The elusive legacy of George Michael

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In 1984, George Michael released a song called “Freedomwith his pop duo Wham! Six years later, he released one of his titled “Freedom! ’90. And six years later? A song called “Freeclosed his third solo album, “Older”.

The specifics of the liberation he describes in each piece vary; so does the British singer’s form of stardom at the time he wrote each one. But listening to these songs now – half a decade after Michael’s shocking death at 53 and amid renewed interest in his work linked to several new retrospective projects – is to come face to face with the fact that the reason for which he kept singing about freedom is because he kept not finding it.

“George’s life was marked by disappointment,” says James Gavin, author of an exhaustive and empathetic biography, “George Michael: A Life”, published this week. “Despite all the tragedy I uncovered while writing this book, despite all the sadness of childhood and the unhealed wounds of her relationship with her father and the loss of the great love of her life to AIDS, nothing of all this has finally taken precedence over joy. in his music.

George Michael on the world tour of Wham! in 1985.

(Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Gavin is right about this: From “Wake me up before you go” at “Faith” at “I want your sex” at “fast love“Michael’s classic songs practically vibrate with exuberance, his gut-singing between a growl and a coo, the cleverly detailed grooves (which he crafted as his own writer and producer) always push further. Even his slower and sad – “careless Whisper,” “One more try,” “pray for time– have a kind of gloomily ecstatic quality, as if he couldn’t bear to stop basking in their melancholy.

The purity of emotion in Michael’s music, not to mention his beauty and quick wit, is what made him a superstar in the 80s and 90s, with 21 top 10 hits (including 10 no. ° 1) on Billboard’s Hot 100. In 1985, he and his Wham! his partner Andrew Ridgeley became the first major Western pop group to play in China; in 1989, Michael’s first solo album, “Faith”, won album of the year at the Grammy Awards.

Yet compared to the other titans of the MTV era – Madonna and Michael Jackson and Prince and Bruce Springsteen – Michael’s legacy seems less secure today than those of his former peers with Broadway shows and Hollywood biopics and Hollywood biopics. obvious stylistic heirs. (Try to name a current artist who comes as close to emulating George Michael as The Weeknd does to Michael Jackson.)

What makes his ghostly presence, at least in this country, particularly curious is that in many ways Michael was laying important groundwork for future pop stars, even if he’s not the primary source of inspiration. inspiration they cite. Think of Michael’s gender-smooth performance for an audience of adoring female fans and the path that opened up for Harry Styles. Consider his legal battle with Sony Music over what he saw as an unfairly restrictive contract and the precedent he set for Taylor Swift to wage war on Scooter Braun. Think of his successful transition, later replicated by Styles and Swift, from a lucrative gum factory gig with Wham! to a widely recognized role as an adult author beginning with “Faith”.

There is also, of course, the temptation to see Michael as a queer icon, which he certainly was to many.

“George was a great pioneer,” says songwriter Justin Tranter, who has written hits for Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, among others, and is a member of GLAAD’s board of directors. “I mean, Wham! was the most fabulously gay thing that ever happened.

But as Gavin documents in his deeply researched book, for which he spoke with more than 200 people in the singer’s orbit, Michael was an imperfect spokesperson – a man for whom the burden of coming out of the closet was as oppressive as the burden to stay in.

Why this reluctance? Gavin describes the overwhelming fear of his father’s disapproval, an idea shared by manager Michael Lippman, who oversaw the singer’s career (along with Rob Kahane) during “Faith” and was managing him again at the time of his death. “George didn’t want to come out to his family,” Lippman told The Times.

But there was also obvious professional risk for a pop idol who had built a following in part through his skillful use of traditional male iconography. Here, in 2022, we’d like to think that pop music has cast off its old prejudices – that a gay musician wouldn’t have to face the kind of choices that Michael made. Still, Tranter points out that “we’ve still never – never, never, ever – had a superstar who started their career in the closet.”

Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Sam Smith, Lil Nas X – each was only able to own the fullness of their identity after achieving success. And once they stepped out, their queerness came to define their music in the public eye, a fate Michael actively resisted; for some, like Smith, coming out arguably stunted the trajectory of their careers. So it’s not hard to see why Michael refused to answer the question or why some of those who worked with him sought some kind of plausible denial.

