I still remember the first time I saw him. It was by the pool. It was the early eighties, and his tiny white Speedo told me everything about him that I needed to know. He was hip, shared my taste for laid-back, sporty summer fun, and he knew how to make his Coppertone-tanned body speak the language of youthful cool. He was George Michael in Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” video; I was seven and he was. my. man.
The sensual weight of his masculine thigh emerging from his swimsuit awakened something in me. I remember the shadow of soft-looking hair on his honeyed skin and the way his leg muscles rhythmically jiggled as he tapped his foot along to the song’s beat, “fun and sunshine—there’s enough for everyone.” I wasn’t the only one that noticed that there was something different and special about Wham! right out of the gate. That something was George Michael, and he was lusciously, meltingly sexy…to me, to his ostensible commercial target audience of pop listeners, and to gay men. He was certainly my first sexual crush, but his dimples and his playfulness somehow made him more than just sexy; he was achingly loveable too.
This combination of sexy and safe, the PG-13 sweet spot for teenage fandom is what band managers have been trying to get right since the sixties. If you want details, P. David Marshall offers an incisive analysis of this cultural phenomenon in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (1997). Over the years we’ve seen this recipe play out again and again through boy bands like The Monkees, Menudo, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, and the Backstreet Boys. But George Michael so thoroughly exceeded this musical category that even to my elementary-school self, the mention of these comparisons seemed insultingly dissonant.
Looking back, something I found deeply appealing (that I wouldn’t be able to articulate for a few more years) was that Wham! videos, and later, Michael’s first solo album, told us that it was ok to like sex, to feel sexy, and to enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful men. Men! …As in, not just women! This was revolutionary in the early years of music videos and MTV. In the eighties we were inundated with images of the sexual woman-as-object, the dehumanized woman, the woman as animal/mannequin/prisoner/toy. Just start with Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” video and see how many others you can count that fit within this trope in under a minute. I’ll throw in some dry ice and shadows and light playing on vertical blinds to help you get going. But when you watch Michael’s videos from the “Make it Big” and “Faith” albums, what you get is a pretty seductive inversion of what Laura Mulvey famously called “the male gaze” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975). In other words, instead of looking through a man’s eyes at the objectified bodies of women, George Michael’s videos let kid-me look through eyes like my own, eyes that found both erotic and romantic delight in every inch of the singer’s face and body. He allowed himself to be an actively-engaged male sex object, happily participating in the coy seduction, offering us the dark allure of his eyes and the ripples of his sleek chest during the Wham! years, and then replacing those with the denim-clad ass-shake of the “Faith” album. I guess the burgeoning feminist in me found this sex-positive objectification of Michael totally thrilling, and what’s more—it allowed me to imagine a future where my own sexual pleasure wouldn’t depend on how I looked in a neon string bikini. In Michael’s videos, women’s bodies just didn’t matter that much, they were much less interesting and received far less airtime than every inch of his own gorgeousness.
Of course, savvy fans already hear the strain of irony in these claims, since Michael’s later solo career was marked by his attempts to undo the iconic sex symbol status he had earned for himself. Setting his “Faith” jacket ablaze in the video for “Freedom ’90” and turning the camera away from him and onto the strutting bodies of supermodels seemed to rebelliously invert the inversion he had accomplished earlier. Moreover, once his LA bathroom indiscretion led him to publicly come out as gay, the complicated roles of women as love-objects in his songs and videos took on new layers of meaning for fans that hadn’t already read between the lines.
