The song that truly ushered him in as indispensible was “Everything She Wants”. It was indelible the moment I heard it, and not just for the beauty of the synths and vocals (all written, produced, and arranged by Michael). There was something more. Inside the song was a very subversive, feminine approach to marriage. It was, in fact, a sensibility I too was experiencing, a sensibility I already shared. It was gayness: bitchy, cool, sarcastic, and passionate. George wasn’t just playing the spurned husband; he was playing the wife, too! A thrill of recognition ran through me.
For the rest of the 80s each new song built on this sensibility: one moment bragging of his sexual prowess (“Faith”, “I Want Your Sex”, “Hard Day”) and the next playing the long-suffering female (“A Different Corner”, “One More Try”, and yes! “Father Figure”). George Michael could project male or female with complete fluidity, and no irony. He never really camped (like Boy George) but instead existed as a hybrid. It should be remembered that Wham! was partner Andrew Ridgely’s idea: to get hits, go completely over-the-top and make a ridiculous impression. He could never have known how quickly George would absorb and transcend that image nearly instantly, or what a genius for writing personal songs he would develop. George was pure talent. He was seductive.
Very few pop stars create their own category (Michael Jackson, Prince, Bowie, Madonna) and George was one of the very select. But no one distilled gayness as he did. It was never cat and mouse with him – instead, he was its essence. By the time the business side had overwhelmed him (post “Faith”, pre “Older”) he was trapped, desperately trying to resolve his status as an icon. Because it came out of him so naturally I am not sure he ever understood his success. So he hid. He disappeared from his videos and into drugs, sued Sony for a release from his contract (“slavery”) and basically retired right in front our lusty eyes. All the public wanted was more George. Fun George. Cheeky George. The greatest irony and sadness of his later life is that George, the man who taught me so much about gayness, had such a terrible time functioning as a gay man. As an “out” person he seemed so much like a caged animal, unable to resolve the dichotomy of his gifts and our strange fixation on his sex.
It has been said that fame is a crucible. But what is there to be forged from the creature that penned the glorious “Careless Whisper” on a city bus at the tender age of 17? Like the ancient Greeks George Michael was only ever meant to be golden, and like St. Sebastian he was already beautifully pierced. He had some wonderful things to say as an older man, and an out one, but they did not match the delicious ironies of his early presence. The very first songs with Wham! hold up for being oddly mature. I will always be grateful for the day I saw him smiling up at me and mouthing the words to “Wake Me Up”. I am not sure that I expected he would stay. But I never imagined he’d go away - it all felt so eternal.
Hiding in plain sight is one of the oldest forms of drag. One just operated in their societal role and signified from within. George telegraphed this idea beautifully, but as a star. He was the costume and the closet, and could convey many messages at once: ordinary, glam, hard working, self-serious, wounded or horny. But to do it most perfectly, he needed his youth and he needed his beauty, even though as an old soul he understood neither. As one of our stealthiest gay men he crept up on us all, took our hearts, and left us way too soon.
But that is love. That is a love song.
George Michael, 1963-2016