“People were asking me if he was gay and I didn’t have the answer,” Lippman says. “I wasn’t shy.”

A man in glasses stands in the middle of a crowd of photographers and spectators

George Michael at the start of his lawsuit against Sony Music Entertainment in 1993.

(Alistair Grant/Associated Press)

In this context, 1996’s “Older” is particularly fascinating to revisit; indeed, it was the first of Michael’s albums to spark the interest of Gavin, whose previous books told the stories of Lena Horne, Peggy Lee and Chet Baker. Scheduled for re-release in August as a deluxe box set, ‘Older’ was released two years before Michael rose to fame following his arrest for lewd conduct in a men’s room at Will Rogers Memorial Park. from Beverly Hills. Yet the songs, which Gavin likens to a “set of diary entries”, fondly depict his romantic relationship with Anselmo Feleppa, whom he met in Brazil in 1991 and who died just two years later.

Michael’s singing of tunes like the lavish bossa-nova-inspired “Jesus to a Child” is the sweetest he’s ever recorded, even as the song’s lyrical conceit circumvents various cultural taboos. “I thought that was really brave,” says Lenny Waronker, the recording veteran who ran Michael’s fledgling label, DreamWorks Records, which launched with the release of “Older’s.” “He was an artist looking to do something that wasn’t necessarily predictable.”

According to Gavin, ‘Older’ was Michael’s favorite album – and also the one where ‘gay people knew George spoke to them’, though its sometimes coded language may have limited its wider standing as a queer touchstone. .

The singer’s attempt to control how his work was perceived — to control how he himself was perceived — was a guideline in his life, and it remains one now that he’s gone. Last week, Michael’s estate released an expanded edition of a documentary called — what else? — “George Michael: Freedomwhich he made with lifelong friend David Austin before Michael was found dead at his home on Christmas Day 2016.

A quick account of his rise to global stardom, the new cut of the film improves on the original slightly, with the addition of some touching footage of Michael and Feleppa to go along with all the gushing talking head interviews. But it is still a superficial veneer on a life of considerable complexity. Unlike Gavin’s book, the film has virtually nothing to say about the last decade and a half of Michael’s life, when he struggled mightily to find a creative spark (and struggled even more with drug addiction).

Of the decision to release the film just days before the publication of his unauthorized biography, Gavin – who has heard that the estate “isn’t happy with the book at all” – says: “Make it what you want. The writer persuaded dozens of Michael’s collaborators and intimates to accompany him on the record, though Austin and a few others declined to speak. (Austin also declined to comment for this story.) Gavin is philosophical about the suspicions he encountered.

“Because George lived so much of his life in hiding, and because so many scandals enveloped his later life, anyone who appears like me asking questions is bound to be considered one of those Sun guys” , he says, referring to the talkative British tabloid.

Yet modern pop stardom relies to some degree on letting your public image run wild in the wake of social media, which perhaps explains why George Michael, or the idea of ​​him at any rate, feels less connected to our times than it should.

Pop duo Wham!, wearing matching white t-shirts with the band's name on them, perform on stage.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham! perform at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1983.

(Pete Still/Redferns via Getty Images)

Lippman, who ordered Gavin’s book from Amazon – “I’m curious,” he says – insists he has a plan to maintain the singer’s legacy. “It was very slow and quiet because of his family,” the manager said. “It’s a matter of doing the right things at the right time.”

When asked if any material exists in a vault like the one Prince left behind, Lippman said, “He was working on stuff, but nothing was really finished. And until George finished the music, it wasn’t real.

But maybe the effort to keep Michael’s spirit alive doesn’t have to come from the top down. Tranter, who identifies as gender non-conforming and uses the pronouns they/them, says that at least once a month on TikTok they come across a clip of Michael’s 2004 interview with Oprah Winfreywhen the singer was touring to promote that year’s “Patience.”

“Are you worried that American fans – even now, with this new album – will accept you as a gay artist?” Winfrey asks.

“I have to be totally straightforward here,” Michael replies. “I’m not really interested in selling records to homophobic people.” He says it easily, betraying none of the effort it took him to come to such a conclusion. Then he smiles.

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