Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to a Greek Cypriot father and an English mother on June 25, 1963, George Michael became one of the most identifiable British icons in pop. Like many of his generation, a career in music was the dream of choice when he began making moves as a local disc jockey in his early twenties. However, not even Michael could foresee the impact he would have on popular music and culture. It was casual happenstance that led Michael to strike up a fast friendship with fellow dreamer in arms Andrew Ridgeley in 1981. The result? Wham!.
The precocious pop duo's sound drew from a myriad of genres, notably post-disco dance music and R&B. It was politely anathema to the full painted lips of the New Romantic movement and avant-garde synth-pop pumping at the heart of the British music scene at the dawn of the 1980s.
Piloted by Michael as the principal songwriter/composer, Wham!’s infectious hits including “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Wham! Rap,” “Everything She Wants,” “I’m Your Man,” “Club Tropicana,” and “Last Christmas” helped elevate the duo to global superstardom from 1982 to 1986.
But 1984's “Careless Whisper,” a solo Michael performance tucked away on the group’s second LP Make it Big, confessed Michael's reverence and genuine knowledge of rhythm and blues. The jazzy, melancholic atmosphere of “Careless Whisper” signified Michael's solo aspirations outside of the Wham! bubble. Immediately upon he and Ridgeley separating at the height of their fame together, Michael went to work on furthering his individual legacy.
Long before Justin Timberlake hired Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley in order to be taken seriously as a post-pre-fab pop artist with contemporary R&B aspirations (read: affectations), Michael hunkered down alone to write, arrange, and produce his solo debut Faith (1987), one of the definitive British blue-eyed soul records of all time.
A critical, commercial, and creative triumph for Michael, Faith was nothing short of a blockbuster. It was an album that appealed to the MTV market, but was sophisticated enough for the adult base that had eluded him during his Wham! tenure. Thirty years removed from its arrival, the long player and its singles―“Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “I Want Your Sex” to name three―are as enthralling as they ever were.
The Faith project also saw Michael step his game up visually for the equally influential music videos. By exchanging his blouses, short-shorts, trainers, and coiffed pin-up look for cowboy boots, leather jackets, fitted jeans, shades, and an enviable five o’clock shadow, Michael's appropriation of the masculine ideal made him a sex symbol that crossed the borders of sexual orientation.
The boon of Faith threatened to eclipse Michael, but he refused to repeat himself for the sake of commerce. With a second LP more musically and lyrically expressive than Faith, Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 (1990) was a conversation starter upon release. Commercially, the record performed fairly, but it was deemed a “successful failure” by cynical critics. The record also became the flashpoint for Michael's conflict with his label Sony Music regarding their systemic promotional politics and attempted suppression of his creative appetites.
All of that dressed the stage for Michael's third effort Older (1996). A keen blend of modern soul and grown-up pop emphasized on the razor sharp stepper “Fastlove” and the dark, dank jazz of “Spinning the Wheel,” the record was a chart smash at home in England and other key world markets. Sadly, Michael had lost his momentum stateside and Older's reception was muted there.
But the true power of Older resonated in that it was an accidental coming out record for Michael, whose sexuality had been hidden in plain sight if one listened closely to songs like “One More Try” or “Cowboys and Angels.”
It was more than the omission of specific pronouns, rather, it was the nuance of gay heartbreak and struggle threaded throughout Older, charging material like the aforementioned “Spinning the Wheel,” “Jesus to a Child,” “The Strangest Thing,” and “You Have Been Loved,” the latter Michael's finest hour as a lyrical storyteller.
Older felt like a portent to his very public outing in 1998, but in true Michael fashion, he turned what could have been a humiliating incident into humorous inspiration for the tongue-in-cheek retro modern disco of the 1998 single “Outside.” The song became a requisite hit single and spearheaded his first hits collection, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael (1998). In the larger scheme of Michael's personal life, the “Outside” period signified his integrity to step fully into his truth as an out (and proud) gay man.
Michael's second decade drew to a close on a continued upswing. His fourth album Songs From the Last Century (1999) was an ambitious covers record that mixed pre-rock standards with contemporary compositions, and it charted favorably in the United Kingdom. Michael's captivating collaboration with Mary. J. Blige on their cover of the Stevie Wonder staple “As” in 1999 was another coup, though not a surprising one. The Blige duet was one of many for Michael; through the years he'd duet with a range of women in soul music that also included Aretha Franklin (“I Knew You Were Waiting”), Jody Watley (“Learn to Say No”), Lisa Stansfield (“These Are the Days of Our Lives”), the late Whitney Houston (“If I Told You That”), and the Sugababes’ Mutya Buena (“This is Not Real Love”).
As Michael entered the 2000s, he did it with panache and a pinch of controversy. The kinky digital funk of “Freeek!” and loose synth-pop of “Shoot the Dog” (with an interpolation of The Human League's “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”) caused a stir with the public due to their partnering music videos and subject matter upon release as singles in 2002. “Shoot the Dog” in particular drew ire for calling out the alliance of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American president George W. Bush. Both singles were included on Michael's fifth (and final) studio album Patience (2004).
Patience secured Michael's established dominance in the United Kingdom as a hitmaker with critical acclaim in his third decade. Additionally, two large scale world tours followed in 2006 and 2011, with another hits package and live album orbiting those tours respectively. Yet, Michael's personal ills seemed to overtake any musical achievement in that third act of his career.
In lieu of the trials and tribulations the singer faced before his untimely departure two days ago on December 25th, it's hard not to ponder whether Michael was truly at peace? That unanswerable question increases the weight and tragedy of his loss, bringing home the reality that many LGBTQ people face much internal strife despite victories in recent years in gaining broader mainstream societal acceptance. But Michael never faltered and often managed to turn his darkest hours into musical stories to inspire people the world over. One can see Michael's influence in other artists too, both straight and queer, such as Will Young, Sam Sparro, Bright Light Bright Light, Nick Jonas, and Bruno Mars. This speaks to Michael's enduring appeal and unquestionable impact across the broader musical landscape.
George Michael's joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, all of it is heard in his music. It was a life lived in love and out loud for all to see. For his gay fans who he supported along the way with his own journey to self-acceptance, this is his greatest contribution. You have been loved, George.
STREAM George Michael’s Twenty Five (2006) here: