I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.
It was no Alvin Ailey dance class. Several of us, with teeth in braces and hair pulled back into tight buns, lined up in the corner of the studio, with its splintered hardwoods and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The instructor put on Wham’s “I’m Your Man” and we cut across the space two by two, hoisting our legs on the beat in grand battements, compromising our posture and smacking gum.
I’ll be your boy, I’ll be your man … I’ll be your friend, I’ll be your toy, George Michael urges at the end.
Because I was young, naive, and lived in the Reagan-era South, I took these invitations into the world of heteronormative sex at face value. I missed any whiff of insistence, darkness, or double entendre. I readjusted my floral leotard, which had gathered somewhere unseemly, and high-kicked my way to the other side of the room. We came to the center of the studio for pelvic isolations, thrusting our hips side to side, then forward, trying not to laugh out loud as we caught one another’s eye.
“I do wonder how much freedom I gave away by trying to become something I wasn’t,” George Michael told GQ last year.
2. Bright Wrappers
Every morning before elementary school, my mother curled my hair with a hot iron and fastened it away from my face with an enormous, bedazzled bow. Picture this pre-Internet Southern childhood in Eastern North Carolina: unofficially segregated neighborhoods and schools, Sundays at the Baptist church, lunch at the all-white country club. My state senator Jesse Helms vehemently opposed AIDS research and called the LGBTQ community “weak, morally sick wretches” and progressives “communists and sick perverts.” I did not have access to high art or progressive political messages. But my dad played Marvin Gaye records, and I did have access to pop music.
Like most children, I mined my world for meaning. In the afternoons, I would turn on my Fisher-Price record player, sit cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom with a busty Barbie, and listen to the pleading “Careless Whisper” sax solo over and over again, hoping that obsession was the first step toward mastery. Somewhere, perhaps upon the two-hundredth listen of Faith, purchased later with allowance money on cassette, I pierced the skin of the album. There, behind the parted lips, short shorts, and leather jackets—access to the mysteries of the adult world, all that had been hidden from children. From me.
“You either see pop music as a contemporary art form or you don’t,” George Michael once said. “I do, very strongly. It’s the only day-to-day, moving art form.”
We were supposed to fast forward past “I Want Your Sex.” We had sworn to my friend’s mother. We had been trusted to obey and were breathless from dancing. My friend pressed the arrow button and I could hear the loops of ribbon shuttling around the plastic spools.
“Should we listen to it?” I asked.
“Just a little,” she said.
We were looking for someone other than Jesus to take us into the world of sex. We needed someone to demystify the crude words in the AOL chat room we fired up after bedtime, to explain to us that sex was not synonymous with love. We had been coached to court desire instead of practice desire.
We listened to Madonna, but I could not relate to her frank sexuality or calculated critiques of marriage. She was intimidatingly sure of herself, simulating orgasms onstage, evoking sex that made her feel like a virgin. George Michael once said, of nearly sleeping with her, “Madonna’s sexuality is hers. It’s not for men. She’s very strong.” I earmarked her for the future.
When my mother was out of the house, I watched the libidinous, blue-toned video for “I Want Your Sex.” George writhes in black, silk sheets with his then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung. Water splashes onto the arc of her naked back and she lip-syncs the words to the song while tossing her damp hair. Where else could I have seen a mixed-race relationship celebrated, and heard the sex-positive message “sex is natural, sex is good”? In the South, I knew women, like pop stars, were encouraged to keep their hunger private. In 1988, “good Southern girls” did not think about sex, admire the beauty of another woman’s body, or consider desire and lust part of a healthy imagination. Pop music, for me, became intellectual foreplay, the only current I heard on a daily basis running counter to the message from the pulpit.
My religious skepticism began when I was baptized in a blue-tiled tub in front of my hometown congregation—I got water up my nose and took it as a sign of irreverent rejection. But perhaps it was my immersion in the Southern gospel that made Faith so accessible—the sound of the organ rising on the title track, the stained-glass windows behind Michael’s weary silhouette in the “One More Try” video, the solitary cross in his left ear.
I paid rapt attention to the dismantling and appropriation of religious iconography in pop; I sensed, but could not articulate, the connection between the ecstasy of pop and gospel, the sensual possibilities in both. Faith especially toyed with the powerful notion of impurity and one’s longing to be saved, a longing I had felt with earnest. In “Father Figure” Michael proclaims, “I will be your preacher teacher … whatever you ask for / That’s what I’ll be.” It became my immediate, and continued, favorite; I loved its atmospheric quality and the noir-esque video, the depiction of bold, moody women, and the way it plays with the eroticism of power.
George Michael continued to elegantly subvert religious terminology post-Faith. He wrote “Jesus to a Child” for his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in the early nineties. Comparing the compassionate gaze of his dying, queer lover with the countenance of Christ reclaims the sacred from institutions that found this type of love an abomination.
“I can’t bear Catholicism,” Michael once told an interviewer. “One of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw was when I went into Anselmo’s room one afternoon and he was sitting there in bed with his prayer cards. I just thought to myself, ‘Please don’t tell me you think you’re going to hell.’ It makes me so angry and I sincerely hope he didn’t fear that.”
In “Freedom! ’90,” Michael blew up his own iconography of a jukebox and leather jacket, orchestrating a video of supermodels lip-syncing his powerful ode to freedom. His mother and first love died within three years of one another in the late nineties, and he claimed to smoke nearly twenty-five joints a day to cope with his depression. In 1996, he released what I thought was a half-hearted comeback—the woeful Older. Looking back, I wish I could have seen the album for what it was: a tribute to his first meaningful lover and an elegant, jazz-influenced coming-out album that the American machine rejected.
I left pop, too, around this time. I was sixteen, and my father took a job in South Carolina. I attended a school packed with evangelicals who prayed at football games and openly denounced homosexuality and evolution. I resisted by way of art, not yet realizing the debt I owed to pop music for my early liberalization: Prince in heels, David Bowie in full makeup, Madonna grabbing her crotch in a pin-striped business suit, and George Michael presenting the pain and joy of his closeted sex life in song. I gave it all up for my father’s old sweaters, hip-hop, and an Ani DiFranco CD.
Four years later, I arrived in Florence for a college semester abroad, terrified by my new freedom, high on it. I didn’t have to be good. I drank too much. I danced every night with friends at the dubiously named Space Electronica. When my roommate brought home strange men, I put my headphones on and listened to an old eighties mix in the dark room two blocks from the Duomo. Soon, I was listening to “Father Figure” again, on long train rides through Europe, walking the streets of cities I didn’t know, sitting on the chipped steps of ancient cathedrals. I wasn’t mourning the loss of religion in my life, or the old rules that no longer served me, but the song spoke to my new bewilderment upon seeing more of the world and the deep longing that had taken root.
George Michael developed a savvy, knowing approach to his genre and the demanding performance of normalcy, which at first he gave willingly, then subverted, and finally outright rejected. I watch Michael’s early interviews and marvel at how well he managed the dissonance between his public and private selves. I admire the cavalier freedom he embraced in the video for his upbeat single “Outside,” mocking his arrest incident with a bathroom-turned-discoteca, and scenes of people having sex outside of the bedroom. He wasn’t concerned with the way one ought to be but how one really is. “Back to nature, just human nature,” the song begins.
I went down hard with postpartum depression after the birth of my first child. I chafed at the new, constrictive identities I had to wear in the world: mother, wife. I knew I failed the textbook ideals daily, and worst of all, I realized I did not actually aspire to them in the first place. They were identities inextricably linked to sex. They were identities that, for me, required performance. Every day I thought, If I don’t enjoy this, I’m doing it wrong.
I could empathize with the joylessness George Michael must have felt on his worst days, his feather-blonde self trailing him throughout his career, toothy and relentlessly up-tempo, the unyielding yeah yeah yeah of “Edge of Heaven.” How to reconcile past selves?
The new presidential administration seems eager to keep women ensconced as objects, pretty airbrushed things to be judged onstage and grabbed at will, paid less along the way. I crave narratives that allow people to be more than what they are, stories that allow women to be more than a wife or mother, to challenge the prison of the white picket fence, to have full agency, to state and act on desire as they really feel it—without apology. To be shelved and limited is untenable. It breeds resentment and will not last.
“Pop music has been exhausted. The innocence has been exhausted,” Brian Wilson said. But perhaps it is this insistent innocence that becomes oppressive. The genre rarely grows with its audience, with its artists. “I am gay, I smoke weed, and I do exactly what I want in my life because of my talent,” George Michael told Rolling Stone. “I represent an ideal which others have had to let go and they blame me for that. Especially men.”
It was good to see him show joyful, frank enjoyment of so-called vice and sex—an attitude many people are still working to own outright and without apology. To let go of the ideal themselves, and to wait for others in life to do the same. To be free to like fun on one’s own fluid, grown-up terms.