But, to me, none of it mattered. I had already spent a whole childhood’s worth of incipient sexuality lusting for one man, with more than a handful of personal milestones matched to the sound of his voice. In the bedroom of my friend’s cool big sister, I learned about what was “in” and played My Little Pony to the tune of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” As part of my fifth grade elementary-school graduation, my friends and I performed our own choreography to “I Want Your Sex.” (God knows what my teachers made of that performance. Perhaps the benign neglect of the public school system worked in my favor in this instance.) In high school my summer camp’s theme song was a Mad-Libs style anthem re-written to the tune of “Faith,” and as a senior I wielded my class status by forcing everyone else in our lounge to listen to “Freedom ’90” on repeat. Years later, in my mid-twenties I recall experiencing a feeling that, at the time, I believed was the closest thing I had ever felt to the sublime. I was driving across the country taking my life and my stuff to grad school and on a pastoral winding hillside in Wyoming, I found myself belting along to the entire “Make it Big” album while the man I loved at the time slept in the passenger seat next to me. I remember the feeling cresting like a wave in my chest that life may never get any more perfect than what I had experienced during that singular album-long moment of crystalized joy.
Memories like these also have helped me understand that although my love affair with George Michael may have begun as a purely sexual one, it was able to grow into something much deeper because of his incredible talents as a lyricist and composer. Michael’s ballads, like “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Careless Whisper” live in the ghostworld of haunting regret. He brings an irresistible pop sensibility to the repetitive spiral of raw longing that defines many of our early experiences of love and loss. Combined with the intimate appeal of his tremendous emotional aptitude, was the fact that this sexy-as-hell man seemed to be in the throes of a breakup with someone that the lyrics allowed me to imagine each time as an intelligent and complicated woman. “If you are the desert/ I’ll be the sea/ If you ever hunger/ Hunger for me/ Whatever you ask for/That’s what I’ll be” he desperately croons to the lover who wants a “Father Figure.” Then, in “One More Try” the roles are reversed and Michael, himself, goes from being the father to the child. “So you think that you love me/ Know that you need me/ I wrote the song/ I know it’s wrong/ Just let me go/ And teacher/ There are things/ That I don’t want to learn/ And the last one I had/ Made me cry/ So I don’t want to learn to/ Hold you, touch you/ Think that you’re mine.” My heteronormative teen projections allowed me to consistently picture Michael singing to a woman…maybe some more beautiful, complex version of the woman that I hoped to become, but still, a woman that he seemed to respect and care for deeply. For me these were entanglements worth aspiring to.
Equal and opposite to Michael’s ballads were his playfully upbeat pleasure anthems. Combining openly unchaste lyrics with a kind of puppy-dog tenderness, Michael’s songs always seemed to have coy winks and sloppy licks folded into them—part camp and part youthful bravado. “I’m Your Man,” now a viral sensation from Michael’s groundbreaking car karaoke session with James Corden, woos listeners by insistently bopping into our hearts, “Baby, I’m your man/ You bet!/ If you’re gonna do it, do it right, right?/ Do it with me.” There’s a similar kind of goofy romantic inevitability that courses through “Freedom” from the “Make it Big” album: “But you know that I’ll forgive you/ Just this once twice forever/ ‘Cause baby, you could drag me to hell and back/ Just as long as we’re together/ And you do[…]/I don’t want your freedom/ Girl, all I want right now is you.” Listening to George Michael’s up-tempo hits gave me a new way to imagine adult relationships. It was a way I’d rarely seen represented in other types of pop culture, but it validated my existence as a thinking female person with real emotional and sexual needs. Michael didn’t sing to vapid babes. He sung—happily and eagerly—to women who had rich interior lives and things to teach him. Letting myself fall into the dreamworld of his songs always made me feel like he was mine, like we were a pair of old lovers, messily, irrevocably destined to drive each other nuts with our cuteness forever.
Now in the dark and terrifying early days of 2017, I’m feeling bereft, not only because last Christmas really was the “Last Christmas” for me to enjoy Michael’s perfect twinkling heartbreak wonderland in a pure way, but because we lost one more pop pioneer of gender-bending sexual freedom and queerness in a year when the departures of Bowie and Prince were already too devastating. I’ll keep George Michael and his soulful gravitas with me this year as I seek strength to fight the battles that too certainly lie ahead, but I hope I’ll also find occasions to dance again in that fiercely hopeful and defiantly sexy way that George Michael taught me.