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George Michael, pop icon, dies at 53

Known for hits like “Faith” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Michael and his success led to new openness in discussing sexuality.

2012 Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony
George Michael performs at the closing ceremony of the 2012 summer Olympic Games in London.
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Singer and pop icon George Michael has died at his home in the UK at the age of 53. Police said they are currently treating the cause of death as unexplained, but there were no suspicious circumstances in Michael’s death, according to the BBC.

Michael performed some of the biggest pop hits of the ’80s

Michael, born in London in 1963 as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, first rose to acclaim as part of the duo Wham!. He began performing with Andrew Ridgeley under that name in 1981 at the age of 18. The band’s first album, Fantastic, released in 1983, was a smash in the UK, but it would take until second album Make It Big, which hit No. 1 on the charts in the US as well, to attain international success.

Make It Big contained a number of chart-topping hits, including the band’s breakthrough single, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” and the ballad “Careless Whisper,” which hit No. 2 in more than two dozen countries and was the first hit to feature Michael as a solo performer.

During his years in Wham!, Michael also contributed to two ’80s Christmas staples, the Wham! single “Last Christmas” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for which he served as part of a massive chorus of pop stars singing to raise awareness and funds for the Ethiopian famine.

Michael began making forays into performing as a solo artist in the mid-’80s and finally released his first solo album, Faith, featuring the smash hit of the same name, in 1987. “I Want Your Sex” from the same album hit No. 2, despite being hampered by controversy around its title, especially in the US.

Michael’s final commercial smash as a solo artist came in 1990, with Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. The album’s title reflected his growing desire to be taken seriously as a recording artist and not just as a crafter of perfect, ephemeral pop trinkets. He continued to record, amassing six Grammy nominations (including two in 2005) as well as two wins over his solo career. The last album released when he was alive was 2014’s Symphonica, but he never again reached the heights of his early career.

And yet Michael’s legacy rests almost entirely on his work in the ’80s, give or take “Freedom 90” from the 1990 release. His body of work, held up as hopelessly whitebread but also secretly amazing, is even fodder for a major running joke in the 2016 comedy Keanu. (Michael’s longtime manager Michael Lippmann described the Keanu gag as “a golden opportunity” to Billboard.)

There’s good reason for that — his ’80s pop hits are pretty awesome.

George Michael understood pop music intuitively — but also understood how visuals could make his music even more memorable

For anyone who had listened to radio in the ’80s and early ’90s, Michael was an inescapable figure. He loved all kinds of music — he once cited Joy Division as a fixture growing up — but the man was drawn to pop music.

“I remember sitting in Andrew Ridgley’s bedroom when we were kids and hearing the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’. I remember being in awe of the perfection of it — they’d made this perfect commercial record,” Michael said in 2011.

His songs would become just as popular and just as standard-bearing as the ones he had been so in awe of. As a part of Wham!, Michael had a hand in hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Last Christmas” — giant pop hits that people love both earnestly and ironically.

And as a solo artist, Michael had a knack for unabashed indulgence. “I Want Your Sex,” with its grunts and “woohas,” was one of the biggest songs of his career, despite censorship and controversy. And songs like “Careless Whisper” and “Father Figure” showcased Michael’s magic ability to make a pop song feel like an intimate or even lonely story that only you were listening to:

Michael’s most iconic achievement came in connecting his indomitable sense of pop music with a deep understanding of visuals, especially in the “Freedom! 90” music video, directed by David Fincher.

The song and video work in unison as a canny look at celebrity. Pieces of Michael iconography (a leather jacket and jukebox, among others) burn as Michael sings, “I just hope you understand / sometimes the clothes do not make the man.”

Instead of Michael appearing in the music video, supermodels — Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell — appeared and lip-synced the song. “Freedom” was a collision of fashion and music, style and substance. It’s impossible to listen to that song and not think of its video:

Michael was a pop music icon who not only created some of the industry’s biggest hits but also influenced the way people thought about presenting those hits, and the art and message behind them.

Michael also served as a breakthrough in public discussion of homosexuality

Rumors about Michael’s sexual orientation dogged him throughout the 1980s. Though he had several short-lived flings with women while in Wham!, and came out as bisexual at 19, he was, he told the UK’s GQ magazine in 2004, “emotionally ... a gay man.” He said:

When I walk into a restaurant I check out the women before the men, because they're more glamorous. If I wasn't with [then-partner] Kenny [Goss], I would have sex with women, no question. But I would never be able to have a relationship with a woman because I'd feel like a fake. I regard sexuality as being about who you pair off with, and I wouldn't pair off with a woman and stay with her. Emotionally, I'm definitely a gay man.

Michael’s sexuality became even more of a point of discussion in 1998, when he was arrested for engaging in a “lewd act” in a public restroom at a Beverly Hills park. Michael eventually pleaded no contest to the charge, paying a fine and serving community service.

But where other stars had been destroyed by such charges, Michael pushed back not only against having his image tarnished but against the idea that sex between men was somehow criminal, with a music video for his song “Outside” featuring police officers kissing and a 1999 interview with the Advocate in which he came out as gay. (The music video prompted a lawsuit from the police officer who had arrested Michael, but the court eventually found in Michael’s favor.)

In that sense, Michael’s arrest and subsequent refusal to apologize for who he was in public marked the growing openness of LGBTQ celebrities in the late 1990s. As with several other ’80s pop stars — notably Madonna and Prince — his openness about sex and sexuality was a major part of his persona. He wasn’t going to apologize for who he was, because who he was had brought him to stardom in the first place.

And as he aged, Michael became increasingly open about his life — his politics, his relationships, even his drug use (which also got him into occasional trouble with the law). It was sometimes as if the mega-stardom he achieved in the ’80s had hardened him against anything that could be thrown at him.

Michael might never have again achieved the level of fame he found in the ’80s, but that was beside the point. Simply by becoming famous during the time period when he did, Michael helped open up the conception of what pop music could be, whom it could be for, and what it could be about.

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