It was possible, even during George Michael’s heyday, to take the man for granted, to imagine him as some lightweight pop star who’d be gone in a couple of weeks. He had, after all, gotten his start in a knowingly goofy teenpop duo. His hair was immaculately feathered, and his stubble was immaculately maintained. His most famous video included multiple worshipful close-ups on his ass. And Michael himself seemed to spend much of his career attempting to live down the various images he’d presented to the world, to portray himself as a serious musician rather than a joke.
But George Michael was never a joke. He was, instead, an all-time pop music great. In his early days with Wham!, he showed himself to be a British soul prodigy, a singer capable of showing intense vulnerability and empathy even as he brought the fireworks. He wrote, produced, played multiple instruments, and thought deeply and seriously about the things that pop music can do for the world. He was one of our most famous gay men at a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to be. He stood behind various noble causes, raising AIDS awareness and quietly raising money for any cause that moved him. And he left behind so many great songs that it fairly boggles the mind to look back on the catalog that he left us.
In recent years, we at Stereogum have marked the deaths of towering musical figures by celebrating some of the great little moments of their public lives. These lists don’t necessary reflect the best moments of their careers, but, taken together, they do give us ideas about the breadth of these people’s influence. We’ve done lists like this for Adam Yauch, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. And George Michael, as an all-time great, deserves a list of his own.
1. THE BURNING LEATHER JACKET
Even during his peak, George Michael spent so much energy attempting to convince the world that he was a serious musical force, that his teeny-bop days were over. It takes serious levels of self-consciousness to name one album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 and then to name another album Older. And Michael’s video for “Freedom ’90” stands as one of the all-time great examples of pop-star self-consciousness. Michael famously refused to appear in the video. Instead, a coterie of massively famous international supermodels — Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington — lip-synced Michael’s lyrics for him. Up until Seven — hell, maybe up until Fight Club — that video was probably the most famous thing that David Fincher had ever directed.
There are two key moments in the video. In one scene, we see the leather jacket that Michael had worn in the “Faith” video three years previous hanging on a rack and burning dramatically. In another, a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox — another relic from the “Faith” video — explodes. In this history of artful destroying-your-own-past pop-star stunts, this one ranks right up there with David Bowie envisioning his own death in the Ziggy Stardust movie. It’s a wink and a repudiation at the same time — and it’s all in service of maybe Michael’s best song. Today, “Freedom ’90” sounds like a joyous gospel-infused house-pop masterpiece, and it’s plenty possible to hear Primal Scream’s Screamadelica released a year later, as one long dirtbag tribute to “Freedom ’90.”
2. THE LEATHER JACKET IN THE FIRST PLACE
It’s funny: For all the work that Michael did to distance himself from “Faith” with his “Freedom ’90” video, “Faith” was itself an attempt to break from Michael’s past. In 1987, Michael was one year removed from the end of Wham!, and he was already trying to show the world that he was a complete artist, not a kid in a proto-boy band. And so the song “Faith” was, at least in part, a pastiche of classic American rock ‘n’ roll poses; it may be the last major international hit ever to use the Bo Diddley beat. (U2’s “Desire,” from a year later, also used that Bo Diddley beat, but “Faith” was so much bigger than “Desire.”)
The “Faith” video, which will probably always stand as the most iconic moment of Michael’s career, was just as self-conscious in its break from Wham! and its devotion to the iconic images of popular music’s past. The stubble, the pompadour, the tight jeans, the jukebox, the cowboy boots, and especially the leather jacket — it was all an attempt to locate a new context for Michael, to present him as a timeless sort of star. Even the extended close-up on Michael’s ass wasn’t any less craven than the image that Bruce Springsteen chose for the Born In The USA cover a few years earlier. But then, Michael knew what he was doing, and there’s a deeply playful silliness in the way he adapted Elvis poses while selling sex in what was then an extremely up-to-date way. In calling back to the ’50s, Michael gave us one of the defining ’80s pop-culture images.
And of course, it was that ass, not those Elvis poses, that drew all the attention and became a cultural phenomenon. Consider, if you will, Dana Carvey’s entirely butt-centric George Michel impression on Saturday Night Live. “You fear my butt because you don’t understand it! You resist it like all the others before you, yet its power only grows!”
