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Remembering George Michael, Pop Provocateur

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George Michael in his later years.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- With only a few days left in 2016, the general public was finally starting to relax and recover from a year marred by the loss of some of the most iconic figures of 20th century music, film, sports and more.

But Christmas Day got soured with the news that George Michael had passed away at the far-too-young age of 53 of apparent heart failure. 

The former Wham! frontman and provocative solo artist kept a rather low-profile the past few years. Michael’s last release was 2004’s Patience and his social media accounts were rarely updated. But the world felt the news of his death almost immediately, with tributes pouring in from every corner of the earth as fans mourned the loss of the iconic figure. 

“Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog (his nickname). Me, his loved ones, his friends, the world of music, the world at large. 4ever loved,” said former Wham! partner Andrew Ridgely on Twitter. “Cleft with grief.” 

Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Elton John are just some of the high-profile performers who’ve spoken out about Michael, his endless compassion, and extraordinary abilities. “Farewell My Friend. Another Great Artist leaves us,” Madonna tweeted. John said: “I have lost a beloved friend—the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans."

The reactions themselves speak loudly of Michael’s influence across generations of musicians. ‘80s mainstays like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran offered their respective condolences, as well as contemporary acts like Mark Ronson, Miley Cyrus, and Sam Smith. 

Michael’s death would be tragic at any time. But in a year that also saw the deaths of fellow icons like David Bowie and Prince, Michael’s passing stings especially hard. 

Selling more than 80 millions records worldwide in a career spanning nearly four decades, Michael is hardly an underdog. While he consistently topped the charts and lit up the stage by himself and with Wham!, it wasn’t without a whole lot of grit and personal struggle. Whether it was airing out his intensely-debated sexuality on Faith or redefining his image with the jazz-infused OIder, his work shows the stamp of an artist who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and play with audience expectations. 

Michael took his pop devotion seriously, injecting every fibre of his being into his now-classic ensembles and sneakily poignant songwriting. Some of his music may now be ridiculed for its overtly dated sound (That opening saxophone riff in “Careless Whisper?” Iconic.), but Michael always made sure the audience was along for his campy, glamorous ride. And wherever he is now, I think we call rest assured knowing he’s already dusting off his black leather jacket and putting on that gold cross earring before launching into “Father Figure” or any number of his signature tunes.


1. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” - Pete Burns of ‘80s New Wave group Dead or Alive once said of Wham!: “They’re just two toothpaste ads with a microphone, aren’t they?” He’s not exactly wrong, but why does that have to be a bad thing? After all, is there any image from the ‘80s more indelible than the one of Michael wearing an oversized sweatshirt declaring “CHOOSE LIFE”? How about the one of him and Ridgely wearing short shorts and fingerless gloves in the video for Wham!’s first big number-one hit in the US and UK? Michael famously told SPIN in 1987, “Go-Go’ was not a reflection of my personality, it was a reflection of my craft,” and the song is a sugar-coated tribute to vintage Motown that’s still impossible not to sing along to today. 


2. George Michael & Morrissey on BBC’s Eight Days A Week - It’s hard to think of a chat show appearance as bizarre as this 1984 one where Morrissey and George Michael debate everything from Joy Division to breakdancing. Wearing a sequined tank-top and using lots of elaborate hand gestures, the appearance is a prime example of Michael’s cheeky sense of humor and filter-free opinions on pop culture. Seeing him butt heads with Morrissey as they answer fan questions makes this one of the best unscripted gems of the ‘80s. 


3. “Last Christmas” - You’ve probably been too busy butchering this song on karaoke at your office Christmas party to realize how surprisingly touching it is. For all of it’s heavy synth beats and breathy vocals, “Last Christmas” is a touching tribute to lost love and the heartache that comes with it. It’s been covered hundreds of times and regularly played on holiday radio stations for a reason: It’s just truly that great.

