As one-half of Wham! and as a solo artist, George Michael left behind a peerless collection of sticky-sweet pop singles — but also earnest, risque and melancholy songs. Most of what his detractors couldn’t stand about him were precisely the things that his fans loved: his bleeding-heart sincerity, his indefatigable cheerfulness. In 2016, it’s easy to see these things as relics of a bygone era, but they stuck out in his late-1980s heyday, too. In the throes of a Britain sharply divided over Thatcherism, Michael’s brand of optimistic pop sounded naive, even ignorant.
Time would reveal that it was actually brave.
Michael and friend Andrew Ridgeley initially formed a ska band in 1979. The band was a bust, but Michael and Ridgeley reemerged as Wham! and sent a demo to an upstart independent label called Innervision, which loved the sound. They fast-tracked a debut album called “Fantastic” that spawned a quick hit in “Wham Rap!”
“Wham Rap!” was stupid fun, teenage girls loved it, and the song became a minor hit. More important, Michael and Ridgeley were an easy sell: young, handsome, funny and known for taking the stage with open suede jackets and shuttlecocks stuffed down the fronts of their jeans. They soon realized that they were getting a raw deal from Innervision, so they got out of their contract and onto a new label by forfeiting all future profits from their debut album. That would have seemed like a rash move if Wham! had proved to be a one-hit wonder, as so many of their starry-eyed contemporaries ended up being. Suffice to say, Wham! was not a one-hit wonder. Their first single under their new label was “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
If you don’t know anything else about Wham!, you know that song. It tells you a lot of what you need to know about the group, and Michael in particular. It sounds like a Sondheim number, like everyone should start pirouetting on restaurant tables when it plays. It’s candy, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you’re not, it’s positively diabolical.
Enough people were into that sort of thing in the mid-’80s to make Wham! a global sensation, rivaling Culture Club for the mantle of Britain’s most popular pop act of the ’80s. But the smoldering anger among Britain’s disaffected alternative scene meant Wham! would forever be barred from a certain level of hip respectability and critical acclaim. The Smiths debuted the same year that “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” dropped, and while critics liked Wham!, they loved the Smiths. Serious music was trending toward nuclear panic and political angst. In the face of this, Wham!’s output was written off as a bit juvenile.
However, Michael was a much savvier musician than he was getting credit for at the time. His later career as a solo artist, with songs such as “Freedom ’90,” “Father Figure” and “Praying for Time,” would solidify his place as a sophisticated talent, but heads were scratched in 1983 when he appeared on a talk show called “Eight Days a Week” and gushed about Joy Divison’s haunting, melancholy “Closer.” Anyone paying attention could see that his finger was firmly on the pulse of the moment he’d found himself a major player in. He just chose to respond with defiant optimism instead of brooding rage.
Indeed, Michael’s trademark “CHOOSE LIFE” T-shirt — a work of political-firebrand-cum-designer Katharine Hamnett — wasn’t intended to be an antiabortion statement. Rather, it was a willful call to hope in the face of daunting odds. Britain was then (as it is today) sharply politically polarized by generation. Michael and many of his contemporaries were opposed to Margaret Thatcher’s conservative policies, and bands were finding themselves increasingly on the front lines of the rebellion. As a precursor to the then-nascent boy band era, Wham! wasn’t really expected to get involved in the fight, but it did anyway. The duo played a gig at a benefit for striking miners, a hugely and surprisingly political move from a band at the peak of its fame. (Imagine, for instance, Ariana Grande showing up at a Chicago teachers union strike.)
Michael was in Britain’s gooey pop scene, but he wasn’t of it. As he would famously tell Rolling Stone in 1988, “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.” Michael believed in pop. He believed it had power. There are lots of people who fancy themselves as too good for pop music, but lots who don’t. And Michael made music for them.
And he lived his boundless optimism, too. In the wake of his death, dozens of stories have popped up on social media about Michael’s generosity, from four-figure tips for struggling waitresses to anonymous volunteer shifts at homeless shelters. These stories are hard to verify, but Michael’s fondness for giving to charity is well known. Whether it was a free concert for National Health Service nurses as a thank you for taking care of his mother, or a secret donation to a “Deal or No Deal” contestant who needed medical treatment, Michael wasn’t content in a bubble of hope, but lived to spread it to others. Every red cent of royalties that “Last Christmas” earned went to Ethiopian famine relief.
And then there was his work for the LGBT community. Rumors swirled around Michael’s sexuality for most of his career until he finally confirmed after a run-in with police in Beverly Hills that he was gay. He also opened up about one of his life’s great tragedies — a brief but passionate relationship with a Brazilian designer named Anselmo Feleppa that lasted from 1991 until Feleppa’s death from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993.
Michael wrote “Jesus to a Child” for Feleppa and became a high-profile supporter of the Terrence Higgins Trust, an HIV charity. But nearly as important, he was a proudly gay celebrity in the 1990s, and that was no small thing. Given the benefit of hindsight, the buoyancy that characterized Wham! and some of Michael’s solo work seems even more profound. He was writing deliriously popular songs about love and heartache to a society that he knew would not fully embrace his own sexuality.
All of this makes for a much more multidimensional portrait of the boy with an open suede vest and a shuttlecock jammed in his jeans. But unlike so many instances of unearthed facts following a celebrity death, the details of Michael’s life only add to his appeal. Smiling in the face of adversity is no mean feat, and Michael’s only trick was to never let them see him sweat. Sure, it didn’t look hard. Neither does a backflip, if you know what you’re doing. Michael knew his music would probably never be taken as seriously as it deserved. But he also knew a stadium full of 90,000 screaming fans couldn’t all be wrong.