THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION YEAR of 2016 reaped all kinds of misfortunes, not the least of which was a steady string of celebrity deaths. Many of the high-profile musician deaths among them ranged from the sad but unsurprising (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey) to the completely unexpected, namely the loss of two titans in the music world: Prince, age 57, and George Michael, who was four years Prince’s junior.
Adding to the strangeness of it all was that Michael—the Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriter who sold more than 100 million albums over a thirty-year career and cofounded the British pop duo Wham!—died on Christmas Day, only bolstering the popularity of the only New Wave holiday song to remain on the airwaves: “Last Christmas,” from 1984. The fact that Michael and band-mate Andrew Ridgeley donated all of the single’s proceeds to the famine in Ethiopia at the time is an early indication of Michael’s philanthropic commitments. News reports after his death revealed that Michael, whose net worth (as of 2002) was an estimated £210 million, routinely volunteered at a soup kitchen in England and asked that people not make a fuss over his presence there. Michael’s boyfriend, Fadi Fawaz, discovered him dead in his home in the Oxfordshire village of Goring-on-Thames. “I will never stop missing you,” Fawaz later tweeted.
Born to a Greek Cypriot immigrant father in north London in the early 1960s, George Michael entered the world as the younger brother of sisters Yioda and Melanie and, years later, in desperate need of an Anglicized stage name. His birth certificate reads “Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, DOB: June 25, 1963.” Stating his full name in an interview, he added, “To the outside world I am, and always will be, known as something else. But it’s not my name.” In keeping with this defiance, Georgios/George would go on to push the limits of normative sexuality and become a trailblazer for out gay male artists. Biographer Rob Jovanovic comments that his birth came at an anguished time, since his maternal uncle, who was probably gay, had committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. Michael wouldn’t learn of this loss until he was a teenager. He speculates that his mother anguished over his sexual orientation because of her brother’s fate. “It’s a tragic story,” he later said of his uncle, and proof of “how much more difficult it must have been as a gay man in the 1950s.”
Around 1970, meanwhile, the Panayiotou family (renamed Panos) moved to Burnt Oak, Edgware, close to the restaurant his father owned and operated, where Georgios began violin lessons and later took to the drums. A pivotal moment came in the fall of 1975 when, beginning school at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire, he was seated next to an eleven-year-old Andrew Ridgeley (also in green blazer and tie) and began a lifelong friendship and collaboration that would be later be known as Wham!
By 1981, when Ridgeley had relocated to South London and was living the starving artist’s life, Michael (who still went by the surname Panos) had already come up with the melody for the hit “Careless Whisper,” which his older sister (always on hand to cut him down to size), had dubbed “Tuneless Whisper.” To become famous, he and Ridgeley would have to generate new songs and revise their whispery ballad, and the pair was determined to do just that. In the summer of 1982, Wham! got off to a wobbly start with the semi-rap single, “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?),” which was reminiscent of Blondie’s “Rapture” and that spoken bit about “Fab Five Freddy” and “eating cars.” But Wham! recovered quickly with “Young Guns (Go for It!)” and an appearance on BBC1’s Top of the Pops show, which sent the single soaring. Soon thereafter, Michael began breaking away from Ridgeley with his first solo song, “Bad Boys.” And while their debut album Fantastic remained in the Top 100 for two years, Michael decided that “Careless Whisper” would be a solo single, so he flew to Miami on a big budget allocated by Epic Records to make the music video. Unhappy with the look of his hair, which his sister had styled for him, in the first cut, he insisted that the video be entirely reshot.
Wham!’s second album, Make it Big (1984)—hailed by Rolling Stone as an “almost flawless pop record”—elevated the duo to the ranks of Duran Duran and The Human League. Emblematic of the uplifting and synthesized sound of the 1980s were songs like “Everything She Wants” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” The latter had been inspired by a note Ridgeley had written to his parents that read “Wake me up up,” to which Michael teasingly added “before you go go.” Calling themselves Wham!, they were one of the few bands (among them Danny Elfman’s Oingo Boingo) with an onomatopoetic name, and it even boasted the exclamation point that the pair loved to slap on their song titles. Their most popular songs, especially the back-to-back number one hits (the first to reach such heights since the Beatles), lived up the hype of Wham!’s name. Michael and Ridgeley became the first Western act to play in Communist China. When Michael reappeared on Top of the Pops, he did so alone, just 21 years old and sporting, he would later joke, the bleached blond tresses of Princess Diana.
A musician’s solo career is ideally one in which they retain the fans of their erstwhile band, building on but reinventing the earlier sound and expanding the fan base to reach the rhyming sweet spot of show business: fame and acclaim. Michael accomplished all of this, dissolving Wham! amicably in 1986 with the ambition, later described in his own words, to “set myself the challenge of getting up there on the American level with Madonna and Jackson, that circle of people—that was my goal.” He reached that goal with his debut album Faith, which included a title song that pushed into new acoustic territory. (The queer afterlife of the song “Faith” can be found in the 2002 film The Rules of Attraction, in which two boyfriends jump on a hotel bed in the buff while lip-synching the tune.) Aside from Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” Michael’s “Monkey” is the greatest simian song of the era that, with a cheeky sense of humor, asks “Why can’t you do it?/ Why can’t you set your monkey free?” He could be addressing either the Wicked Witch of the West or a lover who can’t free himself of his personal demons.
The album Faith would announce many of the themes that unify Michael’s solo career: faith, love, patience, and, as is par for the course of pop superstardom, sex. It was the last of these that generated his most notorious single (released only months after his duet with Aretha Franklin), “I Want Your Sex.” For all the press it received, it was not the strongest entry into the pop charts due to a sleazy beat and awkward lines that sound like a parent giving his kid “the talk”: “Sex is natural/ Sex is fun/ Sex is best when it’s one on one.” Despite the fact that it celebrated monogamy, the song (aided by a steamy video with Michael’s then girlfriend Kathy Jeung) didn’t fail to generate controversy: deejay Casey Kasem refused to utter the song’s title on his national broadcast, saying instead “George Michael’s latest hit is up five notches this week,” and many radio outlets censored the song by replacing the “s” word with the four letter word “love.”
Having peaked in the late 1980s, Michael followed the likes of Jackson, Boy George—and, we now know, Prince—by dissolving into substance abuse and fodder for the tabloids. The year 1998 proved that Michael was pursuing new kinds of public exposure. He was arrested in Will Rogers Park in Los Angeles for cruising a bathroom and exposing himself to an undercover policeman on so-called “potty patrol.” Michael, who was essentially entrapped by the Beverly Hills PD, would later tell MTV, “It was a stupid thing to do, but I’ve never been able to turn down a free meal.” He then transformed the embarrassment into an up-tempo song called “Outside” that satirized the incident. In it, he celebrated sex al fresco and gave new meaning to his cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which had sailed to the number one spot on the UK and American charts seven years before. More importantly, the incident forced the artist to confront what he had known since he was 26 but had kept secret. Back in England, he referenced his mother’s death as a factor in his depressed state of mind and told talk-show host Michael Parkinson: “The day I knew I was gay was when I knew I was in love with a man. … [T]he press knew I was gay, but until they could get something nasty, they were playing the game.”
When the game ended, George Michael’s career grew even more interesting in its emotional intensity. A song like “Amazing” is proof that he never abandoned his faith in love’s power to redeem—“I never thought my savior would come”—but it’s found on his fifth and final solo album, 2004’s Patience, when his best days were already behind him. A vocalist with astounding flexibility, Michael could hold his ground when sharing the microphone with the likes of Elton John, who revered Michael’s songwriting skills, and Aretha Franklin (on 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”), which provided the Queen of Soul with her first number one song in the UK. Michael acted as a bridge between the thoroughly closeted acts like Liberace and Freddy Mercury, whose flamboyance he appropriated and honored (he stole the show at an AIDS fundraiser and tribute to Mercury after the Queen frontman’s death in 1991) and fully out acts like Adam Lambert and Rufus Wainwright (whose indictment of American exceptionalism, “Going to a Town,” George Michael covered on 2014’s Symphonica). Rivaled only by Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” “Freedom! 90” has become a coming-out anthem in the GLBT community.
What will be Michael’s legacy? Thematically, the song “Faith” is a great complement to the Madonna classic, “Like a Prayer” (minus the burning crosses); it, too, blended spirituality and sexuality in irreverent ways that outraged and obsessed mainstream America. Michael’s “Faith” (released two years before Madonna’s hit song) opens with a church organ, then the randy lyric: “Well I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body/ I know not everybody has a body like you.” In addition to the gospel choirs on the song “As,” there’s a bossa nova tune called “Jesus to a Child,” reportedly written for Michael’s lover Anselmo Feleppa who died of AIDS in 1993. After Michael’s death, the founder of ChildLine disclosed that Michael had contributed all of the song’s royalties to her charity.
To millions of fans, George Michael will remain the “father figure” of which he sang with a blend of lust and longing, and for that, we can collectively say: Wham, bam, thank you, Georgios Panayiotou—or, as you will be forever loved and remembered—George Michael.
Colin Carman, PhD, a professor of English literature at Colorado Mesa University, recently contributed a paper on Lord Byron to Romantic Ecocriticism: Origins and Legacies (Lexington Books).