disruptive or transgressive, from sonics to sexuality and back. Not a very wise lesson for understanding the world, especially now. By contrast, everything in this limpidly gentle half-hidden little song from his 2004 LP Patience (his last LP!) picks up what the young GM was learning from the same moment, a quarter-century past: “Music fell like rain in the streets, The Specials, the Jam and ABC.” There’s a direct Costello quote in the lyrics, the Human League are sampled in the track which follows, Agata Pyzik has accurately noted the ghost of a parallel with Japan, and there’s echoes too of the Scritti Politti of “The ‘Sweetest Girl,” and maybe a glimpse of the Madness of “Our House.” But the immediate and dominant model in this song is probably Squeeze: the song’s a wry, loving sketch of half-realised lives in London then and since, his parents arriving as immigrants and marrying; his own will to “be someone in this beautiful city” — and there’s no suspicion or distrust of what he’s from, no scorn for what made him (suburb or music scene), or of what he wanted. What there is is a serene, yearning melancholy.

Alfred Soto on “Precious Box

By 2004 George Michael was as welcome in America as Howard Dean, but even if Patience had sold in Faith-full bucket loads, I doubt he would have released “Precious Box” as a single anyway. A dense, pulsing, whispered electronic dance track unlike anything Michael had ever released, this interior monologue features a weary singer wondering what happened to his family, admits to feeling sick of the same faces, and, at last, politely, asks a lover to strip for the second — or third — time. His heart is full of heretofore suppressed lusts, his throat thick with twenty-five years’ worth of recriminations and orders. George Michael — he has been one acquainted with VIP rooms, and you can keep them.

Scott Mildenhall on “Let Her Down Easy

“Let Her Down Easy” is a particularly sad song because it offers no certainty but that of time and fate. Even while being literally paternalistic, towards both daughter and subject, the narrator is acutely aware of his ultimate powerlessness. He might have the power to try and mock the subject into submission, but not to change reality, however that may play out. In a way it’s also heartwarming: it’s the sound of letting go. Terence Trent D’Arby underlined this with a swelling final minute, but George Michael offered no such neat conclusion. The Symphonica recording is an orchestral, partly arena-based one, but rather than dropping any big hints or making any grand gestures, it uses that to heighten the sense that these are the lonely thoughts of a burdened man. It doesn’t dwell on the final line. There are no cinematic resolutions. You’ll grow up, time will take its course and life will go on.

One Response to “George Michael”

  1. I made a Spotify playlist: