The news that George Michael died on Christmas Day aged 53 was simply a tragedy. It was one of life’s cruellest moments, especially as ‘Last Christmas’ has been a worldwide festive anthem since 1984. 8 number ones in the US, 100 million records sold globally, ‘Album of the Year’ at the 1989 Grammys-the list goes on. There is no doubt that music has simply lost one of its greats.
When one thinks of the ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture scene, there is no denying that George Michael left a monumental impression. He formed Wham! with Andrew Ridgeley in 1981 and together they achieved a number 1 hit with ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. But it was his solo career that was to be the most impactful.
His music paved the way for social change. ‘I Want Your Sex’ is an excellent example of this. The song was banned in 1987 by the BBC with many US radio stations refusing to play it, yet the lyrics were undoubtedly ground-breaking. It was a song about ‘attaching lust to love, not to strangers’, as he himself put it. It was bold moments like this that made the artist a cultural icon, ensuring that the ‘Faith’ album would ascend to the number one spot, sitting there comfortably for 12 consecutive weeks.
It was not just the music that made this man so unique. Close friend Kim Bowen (cited in the Guardian), aptly states that the way he ‘braved’ the insults of the press when coming out, made him ‘[empower] a generation of young men’. In some ways, this action, at a time when being gay was still such a social taboo, made George Michael a pioneer and role model for self-acceptance. He also became an avid spokesperson for the promotion of sexual health. This is as much his gift as the incredible music he produced.
It is now well known that he was also a generous philanthropist. Recently, Dame Esther Rantzen revealed that the singer had donated millions of pounds to Childline, but desired for his contribution to be left a secret. It is his longing for anonymity, which reaffirms his exceptional humility. This quality is undeniably rare in such an industry reliant on media exposure. He played various concerts for free, included one for NHS nurses in North London.
Personally, my favourite televised performance was at the Live Aid charity concert in 1985. Elton John invited the youth, still in the dawn of his career, to sing with him for only a few minutes before the world. However, looking back, this legendary concert would have been unthinkable without a man in its star-studded line-up, who was to become a global sensation for decades to come. It was one of music’s golden moments.
On 30th December, BBC 4 cancelled its scheduled programming to pay tribute to the singer. The world has reacted to their shock by reliving his collection once more, leading to a skyrocket in record sales. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ is now at number 8 in the Official Charts, the first time it has appeared in the top ten since 1999. This is yet another testament to the great man.
What makes George Michael so fascinating is that he did not try to be somebody else. He was unashamedly human: from his openness about his sexuality to his vocalised distaste of the American media; something which was so unconventional for the time. He treated fame with more modesty than any other artist: for him, it was simply all about the music.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons