The girls in my 10th grade madrigals class could not get enough of him: the short shorts, oh-so-’80s stubble and earrings, and of course the videos for songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants” (a bitter song about failing marriage disguised a pop confection).
If they weren’t playing Wham and singing along to every word, they were pouring over pictures of George Michael in magazines — what we were limited to in the well-before-the-Internet era.
George Michael was built for the MTV era and took full advantage of it, ranking right up there with the Duran Duran guys and Adam Ant as imported male sex symbols of the mid-’80s that also had some really good songs – the latter being something it took us jealous guys a while to realize.
But George Michael ultimately did a lot more than just help spike the sales of teen magazines and MTV viewership before his untimely death Christmas day. In a solo career that started after Wham’s dissolution in 1986, he delivered some great, provocative pop music, in many ways paralleling Madonna, and became something of an accidental cultural leader.
He was also dogged by many of the demons common in pop music, from substance abuse and run-ins with the law to legal troubles related to his music.
It was his 1998 arrest for lewd behavior in a Los Angeles public restroom that prompted Michael to come out as gay. Major artists coming out were not as common then as they are now, and later on, Michael admitted that his bisexuality while in Wham and early in his solo career was purposely hidden. The admission, while not under ideal circumstances, gave the LGBTQ movement another prominent public figure at a time support for gay rights was gaining momentum.
It added even more dimensions to Michael’s 1990 hit “Freedom 90,” already a pivotal song in his career that featured him burning the bridge to his ’80s persona lyrically, and literally in the music video.
He continued recording into the 1990s and 21st century, charting hits such as “Amazing” and the Whitney Houston duet “If I Told You That,” to go with earlier career solo hits such as “Faith” and “Father Figure.” On most all of his work, Michael served as studio band and producer, showing a musical prowess well beyond his early pretty-boy persona.
But what could never escape notice was his voice, a soulful and expressive instrument effective in dance hits, ballads and sad songs, like the now-ironically-title Wham holiday hit, “Last Christmas.”
The purity of that voice took center stage in July 1985 at Live Aid, the globally-telecast concert for world hunger. Elton John invited Michael – along with Wham bandmate Andrew Ridgeley — to sing his hit “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” It was a revelatory performance of the song that told a lot of us who had discounted the once-teen idol that there was much more to him as a person and an artist. For the rest of his life, he proved that notion right.