George Michael and ‘ queer plausible deniability’

When David Bowie died almost a year ago, I remember no eulogists arguing that his place in the rock canon wasn’t deserved. His acceptance began in the late nineties as a generation of Billy Corgans absorbed his sounds and wannabe poseurs appropriated his queerness. When I adumbrated that his canonicity rested on how he presented himself as a fan first, hence the fascination with experiments, I was hoping no one saw him precisely as another Billy Corgan — a rock and roller who worked for appreciation in the conventional manner.

But the late George Michael never got these chances, Aja Romero writes, because unlike Bowie he saw himself as pop first:

This need to universalize Bowie’s gender and sexuality along with his music isn’t a coincidence. Prince and Bowie were queer icons, but they were allowed to be queer icons with plausible deniability precisely because their music crossed over into more universal forms of rock. As long as they could perform on stages alongside more traditional rockers, they could code themselves as queer without ever having to defend or justify their sexuality.

But Michael started out as a pop idol whose music was dismissed as frivolous by critics for decades. He was rarely taken seriously as a musician, so his queerness was never allowed to have plausible deniability. He was robbed of that deniability through his arrest and forced outing, but well before that, as we see in the Rolling Stone article, his attempts at coding — the longstanding Hollywood practice of identifying as queer subtextually, not publicly — were called out and dismissed.

To cut the yobs minor slack, Michael disappeared for half of the nineties. Yet when he released Older it got no American promotion; I still find it inexplicable that one of the world’s biggest stars could barely ship platinum in 1996 while breaking every British chart record. Then he got the same treatment every rocker over forty got in the TRL era.

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