The BBC reports that George Michael has died. According to a statement from his publicist, Michael died “peacefully at home” in Oxfordshire, and according to police, there was nothing suspicious about his death. He was 53.
Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London. As a teenager, he got his start as a DJ and briefly joined a ska band called the Executive, which also featured his school friend Andrew Ridgeley. In 1981, Michael and Ridgeley formed the pop duo Wham! They scored their first minor hit a year later with the single “Young Guns (Go For It),” and a series of skittery, post-disco plastic-R&B singles made them one of the UK’s biggest pop acts before they got around to releasing their debut album Fantastic in 1983. In 1984, while battling their record label, they released their first UK #1, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” That same year, Michael released “Careless Whisper,” his first solo single, and it also hit #1.
Wham! stayed together until 1986, scoring massive hits like “Freedom” and “Last Christmas.” But Michael knew that fans perceived Wham! as teenage heartthrobs and nothing more; for years afterward, he spoke negatively of his experience with the group. In 1987, Michael officially launched his solo career with the Aretha Franklin duet “I Knew You Were Waiting,” another massive UK hit. And later that year, he released his solo debut Faith. Michael produced the entire album, wrote or co-wrote every song on it, and played a number of instruments on it. The album was a tremendous pop success, selling over 25 million records worldwide and, with the video for the title track, making Michael an icon of the early MTV era. Four different singles from the album reached #1 in the US.
Michael followed Faith with his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, leading off with the wounded ballad “Praying For Time,” one of his best songs. Michael, still struggling to be heard as an adult artist, opted not to appear in that video or in the video for “Freedom ’90.” Instead, for that video, David Fincher famously directed a number of supermodels lip-syncing Michael’s words. Michael had to scrap the follow-up album because of a legal battle with his record label, but he continued to score hits, like a 1991 live duet with Elton John on John’s own song “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”
Michael didn’t release another album until 1996’s Older, and it didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessors in the US. In 1998, Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a Beverly Hills park, and he came out of the closet as gay around the same time, though he’d never really hidden his sexuality. That same year, he trolled the shit out of the cop who arrested him with his “Outside” video. Through the ’00s, Michael was arrested a few times for drug possession, and his weed intake was reportedly pretty extreme. In 2011, after a bout with pneumonia, he spent some time in a coma and had to have an emergency tracheotomy. But even as he dealt with various issues, he continued to record and tour, albeit at a more leisurely pace than in his pop-stardom heyday. He released his final album Symophonica in 2014.
Michael came into the game embracing some of the sillier aspects of early-MTV pop stardom, and he spent much of his career trying to live that down. But he was great at showing off that sort of flash and charisma, and many of his peak-era singles are efficient, precision-tooled joy machines. He was also a powerful songwriter and an even better singer, with a gift for selling the hell out of a hook without oversinging or losing sight of the emotion that he wanted to convey. He also lived in public as a gay man at a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. He had a great career and made a lot of great music.
Michael had been prepping a documentary called Freedom to be released in March, along with a Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 reissue. He was also reportedly working with Naughty Boy on a new album.
Below, watch a few of George Michael’s iconic videos.