The first time I remember being aware of GM was in the summer of 1983, when I saw the “Bad Boys” video on New York Hot Tracks. Wham! was still Wham! U.K. (that appendage dropped a year later, when they became worldwide pop stars thanks to the trifecta of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Careless Whisper”, and “Everything She Wants”). I became a fan instantly. I was only 7, but there was a snottiness, a rebellious vibe in “Bad Boys” that intrigued me.
I was born and spent the first part of my life in NYC. I moved to Michigan to live with my mother and stepfather, and stayed there from 1984-1987. I wasn’t allowed to buy or own music during that period. I would spend summers back in Brooklyn, and my grandfather would allow me to get two tapes each year, which I would promptly get taken away from me upon returning to Michigan. One of the two in 1985 was “Make It Big”, one of ’86’s selections was “Music From The Edge Of Heaven.” When I came back to New York to live full time, I went on a pre-teen music shopping spree, and one of the first things I bought was “I Want Your Sex” on 45. The Faith juggernaut that began later this year put George on a level of pop culture dominance similar to Michael’s Thriller run and Prince’s Purple Rain run, and he did it with fairly challenging material. “One More Try” is a gospel dirge that doesn’t mention its title until the very end of the song, but it wound up being a chart-topper. It’s worth noting-while it’s somewhat widely accepted that white artists can perform R&B, George was one of only three artists to top Billboard’s R&B singles chart in the decade (not counting Paul McCartney & Michael McDonald, who reached the top duetting with Black artists), and he was the only white artist to top the R&B albums chart. The fact that he did this in 1988, which was a high-water period in Black music, speaks to the level of talent and soul he possessed.
I bought “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” at some point in 1990, from one of those bootleg cassette setups on Fulton Street, and fell in love with that album although it was certainly not what many other 14 year olds in my circle were listening to. Not sure why I felt so drawn to it. It could’ve been the melancholy that was felt in songs like “Waiting For That Day” or “Praying For Time” or the defiance of “Freedom”. It was probably both, as those two characteristics are still pretty deeply embedded in my everyday being.
I began the lengthy process of coming out in 1995 (a process that took the better part of a decade to complete), and George’s “Older” came out in the spring of 1996. Even without knowing that some of the songs were directly inspired by the death of George’s partner, Anselmo, it was still fairly apparent to me that the songs comprised a “coming out” effort without George actually doing an interview at the time and saying “hey, this is an album that is very clearly from a queer perspective”. If you’ve ever cruised for guys, the lyrics to “Fastlove” are very easily relatable. If you were aware of the rate at which queer men in major metropolitan areas were burying their friends and loved ones in the early-mid ’90s, those days right before protease inhibitors made AIDS a more livable illness, you related to “The Strangest Thing” or “Spinning The Wheel” or “You Have Been Loved”.
As successful as he was, he dealt with more than his fair share of shit. Imagine what it must feel like to be the biggest star in the world in your early 20s and knowing that you’re living something of a lie, and that you have to perpetuate that lie at the risk of what you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. He took shit for being a white artist whose open appreciation of Black music got him tagged as an interloper by Black artists (Freddie Jackson and Gladys Knight were vocal critics, and I’m sure the barbs stung) and criticized by the “rock” press, who didn’t seem to be able to see past the (immaculately crafted) fluff that was “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. Imagine meeting the love of your life and having to bury him two years later. Imagine the level of homophobia that he must have had to deal with on a boardroom level. As talented as he was (and when it comes to pop sensibility + songwriting and musical skill + the ability to out-sing 3/4 of his contemporaries + be a sex symbol, he was second only to Prince), I’d have to imagine the shit he went through from 1984-1994 caused him tremendous PTSD in the last twenty years. And then to emerge from that and get forced out of the closet, mocked and ridiculed (even if the incident that led to George’s public outing was an event of his own construction.)
It’s been a shit show of a year for a variety of reasons. As a music fan, I don’t remember being hit with not only the flurry of deaths but also the fact that so many of the people who’ve passed away in the last few months were heroes to me. Although Bowie was larger than life, he was also slightly before my time. Prince, Phife, Prince Be and now George Michael…these deaths shake me to my core. They remind me of my own mortality, of course. But these are also people who have structured the soundtrack to my life. As someone who’s used music as a refuge/escape/cocoon for much of his life, the fact that these people are not here, actively providing music that speaks to my soul is almost unfathomable.
Thank you George for the music. Thank you for being one of the inspirations for the pseudonym I use for writing and my radio endeavors. Thank you George for being the first queer artist in music who was not a eunuch (Elton may have been many things, and he is a pioneer, but can you picture Elton as a sex object? Me neither). Thank you for laying your life bare in your lyrics (although most people didn’t realize exactly what you were saying when you were saying it). Thank you for being unapologetic during a time when queer men were expected to conform. Thank you, George, for teaching me that sex is natural and sex is fun (even if it took me a long time to accept that).Thank you, George, for being so open and reverent about your love for Black music (particularly Stevie Wonder, who George covered innumerable times, but also Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, McFadden & Whitehead, Mary J. Blige, Soul II Soul, and many others) You helped pave the way for everyone from Justin Timberlake to Frank Ocean. Your music has given me lifelines ever since I was in elementary school, and it still does. You have left one hell of a legacy.
I hope that your soul is finally at peace, and even though I don’t believe in heaven or hell, there’s a part of me that takes comfort in the hope that, somewhere in the spirit world, you and Anselmo have met again.
Incoming search terms:
- you have been loved anselmo