4. “Madonna’s Hot New Romance With Rocker George Michael” - Although the public always speculated about Michael’s sexual orientation, his homosexuality wasn’t common knowledge until the late ‘90s. Which means that like any hunky male superstar of the ‘80s, Michael’s personal life was constantly scrutinized and fed into the rumor mill, with Michael being linked to everyone from Madonna to Brooke Shields. I can only imagine the giggling fits that ensued when Madonna and Michael read a story detailing how their “sizzling new romance is rapidly dealing a fatal blow to her relationship with aging Romeo Warren Beatty.”

5. Faith era - During his Wham! years, Michael was a cute and bubbly boy with puppy-dog eyes and a luscious head of hair. But when he broke ties with Ridgely and went solo in 1987, his resulting solo debut Faith presented us with a brand-new, sexed-up version of Michael. In the title track’s simple music video, Michael didn’t need anything more than some rugged stubble, a pair of Levi’s blue jeans, and a leather jacket draped with a string of pearls to win us over. With gratuitous close-ups of his gyrating butt and a new, stripped-down look, Michael renounced his frivolous days with Wham! and entered a new, hyper-sexualized phase of his career. And given that “Faith” became the top-selling single of 1988 and the album sold over 25 million copies, audiences were lapping it up. 


6. Faith World Tour - If you need any further proof of Michael’s incredible stage presence, just look up footage from his legendary Faith World Tour. Most of the performances are just Michael by himself on the stage, singing his heart out and driving the boys and girls crazy with every thrust and grind. Michael oozes sex every second of these performances, from his opening performance of “I Want Your Sex” to the angelic closer “Careless Whisper.” During a time when most male performers could be either rugged (Bruce Springsteen) or effeminate (Freddie Mercury), Michael blurred the lines and showed that there was no right way to be a man.


7. "Freedom! 90" - Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford among other ‘90s supermodels lip-sync to this 1990 hit in the David Fincher-directed video, and the results are iconic. The song and its accompanying album presents a new view of Michael, who grew more cynical about the music industry and sought to stretch himself as an performer in ways the general public and his label wouldn’t seem to let him. When the jukebox and leather jacket from Michael’s previous “Faith” video are set on fire and torn apart in this clip, it’s more than just a nifty visual: It’s a statement from an artist whose had enough.


8. George Michael as a gay icon - It’s hard to put to words just how important Michael is as an LGBT figure. Even if his sexual orientation wasn’t clearly defined until later in his career, he always presented a sort of sexual fluidity in both his musical career and public persona. The embarrassment of how he was outed, via an arrest by an undercover cop in sting operation for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public restroom, and his nuanced and thoughtful response to it are to be applauded. As a popular gay performer, Michael would’ve been an LGBT icon by default simply by existing in the first place. But he stands as one of the most prominent examples for his generous charitable donations, work campaigning for LGBT rights, and fundraising for HIV-AIDS charities among other activities.  

9. A-List Collaborations - Michael is a legend in his own right, but he truly shined most when he was performing with those who inspired him. His work with Whitney Houston on “If I Told You That” is a shimmery post-disco anthem that’s just as delightfully campy as it sounds. When he brought out Elton John at Wembley Arena in 1991 to duet on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” the results were goose bump-inducing. Michael always spoke so adoringly of Aretha Franklin and the influence he had on her, and that sense of glee is readily apparent when he finally got to sing with her on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” And while Queen’s “Somebody To Love” is untouchable, Michael’s cover of the tune at a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert would’ve made the late Queen frontman more than proud. 


10. His bold sense of humor - Michael’s sense of playfulness is legendary, and his lack of a filter always made for an interesting interview, like when he told The Advocate in 1999: “I don’t think you can base your sexuality around anything other than the people you fall in love with. When I was younger I slept with men and women, and I didn’t fall in love at all.” In the wake of his arrest for engaging in public sex with an undercover police officer, Michael released a song satirizing the incident entitled “Outside.” The music video even featured two men dressed as police officers kissing, which is a perfect example of the way Michael operated, turning what was then a global scandal into fodder for his art. 

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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