It could have been the pinstriped jacket. But credit the combination of thick generous hair and stubble. When George Michael, then and forever of Wham!, faced the camera in “Careless Whisper” (what a title!) and shared the story of how his character had acted like a cad, I felt the first stirrings of the homosexual lust I wouldn’t acknowledge for at least another decade. Before this look he’d tried tennis shorts — or wasit badminton attire? At any rate he and amiable non-equal Andrew Ridgeley had no use for clothes. From the young men imitating Duran Duran convincingly in “Club Tropicana,” pink cocktails and all (and free!), to the mulleted High Eighties cavorting in “The Edge of Heaven,” Wham! excelled at portraying guys on the make, eyes roving for the next pretty face and good party.
Distinguishing them from their New Pop peers was Michael’s songcraft, as much on the make as everything else about them. He understood saxophones. He understood Synclaviers. He understood Motown. He could belt and whisper. Like Bowie and Madonna, he realized that he could sell any image if his muse was forever on the move, driving like a demon from station to station. And, boy, did he understand The Career Move. First: record an embalmed duet with Aretha Franklin that stayed at #1 for two weeks in the spring of 1987, to date the Queen’s only British chart topper, which should tell you something about Michael’s persuasive powers (I can’t top Tom Ewing’s dismissal: “Simon Climie appears to have written the track using a set of gospel magnetic fridge poetry. Low valleys, high mountains, deep rivers, faith, destiny, spirit”). Next: release a single, several months before his first in-name solo album, tied to the forgotten Beverly Hills Cop sequel, that was as much an ambiguous come-on as “Papa Don’t Preach.” A bait and switch, actually: if she’s made up her mind and is keeping the baby, then George reminds listeners that sex is natural and sex is good when it’s one on one. That “I Want Your Sex” coincided with the phony heterosexual AIDS panic didn’t take away from its subtle endorsement of any kind of diddling so long as it was monogamous and safe. Best, he sang with the detached pep of an enthusiastic PE teacher giving his first sex ed lecture; no one would think he had ever done the missionary.
The album it heralded was the first that dominated my pop imagination. Promising a different look on every single, Faith was the apotheosis of the ’80s obsession with the crossmarket crossover. Unlike Tina Turner, though, Michael produced the record himself and played almost every note. Its most gratifying success? A rare #1 place on the American R&B chart. Those who weren’t there can’t fathom how big Faith was; only Thriller and Born in the U.S.A. were this omnipresent, plus those who freaked to Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The two singles I adored came late in the release cycle: Miami’s Y-100 blasted the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remix of “Monkey” through August 1988, as relentless, as conversant in hip-hop idioms as anything coming out of Def Jam (scratches, “Planet Rock” synth, Michael’s interjected “SNARE!”); and the ravaged “One More Try,” a Casio keyboard demo over which Michael lamented a doomed romance with a teacher who promised worse things that young George didn’t have to learn.
A confused youth learning to read signs and symbols, I heard something discordant about the depths of Michael’s yearning. Sure, Rod Stewart had written his own elegy for an educational tryst with an older woman, but he sounded merely pained. The hysteria expended by Michael seemed disproportionate to the scenario. Straight guys don’t yearn like this; if anything, the pop world has way too many “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”s in its repertoire. The first overt clue came years later in Michael’s last American top ten “Fastlove,” in which he tries to coax an available yum-yum into his BMW because he saw “lovin’ in his eyes.” By 1996, however, no one in the Western world had illusions about George Michael’s heterosexuality. The fact that Older and its singles struggled for American airplay and sales affirmed it; in the year of The Birdcage and the Defense of Marriage Act he could enjoy Soundscan-era catalog sales for “Careless Whisper” and Faith while few gave a damn about the queen’s new music. The rest of the world told a different story about Older, as I learned when I visited London the following summer and heard “Star People ’97” everywhere. Like the Pet Shop Boys’ “Can You Forgive Her,” 1998’s “Outside” was a belated acknowledgment of received knowledge, enlivened by Michael’s obvious relief, not to mention his kinky joy in dressing like the Village Person who wore a cop outfit.
When his personal life turned careless, he didn’t lose his ability with a whisper, but after 2004’s ironically named Patience he lost interest in a mass audience that had grown up with him. He put more energy into getting arrested than recording songs. As perverse as this sounds — I wish George the best — I can think of no better rebuke to contemporary notions of homosexual maturity. Yet “Fastlove,” “Outside,” and tracks like Patience‘s “Precious Box” suggest the kind of thump-thump a randy gay man in his fifties could record should he remember that this same mass audience is ready for these stories and beats in 2016. Unlike Scissor Sisters he can sing them; think of how the writer of “Freedom ’90” and “Too Funky” would flourish in this nu-house environment. And he could look the part: during the Blair/Clinton era former mentor Elton John was old and toupeed and as sexless as a spinster aunt in a Saki short story while Michael looked like George Clooney playing Tom Cruise’s vampire.
Don’t let these observations fool you. George Michael has been an indissoluble part of my life since the fifth grade without disturbing my canon. But as I creep towards the age when in the absence of security I make my way into the night I’m realizing how much I’ve underestimated him. Anticipating the ILM poll whose results were posted today, I went on a binge. I’m still discovering songs. “Precious Box” I’ve mentioned, but what about 1990’s “Heal the Pain”? The acoustic hook and multitracked harmonies are so delectable that Paul McCartney dueted with him in a live cover. What about the bossa nova lilt of “Cowboys and Angels”? (Everyone, it seems, was wrong about Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. except Michael.) For such a former megastar his catalog is approachable and un-vast. Spotify eases the experience of dipping. For men and women who watched him jump holding the shuttlecocks, reacquainting oneself with him will yield surprising rewards; for my younger readers who get Prince and Madonna, here was the other weirdo, the most human of him all. Look at that stubble: it was begging to be fluffed by human hands.