I’ve been trying to process my feelings about the cultural outpourings of grief that have become a terribly common part of 2016 — specifically those surrounding the Christmas Day death of George Michael.
I am a culture nerd who is forever playing catch-up with pop culture; there are a lot of cultural icons whose worth I recognize intellectually rather than emotionally because they never happened to me. Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher — these are losses I felt on a cultural level rather than an individual one. I cried for them, but I cried more for the loss I knew everyone else was feeling than for the loss I felt myself.
It feels like sometimes we go through displays of cultural grief for the sake of it, because we recognize the sadness involved, even if we don’t feel that sadness particularly deeply. I get the sense that for many people — though certainly not all — George Michael was one of those polite shows of grief, done out of respect rather than emotion.
Not for me. I’m still processing what an impact Michael’s life, songs, and image had on me, and the weird sense of abnormality I feel while doing so is a stark reminder that George Michael was not like the other icons who died this year.
Unlike many of the queer icons who died this year, George Michael was actually an out gay man
As many media outlets have pointed out, alongside Prince and Bowie, Michael was one of three pop icons to die in 2016 who were also queer icons; he was also the only one of the trio who was actually an out gay man. Despite this — or possibly because of this — his passing seems to have made far fewer ripples outside of the queer community.
And frankly, that’s bullshit. George Michael, at the peak of his career, was one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. He was huge. Including his Wham! days and his duets with other artists, Michael had no fewer than 10 songs reach Billboard’s No. 1 spot throughout his career. In the UK his hit count was even higher, and his career notably outlasted the scandal over his 1998 arrest for “lewd acts,” when police targeted a seedy Beverly Hills bathroom, a known cruising location for gay men.
Possibly because I was a sheltered preteen just starting to feel the stirrings of adolescence, I vividly remember what a huge shock Michael was to America’s sexual mores during the era of 1987’s Faith. I remember the bombardment of media attention he drew, the hand-wringing over his embodiment of sex appeal, and the constant salacious teasing over whether he was gay.
All of this made an indelible mark on my sexual awareness. Sexual suppression and sexual rebellion in response were both constants in the Bible Belt, where I grew up. But the kind of sexual “Freedom” that George Michael was offering felt uniquely empowering and deviant in ways that I, a queer kid who would remain in denial about it for years, couldn’t yet parse. Instead, I remember listening to the lyrics of “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “I Want Your Sex” with a kind of dawning awe that it was possible to be this blunt about arousal.
As a typically repressed evangelical kid, my shame over a burgeoning interest in sex went hand in hand with a host of shame associated with being queer and genderqueer that I could barely begin to understand. And all that shame I felt was reinforced by the societal response to George Michael — not just to his songs, but to Michael himself. Even though Michael had a string of hits under his belt when he left Wham! to start his solo career, Rolling Stone wrote in 1988 that he was considered a “joke” with “no artistic credibility,” despite having written just two years earlier about “Michael's catchy, expertly crafted songwriting,” characterizing him as an obvious solo megastar held back by his association with a silly pop group.
Instead of focusing on his talent in that 1988 interview, Rolling Stone instead focused on his appearance, noting his “pretty boy” looks, his “bottle-blond hair and glittering gold earrings,” and his transformation into an all-black-clad adult.
But the writer, Steve Pond, couldn’t resist selling the transfigured yuppie version of Michael as a closeted myth, writing:
...the way he and [Wham! bandmate] Andrew Ridgeley preened and pouted in scanty shorts made a good many people assume that his liaisons with women were–and are–a bit of public-relations fiction.
This speculation took place years before Michael had acknowledged to himself that he was gay (he claimed to have described himself to close friends as bisexual during the Wham! years), and two years before he would respond ruefully in “Freedom! ’90” that “sometimes the clothes do not make the man.” According to his coming-out interview — the first he gave after his arrest — it was also three years before his first queer relationship. Over the course of his career, the media pushed Michael deeper into the closet, only to eventually force him out of it — with a vengeance.
In many ways, I feel like George Michael embodied my early sexual repression as well as my ultimate attitude of rebellion — an innate feeling that I don’t owe anyone a definition of my sexuality or any other part of my identity. Initially, I was ashamed that I was drawn to his frank, gleeful depiction of sexuality. I was afraid that I would be somehow punished for enjoying his peppy songs. And later, when Michael was, in his own words, entrapped by police, arrested, and forcibly outed as gay, I saw him as confirmation of my fear.
George Michael never received the cultural reappraisal he deserved while he was alive
This is where the story ends for a lot of people. George Michael’s career never recovered from the frenzied speculation over his sexuality, and by 1998 he was a cultural punchline; he’d become the lewd joke Rolling Stone had implied he was 10 years earlier.
In the 1988 Rolling Stone interview, Michael declared that he wanted to be as big as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince. He wanted, he said, to keep making music into the ’90s and beyond, to do “something to carry on, something that's really memorable, so the music becomes something historical. I think that my music deserves it.”
Michael was a brilliant songwriter who was able to combine paradoxical human emotions in lines of beautiful simplicity like “guilty feet have got no rhythm,” “if you kissed me now, I know you’d fool me again,” and “I don’t want to learn to hold you, touch you.” He undoubtedly had the talent to do everything he wanted to do and more. That he didn’t is a cultural indictment rather than a personal one.
After all, George Michael never stopped existing. He never stopped turning out music, never stopped performing, and never stopped being, from the moment he came out, a vocal and outspoken gay icon. It’s just that we all stopped listening. “I won’t let you down, so please don’t give me up,” he sang, “’cause I would really, really love to stick around.” But we gave him up anyway.
Unlike Prince and Bowie, Michael’s overt queerness and his pop career went hand in hand — and he was ridiculed for both
Whether it was Prince’s unpronounceable symbol or Bowie’s poorly received side project Tin Machine, both men had their past moments of ridiculousness, obscurity, or career jeopardy. Each of them managed, before their deaths, to enjoy a cultural reappraisal, to regain their mark of cultural approval. But in both cases, this reappraisal came about mainly because they each had critical as well as cultural clout: They were seen as “real” musicians, serious artists.
In the days following Prince’s death, the media hastened to show us not the man who cavorted atop Batmobiles, but rather the Prince who could rock out alongside Eric Clapton and other serious guitarists. (Nothing says rock god like praise from Tom Petty.) In the days after Bowie’s death, many rushed to eulogize him as a modern rock poet, but the conservative National Review pointed out that in order to achieve that status, Bowie had to prove that he contained more multitudes than the fey, genderqueer persona he was initially demonized for having:
His openly theatrical affectations, his emphasis on fashion and the visual arts as well as music, and his steady maintenance of a layer of ironic detachment from his musical subject matter ... were all at one point treated as a direct affront to the true, putatively working-class heart of rock music.
National Review’s ultimate assessment of Bowie was that he used his glam-rock persona not so much as a foil for the musical establishment but as only one side of a larger, universalized musical sensibility.
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.
Michael himself fed into this idea; almost as a kind of metaphor for the self-hating gay man, he denigrated his Wham! years, telling Rolling Stone in 1986, “I totally threw away my personal credibility,” by writing cheesy pop songs. He would continue to be dismissive about how he had to write bland pop music in order to get ahead, inadvertently feeding into the media’s narrative about him as a blandly pretty pop idol who wasn’t a “real” musician — a narrative that went hand in hand with the insinuations that neither was he a “real” man.
George Michael’s complicated relationship with the culture extends all the way through to his death
And so, despite Michael responding to his years of media dogpiling and his eventual outing by embracing his sexuality and his role within the gay community, his career — until now — never got that cultural reappraisal. He never received that moment of vindication for what the culture did to him while he was alive. The media hounded him for proof of his straightness, ridiculed his meteoric rise to fame, questioned his commitment to gender roles, and mocked him for the frank themes of his music — then excoriated him after his arrest and ignored him when he responded by leaning all the way into the media’s longstanding depiction of his queerness.
Meanwhile, the social stigmas attached to queerness in the ’80s and ’90s took their toll on Michael’s personal life. His first partner, Anselmo Feleppa, died of AIDS in 1993; Michael claimed to British GQ in 2004 that Feleppa’s refusal to be treated in the US, even though it could have prolonged his life, was primarily due to his fear of being socially persecuted as Michael’s HIV-positive boyfriend.
It feels like we have yet to properly reckon with what George Michael’s death means to our culture. This isn’t anybody’s fault, exactly — no one should feel blamed for being heartbroken over Carrie Fisher’s fatal heart attack, which overshadowed Michael’s death on Christmas Day (irony of ironies). The grief machine that kicks into gear when we lose the cultural icons we love doesn’t stop and wait its turn.
But it’s just not fair. We had months to mourn Bowie, to mourn Prince. We’ll be mourning Fisher into the new year and through the next several installments of Star Wars. But the mourning period for Michael has amounted to a careless whisper; his death already feels like it’s barely made a blip on the cultural radar in comparison. We can (sheepishly) look at Vox’s own response as a microcosm of the larger cultural reaction: In the wake of David Bowie’s death, Vox published no fewer than 15 articles about the singer’s legacy. When Prince died, we published 17 articles. When George Michael died, we published one.
And that’s the crowning shame on top of the litany of shameful ways in which we treated this cocky youngster from East Finchley like a peach ripe for bruising — a heart thrown back on the floor. That he continued to be an incredible, positive force for change is down to his resilience, not us.
In the year when the largest mass shooting in history took place at a gay nightclub, losing one of our greatest gay icons should require more of a reckoning from us than it has. But George Michael and his music were indispensable parts of our culture precisely because he shaped himself and his songs in reaction to society’s expectations and ultimate rejection of him.
Perhaps we don’t deserve to rewrite the narrative of that rejection into a celebration; perhaps we never deserved George Michael at all.