2016 truly has been an annus horribilis in terms of celebrity deaths. From David Bowie and Prince to Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood and Muhammad Ali, the last twelve months have seen obituaries rival Brexit for column inches. Last night, as the world was enveloped in its cosy Yuletide cocoon, the news broke that George Michael had passed away at the age of 53; a terribly “fitting” way to round off a truly hideous year.
George Michael will justifiably be remembered as an outstanding singer-songwriter and performer. From his early days as one half of Wham!, to his hugely successful solo career, Michael earned his place in the annals of UK music history. For many of us, though, he also leaves a legacy of social rebellion and non-conformism in an age of restrictive respectability politics perpetuated by a virulently homophobic right-wing press.
When, in 1998, George Michael was forced to confirm what many already suspected, it was the result of that toilet incident. The tabloid press went into self-righteous moralistic overdrive, indulging in crass generalisations about the sexual behaviour of gay men and conveniently glossing over the blatant entrapment at the centre of the entire episode. Michael’s response was “Outside”, a defiant anthem in response to the critics and the hypocrites. Sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to avoid registering as trite, the track was accompanied by a now legendary video featuring Michael in full “porn policeman” get up and disco ball urinals. It rendered conservative commentators apoplectic.
Michael was subsequently refreshingly transparent about his penchant for casual no-strings sexual encounters. His relationship with Kenny Goss was “open” and it worked for the people that mattered – them. However, it also coincided with the age of civil partnerships, marriage equality and the dawn of the socially acceptable, non-threatening gay man; the brave new world of clean-cut, out gay men such as Will Young and, later, Sam Smith. George Michael remained unapologetically sexually voracious: “You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening. Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable and automatically, my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy f**ker and you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with it.”
High-profile battles with drugs and associated court cases cemented Michael’s reputation as the bête noire of both rampantly heteronormative journalists and gay apologists heaving under the weight of their own internalised homophobia. Determined to maintain their hard-won “respectability”, Michael was indeed disowned by many of his fellow gay men, who dismissed him as a throwback to a lascivious bygone era, a relic of a shadowy past characterised by shame-ridden illicit sex and social isolation.
Nevertheless, for the rest of us, George Michael represented a walking middle-finger-up in the faces of those right wing mouthpieces that would desexualise gay men, sanitising our existence and barely concealing their disdain and, frequently, their outright disgust at the mere thought of gay men interacting sexually with one another.
The very publications that vilified Michael for his self-professed sexual insatiability will undoubtedly lament his passing. In doing so, they will praise his contribution to British music while referencing his “troubled” personal life. There is an inherent irony at the heart of this cynical cherry picking of Michael’s bequest to public life. After all, his private and professional lives were often intertwined. His 1996 number one hit, “Jesus To A Child”, was a heartbreaking tribute to Anselmo Feleppa, the Brazilian man he had loved and tragically lost to an Aids-related illness just three years earlier. The track also represented Michael’s long-awaited release from a lengthy period of depression and writer’s block that rendered him creatively impotent for 18 months.
It is wholly natural that the world will remember George Michael as one of the leading musical lights of his generation – a formidable talent with the kind of natural charisma many of his contemporaries and successors could only dream of. However, the ultimate mark of respect to the gay man who dared to tweet “I HAVE NEVER AND WILL NEVER APOLOGISE FOR MY SEX LIFE! GAY SEX IS NATURAL, GAY SEX IS GOOD!” would be to celebrate Michael’s uniqueness as a global icon who refused to be whitewashed by the socially conservative tabloid press. His enduring popularity was the ultimate riposte to the feral bigotry hurled in his direction.
Ultimately, George Michael lived life by his own rules – there is no greater legacy than that.
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