In a year in which celebrity deaths – not least of pop music giants – have become cruelly commonplace, the death of George Michael on Christmas Day feels especially painful. It seems somehow scripted, unreal, hard to process. After all, it’s “Last Christmas”, the 1984 seasonal smash hit with Wham! that he’s perhaps most remembered for, a song that was back in the Christmas Top 40 year after year and no doubt playing in a million living rooms yesterday before the news of his death was known. As of June 2016, it had sold 1.8 million copies and is the biggest selling single in UK chart history not to reach number one.
I spent the past few months rehearsing and learning “Last Christmas” for the choir I sing in; we performed a four-part harmony version of it in a church in Hackney only last Sunday. The arrangement we did, unaccompanied, while having tongue-in-cheek nods to its cheesy Eighties disco heyday, also stripped the song back to its bare bones – without the jingly Wham! Christmas production values something more plaintive, even haunting, emerges.
It’s about unrequited love, and though not explicitly about a same-sex relationship, the song, written by Michael, hints at the conflict over his sexuality that the singer endured in his megastar Wham! years – and perhaps forecasts something more authentic and fulfilling to come: “Next year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special.” But it would be years before Michael could publicly proclaim he was gay (at first he said he was bisexual); in the interim, he hid it from both his family and the public, keeping up the appearance of a teenage girls’ heartthrob, sleeping with women yet never falling in love.
The soulful sadness that cuts through “Last Christmas”, is more fully expressed in “Careless Whisper” of the same year, with its melancholic sax solo that gets us up on our feet at weddings, exhorts us to “take my hand and lead me to the dance floor”. Somehow it spoke to us all – secretaries at the staff Christmas party as much as lonely gay kids mouthing the words in their bedroom mirror (though Michael himself said that he was disappointed the lyrics of the song had – at least consciously – meant little to him.)
For me that’s the beauty of Michael’s music: being at once chart-topping, mainstream pop, yet packing an emotional punch which can leave the listener floored. Then there’s that sexy, funky floor-filler side of Michael too, heard on solo songs such as “Faith”, “Too Funky” and “Fastlove” – he might be the king of the smooth ballad but he’s not afraid to show some attitude, some in-yer-face f**k you/f**k me, “this is who I am” camp yet hyper-masculine sexuality. It’s the yin-yang of George Michael: the weepies and the uptempo bangers; the handsome pin-up and the closeted, insecure gay man; the showmanship and the sadness.
Though I was young during the Wham! heyday – much of my appreciation of that era’s music comes from the protracted Eighties revival that spilled over from my studenthood — I’m old enough to have witnessed Michael’s Nineties solo megastardom, his very public outing by the press, and his subsequent battles with depression and drugs. I was coming to terms with my own sexuality and coming out at a time when Michael was finally about to explode out of the closet himself following his arrest for “engaging in a lewd act” in a Los Angeles public toilet.
The way he turned his arrest and the opprobrium from the tabloid newspapers to his advantage – owning it and selling it back to us in the video to the 1998 hit single “Outside”, in which a public “restroom” becomes a gay disco and the urinals swivel round to become glitter balls – was a powerful message of defiance in an LGBT landscape very different from today’s. From Smash Hits pinup he morphed into a gay role model of sorts. For Michael the arrest was a release, almost as if it had to happen: he could now publicly be who he truly was. This fearlessness and honesty is something that marked him apart from other stars.
Much of his music is frank in its exploration of sex and sexuality – the attraction and the addiction of the anonymous sexual encounter. “Fastlove” (April, 1996) was released a few years after the death from an Aids-related illness of his lover Anselmo Feleppa and explores the use of sexual gratification to cope with loss: “Some fast love, is all that I’ve got on my mind”. He was to meet his long-term partner the Texan businessman Kenny Goss that same year who he was with for 13 years — the couple officially split in 2009.
It’s the previous song he released in January 1996, “Jesus To a Child”, that most gets me though. It’s a more direct tribute to Feleppa and an outpouring of grief written in only an hour after 18 months in which he couldn’t write a note. Michael still hadn’t publicly proclaimed his sexuality but this heart-rending eulogy to a then unnamed dead lover perhaps best expresses the genuine emotion that runs through his music – and his life.
Three George Michael albums to stream
For the listener, Faith, Listen Without Prejudice and Older were very different experiences, yet lyrically all continued Michael’s signature humour, honesty and social commentary, which had been present in his Wham! hits too:
1. Faith (1987): His first solo album post Wham! is a slickly produced pop record, often including thumping basslines and an electronic-synthesised sound. Included the hits “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex”.
2. Listen Without Prejudice (1990): A more contemplative album, with Michael’s voice accompanied by strumming guitars and piano. Includes “Freedom 90” and “Praying for Time”.
3. Older (1996): A mainly jazz influenced record, although like all his greatest albums there are pop hits leading it off – in this case “Jesus to a Child” and “Fast Love.”
By John Kennedy