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George Michael’s Outrageous Confidence

The ’80s icon was a master of reinvention and a pop star for the ages

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The opening line “You put the boom-boom into my heart” is no way to launch a pop music career, in this country or any other, on this planet or any other. And yet there was George Michael, hair immaculate, teeth blinding, earrings gleaming, wearing short shorts and what looked, from a distance, like dishwashing gloves, selling a deliriously campy bit of gentrified Motown called, yikes, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” We were confounded, scandalized, wildly amused, totally smitten. We meaning America, leaning forward even as we recoiled. It was 1984. An MTV superstar was born, a pastel lover boy nonpareil. He would teach us many things, a few by accident.

This cartoonishly accursed year has claimed George Michael, too. He was found dead, apparently due to heart failure, on Christmas Day at the age of 53. To explain how ungodly huge George Michael was, in the ’80s and early ’90s especially, requires explaining how ungodly huge MTV was, and how it needed confounding and scandalizing young superstars just as much as they needed MTV. Like David Bowie, he understood that The Look only deepened The Sound, molting before our eyes, turning artifice into art, every controversy just a new opportunity. And like Prince, he used that audio/visual disruption to fuel a string of monster pop hits. His lascivious 1987 solo debut Faith was a greatest-hits collection, an all-universe totem all its own. It stands as the capstone to a sterling and outrageous career full of songs so ubiquitous you could use their ubiquity as a joke, and he could use it as a weapon.

Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London in 1963, a teenage Michael started the brazen new-pop duo Wham! with his high school buddy and fellow ska-band refugee Andrew Ridgeley, topping the U.K. charts with their first album, 1983’s Fantastic. “Hey everybody, take a look at me,” he rapped. “I’ve got street credibility.” No, seriously. No band has ever worked harder to earn its exclamation point.

Borne by “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!’s Make It Big made them stars in America, too. Them meaning him. MTV could be cruel that way. Ridgeley looks like a contest-winning extra in his own video; despite literally singing, “I’m not plannin’ on goin’ solo,” Michael was in fact doing so before the album even ended with the solo-credited “Careless Whisper,” its gloriously corny sax riff a meme-generating phenomenon all its own. The fact that this looks like a karaoke video now did not detract from its appeal at the time. Nice trucker hat.

He did a hit duet with Aretha Franklin; he joined the choir for Band Aid’s U.K. all-star charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, one of two reasons you’ll hear his voice every holiday season for the rest of your life. (Here’s the other one; nice Brooding Parka.) Grooming himself for solo stardom required abandoning his uber-cheeseball origins; please enjoy this 1988 Rolling Stone cover story headlined “George Michael, Seriously” that immediately dismissed Wham! as a joke and touted his newfound artistic growth as a byproduct of his stubble. And if that didn’t convince you, this sure as hell would.

I will never forget the look on my Uncle Roger’s face when he caught 9-year-old me watching this video on MTV. The cowbell on “I Want Your Sex” is the single most pornographic sound in the history of recorded music; as Faith’s first single, it portended the zeitgeist siege to come. Recall the buoyant Bo Diddley beat of “Faith,” the torch-song lament “One More Try,” the tin-funk Jazzercise broadside “Monkey,” the supper-club crooner “Kissing a Fool.” And best of all, “Father Figure,” an objectively perfect song, an ecstatic silk-sheets gospel hymn, the sacred and profane inextricable. This guy titled a song “I Want Your Sex” — he had no time for metaphors.

Faith and some of its singles even topped Billboard’s then-active black music charts, and Michael made no attempt to conceal his pride, crowing to Jet magazine that scaling the pop charts was a lesser honor. Nearly three decades later, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key lovingly made him a racial-confusion subplot in Keanu. Back then was as big as he’d ever get, with anybody, with everybody.

In 1990 came his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, also not a metaphor. Blowing up his image this time required something bolder than growing a beard, so for the video for its third single, “Freedom! ’90,” he enlisted a young nobody named David Fincher to direct, stuffed it full of supermodels, refused to appear in it himself, and lit his iconic jacket from the “Faith” video on fire. Michael’s career phases were in constant, uneasy dialogue with one another. This was the moment that internal cold war went hot.

“Freedom! ’90” inspired some all-time-classic rock writing — see Joshua Clover’s pop-as-political-force manifesto 1989 for starters — but by then Michael was already hurtling inextricably tabloid-ward. At eight-million copies sold worldwide, Listen Without Prejudice was, hilariously in retrospect, a relative commercial disappointment (Faith sold 25 million) and primed the schadenfreude pump for his 1998 arrest for a “lewd act” in the public bathroom of a Beverly Hills park, which finally, definitively, forced him out of the closet.

By then, he’d already learned to lean into the undulating pop-star cycle, titling his 1996 album Older and stocking it with syrupy spa-treatment burners for folks who found Sade a little too manic. In the video for his first post-arrest single, 1998’s “Outside,” he, uh, dressed up as a cop. He laughed at himself an awful lot for someone who took himself so seriously.

Michael next did a covers album, 1999’s Songs From the Last Century, flexing another of his impressively rippling muscles — recall that time in his glory years when he washed Elton John on his own song. Patience came along in 2004 and revealed him to be … even older, though no less pristine and particular. Everyone loves a good spa treatment now and then. His last major work was 2014’s Symphonica, a live album that mostly avoids the obvious stuff; “One More Try” is a little bloated now, but the song survives the transition, sturdy and elemental and unassailable even after a great deal of assailing from within and without. Just like the guy who wrote it.

George Michael’s another one of those artists so casually groundbreaking that his achievements and personal revolutions look almost quaint and obvious now, making very difficult things look easy and incredibly awkward transitions look smooth and almost soothing. He never, for one second, had street credibility, but he had something better: The outrageous confidence to always pretend like he did, in victory and defeat alike. They don’t make ’em like him anymore. They never did. He made — and remade, and undid, and reinvented, and for longer than anyone could’ve guessed survived — himself.