Perhaps because of the whole butt thing, “Faith” sounds more like kitsch now than any of Michael’s other classic hits do. But it’s great, effective kitsch, and maybe this is a good place to note that the song is the only reason Limp Bizkit got to have a career. Bizkit were mere Korn proteges, permanent opening acts, before their tongue-in-cheek, grunting-on-the-chorus cover of “Faith” launched them into Buzz Bin rotation. And considering that they never managed to come up with a song that catchy on their own, it’s easy enough to imagine that they never would’ve made it without “Faith.” You can’t really blame George Michael for that, though.
3. THE ROLLING STONE DEFENSE OF POP MUSIC
In 1988, Michael spoke with Rolling Stone, exactly the sort of magazine that would be resistant to ’80s pop music and of Michael’s role in it, and he mounted a powerfully eloquent and passionate defense of both: “If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form? Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
About 15 years later, a number of critics and bloggers would take up the cause of “the elation of a good pop record,” and it would be called poptimism. But Michael was so far ahead of the curve that critics didn’t know what to do with him. Their loss. Our loss.
4. THE “CHOOSE LIFE” SHIRT
In the overwhelmingly goofy video for Wham!’s insanely huge 1984 single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Michael and Andrew Ridgeley both wore t-shirts with the words “CHOOSE LIFE” printed enormously across them. This launched plenty of rumors and classroom debates: Were Wham! soldiers for the pro-life cause? Was it possible that a cheesy pop group would make their anti-abortion politics a focal point of an otherwise peppy video? Well, no. The shirts, from designer Katharine Hamnett, had a vague left-wing anti-war bent, and they were in the same weird tradition of the “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” shirts that British pop also gave us around the same period. Still, the fact that Wham! got so many people to read so deeply into the t-shirts in their video is one of those great little ’80s time-capsule moments, when MTV was changing everything and nobody could be quite sure what that would mean.
5. THE BEYONCÉ DUET
During a London show in 2009, Beyoncé was singing “If I Were A Boy” when Michael suddenly showed up alongside her, singing the hell out of the song. It’s a perfect moment. Michael and Beyoncé were so obviously happy to be up there, next to each other, and they both look like such stars that their charisma only seems to grow when they’re both up there. The song choice is so knowing and sly, one of our great gay icons singing a song about gender identity, doing it seriously and playfully. And the only evidence we have of the performance is shaky camera-phone footage, which is honestly perfect, since it means we get a great sense of just how completely that audience was losing it.
6. THE TELEVISED MUSIC CRITICISM WITH MORRISSEY
George Michael and Morrissey were both fantastically charismatic ’80s UK pop icons, both were the sons of immigrants (Greek for Michael, Irish for Morrissey), and both had amazing hair. But I don’t think you’ll argue if I tell you that the two were pretty different from one another. So it’s just weird as all hell to see the two of them sitting next to each other, trading opinions about about the first Everything But The Girl album and Joy Division. (Michael loved Joy Division, and Morrissey didn’t much care about them.)
This came about because of Eight Days A Week, which apparently was a music-discussion show that aired on British TV for a little while. The episode that featured both Michael and Morrissey is one of those random, fascinating YouTube discoveries that shows up on Twitter when a star dies. Apart from the sheer surreal vision of seeing these two sitting next to each other — in 1984, no less — it’s just fun hearing them both talk. Apparently, stars felt free to talk shit about other musicians on TV in the ’80s! And both Michael and Morrissey hated the movie Breakin’! Who hates Breakin’?
7. THE SURREAL NEW ORDER COVER
Speaking of Joy Division! One of Michael’s final singles was his 2011 cover of New Order’s “True Faith,” which he released to raise money for Comic Relief. Michael’s version has none of the crisp propulsion of New Order’s original. Instead, it’s all miasmic drift, with Michael wailing the song through a vocoder and a sort of jazz-folk arrangement. Michael’s version made the top 40 in the UK, but I’d somehow never heard it until I did research for this article. If, say, Bon Iver had done this, we in the online music press might’ve hailed it as a work of genius.
