The world may forever remember him as the ’80s Wham! frontman who turned serious in the ’90s and in the next century retired from fame while generating tabloid infamy. But George Michael’s skill at singing, writing, producing and playing on most of his hits set him apart from most teenybop idols, as did the quality and durability of his tunes. More than 30 years after their release, young people know « Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, » « Careless Whisper » and « Faith. »
Yet beyond the distorting lenses of nostalgia and gossipy notoriety, the singer born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was a political artist who jettisoned most of fame’s trappings soon after they shackled him. Like many teen idols, he rebelled against his bubblegum role. Unlike many, he had the talent to transcend, and his victory no doubt inspired successors from Robbie Williams to Justin Timberlake.
It didn’t hurt that he could write and sing soul music with effortless power and grace. Like perhaps only Annie Lennox, he sang with Aretha Franklin without making a fool of himself on their 1987 chart-topper « I Knew You Were Waiting for Me. » He also acquitted himself well with Mary J. Blige in a 1999 remake of Wonder’s « As, » a UK hit, and on the duet version of Whitney Houston’s « If I Told You That, » in which he so mirrors the diva that one must listen closely to keep track of who’s singing what.
Years before the U.S. mainstream briefly took him seriously, R&B radio stations pumped Wham!’s 1985 chart-topper « Everything She Wants » between Prince and Rick James. Unlike so many other white soul men — but not unlike Elton John — George Michael didn’t need to be sold to black audiences. They decided they liked him on their own.
Part of this was that Michael was an outsider, too. His swarthy good looks read « ethnic » and set off gaydar upon impact. The U.S. remembers Wham! arriving as a seemingly overnight sensation with « Go-Go, » the lead single off their 1984 album Make It Big. But the duo’s first album, 1983’s Fantastic, radiated homoeroticism and cheeky critiques of heteronormative life. The duo’s earliest single, 1982’s « Wham Rap, » a UK Top 10 upon re-release in 1983, repudiated respectable work and advocated living on the dole — a daring move in Thatcher’s England. And the jaw-dropping video positions Michael as a leather-clad bad boy who yanks his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley from his parents’ clutches and leads him out of the closet with roof-raising gospel exuberance.
The Top of the Pops performance of « Young Guns (Go for It) » that made Wham! UK stars similarly positions Ridgeley as a newly married straight guy Michael saves from « death by matrimony. » By « Everything She Wants, » Michael already bristled against the traditional gender roles that came with opposite-sex attraction, and with his early solo work in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when his emotional connections with other men eclipsed his lingering physical attraction to women, he cast them aside completely.
Michael’s coming of age as a gay man coincided with his artistic maturity the way Motown acts like Wonder and Marvin Gaye grew as musicians while writing about their blackness: Neither he nor they could separate one from the other. The rising AIDS death toll in the ’80s and early ’90s and the homophobia it inspired shaped Michael’s solo career almost exactly the same way racism and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired much of Wonder and Gaye’s greatest work.