On December 25, 2016, George Michael left this mortal plane and joined other esteemed pop stars that left in 2016, including David Bowie and Prince. George was a brilliant singer-songwriter that had numerous hits in the 1980s, changed his image on a regular basis, and brought queer sexuality to the forefront of pop culture. I challenge you find one person that can't hum the tune of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Careless Whisper," or "Faith."
George Michael was born on June 25, 1963, named Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou by his Greek immigrant father and English mother. Shortly after moving to Hertfordshire, he met fellow classmate Andrew Ridgeley, who convinced George to form a band together, which eventually evolved into the pop duo WHAM! Their debut album Fantastic! climbed the charts in their native UK, but the group didn't find worldwide success until the release of their aptly titled second album Make It Big. In 1984, there was no escape from hearing "Careless Whisper," "Freedom," "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Everything She Wants" on the radio or on MTV.
However, by the time their third album Music from the Edge of Heaven was released in 1986, Michael decided it was time to pursue a solo career and announced the dissolution of WHAM! The next year, he was back with a provocative new single called "I Want Your Sex," a sexier new look, and Faith, an album which would still hold up as a watershed in pop music 30 years later. "I Want Your Sex" was banned from airplay on some radio stations because of the explicit content (including the then-shocking sound of George singing "HUU-AHHHH, SEX!"). MTV didn't broadcast the video until after 10:00 PM due to the images of George cavorting with scantily clad supermodel Kathy Jeung, whom Michael was dating at the time. In the post-AIDS 1980s, the song's message of celebrating sexuality and love without shame was earth-shaking.
At the time, Michael was publicly dating women, but was secretly hiding his attraction to men, which he only disclosed to close friends for fear of negatively affecting his burgeoning stardom. Over the years he would be occasionally asked about his sexuality, but he would coyly dance around the answer. While touring Brazil in support of his second album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, George met his long-time partner and the self-professed love of his life Anselmo Feleppa. After only two short years together, Feleppa died from AIDS-related complications. Michael's gentle ballad "Jesus To a Child" is a tribute to his late lover.
After a prolonged legal battle with his record label that delayed the release of his third album Older until 1996, Michael was thrust out of the closet and back into the public eye when he was arrested for soliciting sex in a public men's room in Beverly Hills, CA. The event was soon immortalized in the music video for his song "Outside," complete with cops stripping down in a bathroom decorated with a mirror ball and flashing disco lights. From then on, George Michael was openly gay and unashamed of it.
As a young gay boy growing up in the 1980s, George Michael was a touchstone for me and others who also grew up questioning their sexuality, seeking an identity, and searching for self-acceptance. Michael mentioned in several interviews that he grew up as a "fat, nerdy kid" who had trouble fitting in until Andrew Ridgeley took him under his wing and helped nurture his confidence and singing talent. Having grown up as a "fat, nerdy kid" myself, I understood where he came from. When I saw George prancing in brightly colored shorts and rolling his eyes with aplomb in the video for "Wake Me Up," I became keenly aware of the concepts of gayness and camp, despite not fully understanding what those were at the time. Even though I came out to myself when I first attended college out of state in 1996, I didn't openly disclose my sexuality and seek out dates with other men until after George's infamous "bathroom bust" in April 1998. If he was able to make it through such an embarrassing situation relatively unscathed, and even laugh about it afterwards, certainly I could find the courage to be true to myself as well.
2016 has been disappointing in many ways, and the news of George Michael's passing on Christmas Day is just the cherry on the sadness sundae. The world has already lost so many people who left a positive mark on the world, and the loss of this LGBT icon will be felt deeply by people all over the world. I find comfort knowing that I can always listen to "Everything She Wants" and revel in one of the best pop songs ever recorded. Even more than 30 years later, the song still sounds original and fresh. We can all celebrate George Michael's life by continuing to enjoy his music and living our lives as openly and honestly as possible. I'm sure he would have wanted it that way.
If you want a good cry, listen to his cover of Elton John's song "Tonight," a song about a couple facing the dissolution of their relationship. It's one of the most beautiful, yet achingly sad songs I've ever heard, and never fails to hit me right in the heart.