8. THE INAUGURAL CARPOOL KARAOKE
This was another of Michael’s Comic Relief efforts in 2011. Before James Corden somehow displaced Jimmy Fallon as America’s most desperate-to-be-liked late-night host, he taped his first-ever Carpool Karaoke bit with Michael. The three-minute video is so British that it almost feels alien, but it has Michael calling Corden a closet case, pouting excellently, and singing the hell out of Wham!’s “I’m Your Man.” Somehow, Corden would build a viral empire from that moment.
9. THE FREDDIE MERCURY TRIBUTE
Michael’s defining stadium performance will probably always be the way he honored Elton John by utterly blowing him off the stage at Live Aid, singing John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” (Six years later, the two scored a big hit with a live duet of the song.) But the performance I watched the most as a kid was Michael’s version of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” at a massive 1992 tribute to Freddie Mercury at London’s Wembley Stadium. Most of the people who sang Queen songs that night were rockers: David Bowie, Axl Rose, Roger Daltrey, James Hetfield, Joe Elliott, Robert Plant. But Michael was the one who came closest to hitting Mercury’s incandescent heights when he sang “Somebody To Love” with Queen. As a kid, Michael had earned spare change by singing Queen’s “86” on the London Underground, and his voice had a whole lot of the strutting bravado and the theatrical exuberance of Mercury’s. And he sounded more like Mercury than anyone on that stage that night managed.
10. THE ZOOLANDER SCENE
For those of us who were small children when Wham! were conquering the planet, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” will always be the song playing when a crew of male models playfully sprayed gasoline on each other and then immolated themselves in a massive fireball. Try to think of a song that would’ve worked better in that perfect scene. You can’t. There isn’t one.
11. THE ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT NAMESAKE
For some reason, one of the funniest running Arrested Development jokes was the fact that Michael Cera’s character was named “George Michael” — always spoken in full, never abbreviated — and that nobody ever commented on how weird that was. Maybe that says something about the real George Michael’s longstanding contributions to camp aesthetics, or maybe it just proves how he was always lingering somewhere in the back of our collective mind.
12. THE SMOKEY ROBINSON DUET
George Michael sang many, many duets with soul legends over the years; he inaugurated his post-Wham! career by teaming up with Aretha Franklin on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” and hitting #1 in the UK in the process. But his bravest-ever moment might’ve been even before that, when he showed up on American TV, singing his first solo song “Careless Whisper” alongside Smokey Robinson at the Apollo Theater. That venue’s crowds were always famously tough, and so that was a proving ground for Michael, a chance to show that he deserved to be known as a great soul singer. In that aforementioned Rolling Stone profile, he said, “It proved to me that I was capable of standing onstage with a great singer and holding my own, which was something I’d never really considered before.” Listen to the way that crowd responds when he hits those notes near the end of the song.
13. THE “OUTSIDE” VIDEO
George Michael’s sexuality had never exactly been a huge secret, but he always publicly maintained that he was straight, denying rumors to the contrary and speaking about his relationships with women. But in 1998, he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public bathroom of a Beverly Hills park, an incident that publicly outed him. He responded to that whole ridiculous episode in the best way possible. Michael’s 1998 video for “Outside,” his first since his arrest, features him dressed as a Village People-esque cop, dancing in a bathroom with glittery urinals and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. It also features cops rounding up all the people who’d been having utopian kinky fun earlier in the video, before those cops then make out with each other. The officer who arrested Michael attempted to sue Michael for slander after the video came out. He got no money.
14. THE SPEEDO IN THE “CLUB TROPICANA” VIDEO
Michael might’ve disavowed his teen-idol past as soon as he could, but he really fucking went for it before distancing himself from it. Consider Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” video, from 1983. Michael rocks a white banana hammock, takes a shower outside, and makes bedroom eyes at the camera. He manages to shave seductively. It’s shameless, and it’s great.
15. THE ABSOLUTE SCHOOLING OF SEAL
Seal can sing. Let’s acknowledge this. That guy has a real smooth intensity to his voice, and he has left behind a handful of classics. And Seal’s first single might be his best: “Killer,” a 1991 collaboration with the UK acid house producer Adamski, which Seal later re-recorded with producer Trevor Horn for his own debut album. But later in 1991, Michael snatched “Killer” away from Seal for good. In a 1991 live recording from London’s Wembley Arena, Michael covered “Killer” in a medley with the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and with his band doing an absolutely nasty version of the track’s sinuous groove. It’s not like any proof was really needed, but Michael’s version of “Killer” truly cements him as one of the great disco singers of the post-disco era. He keeps all of Seal’s power and intensity, but he combines it with blinding enthusiasm and a tiny undercurrent of sadness. And to see him strut his way around that Wembley stage is to behold a master at work.
16. THE OLYMPIC CLOSING CEREMONY
The last chance that most of us got to see George Michael in action was at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, where he sang “Freedom ’90” while a massive choir and a stadium’s worth of special effects backed him up. And while his voice wasn’t quite the wonder that it once was, it was still plenty impressive. More to the point, he looked great, and he remained one hell of a showman, moving gracefully around that enormous stage and projecting that charisma around the world. It’s so crazy and so sad to watch that performance and to think that this guy would be dead in just a little over four years.
17. THE TOP OF THE POPS DEBUT
That Olympic Ceremony performance came 30 years after Michael’s TV debut on the long-running UK chart-countdown show Top Of The Pops. That performance was a doozy. Lip-syncing his way through the goofy funk-rap pastiche of Wham!’s “Young Guns (Go For It),” Michael preened and strutted and gamely ran through some of the silliest choreography you will ever see. You owe it to yourself to watch.
18. THE AMERICAN IDOL COMEBACK
Confession time: I didn’t have my “holy shit, George Michel” moment until relatively recently. He was always around, and I liked plenty of songs, but I never considered myself a fan for whatever reason. Then, in 2008, Michael appeared on the finale of a very bad American Idol season, which I was recapping for The Village Voice. (This was the David Cook/David Archuleta season. It was rough.)
During that finale, the top 12 contestants sang a medley of Michael’s songs, and I found myself enjoying all of them more than I’d thought possible. And then Michael himself walked out and sang an absolutely jaw-dropping rendition of “Praying For Time.” The gulf between what all these kids were trying to do and what this old pro was able to do, so easily and casually, was enough to make you stop watching televised singing-competition shows forever. Because no TV producer is ever going to train a young singer to be able to do this. A performance like that requires genuine genius. George Michael had that.
19. THE CHINESE TOUR
In 1985, Wham! became the first Western pop act to tour Communist China. (It was really just two shows, but everyone called it a tour.) Most of the tickets went to people with Communist party connections, and at the shows, the government distributed cassettes with Wham!’s songs on one side and, on the other side, covers of those songs from a Chinese singer, with all the lyrics changed to serve as pro-party propaganda. In the documentary Foreign Skies, you see poor George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley looking befuddled and speaking to rooms full of grim-faced bureaucrats, attempting to explain how their live show draws on Chinese theater and how they think Chinese audiences will respond to that.
Videos of those shows are just dazzling. Michael was a terrific showman, constantly staying in motion, jumping in and out of choreography, never slowing. People who were in the audience at the time talk about those shows as overwhelming sensory experiences. They might’ve heard Wham!’s songs illicitly on Hong Kong radio, but they’d never seen anything like this, and the combination of lights and motion and volume were enough to blow minds. In videos from those performances, the people in the crowd clearly have no idea how to dance to this stuff, but they do their best.
20. THE PROPS FROM CALVIN JOHNSON
This one is entirely from memory, and I can’t find any corroboration of it on the internet, but just bear with me hear. When I was in college, I went to a screening of a documentary about indie rock, a sort of Our Band Could Be Your Life Thing about the importance of the American underground. I don’t remember the name of the doc, and I don’t think it ever got distribution. The one part I really remember is a talking-head interview with Calvin Johnson, from K Records and Beat Happening. Johnson was making the point that he and his peers only listened to each other; they didn’t even pay attention to mainstream music. But the quote went something like this: “Every once in a while, you’ll hear a little bit of something. Like, ‘Oh hey, George Michael, that’s cool.’ But…” The audience in the theater that night laughed, but I don’t think they were laughing at the idea that this guy would like George Michael. It was more like: Of course this guy likes George Michael. Who wouldn’t like George Michael?