A giant of British pop music and global phenomenon for over three decades, George Michael passed away peacefully in his Oxfordshire home on Christmas Day, aged 53. Widely lauded for his smooth, emotive vocals and dynamic stage presence, the singer-songwriter was responsible for some of the best loved songs of the 80s and 90s, including ‘Faith’, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Freedom! ‘90’. Away from music, Michael’s turbulent and often controversial private life made headlines worldwide over the years, and as one of the first openly gay pop stars, he has been praised for his contributions to LGBT causes and HIV/AIDS charities.
George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in East Finchley, London, in 1963. After developing an interest in music at an early age, Michael began busking on the London Underground and performing as a DJ at local club nights, before teaming up with school friend and early champion Andrew Ridgeley, whose encouragement was instrumental in persuading the introverted teenager to pursue a musical career in earnest. Initially joining forces as part of the short-lived ska outfit The Executive, the duo started their career proper by regrouping as the dance-pop duo Wham!, enjoying great success in the early 80’s with a string of ridiculously catchy, disco-indebted singles; including ‘Young Guns (Go For It!)’, ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. Bolstered by Michael’s photogenic good looks and showmanship, they arrived on the scene just in time to capitalise on the onset of the blossoming MTV era, with their singles’ accompanying music videos – many of which still remain iconic today – typically showcasing the singer’s youthful charisma.
Despite their rapid rise to fame and teen-pin up status, Michael in particular quickly began to feel constrained and frustrated with the group’s output and what he perceived as their pigeonholing as bubblegum popstars, and soon set his sights on developing a more elegant and mature sound, as well as shedding their light-hearted party boy image. Accordingly, their summer 1984 smash hit ‘Careless Whisper’ marked a turning point, both in terms of commercial and critical success, as well as perhaps signalling the beginning of the end for the band; written by Wham! during the formative years of their partnership when they were just seventeen years old, the song (which, whilst included on the pair’s ‘Make It Big’ record, was officially credited as Michael’s solo debut) went on to sell over six million copies and topped the charts in over twenty countries, and began Michael’s shift to blue-eyed soul with its wistful lyrics and sultry saxophone melody.
Despite this, Wham! would remain together for a while longer, and would enjoy continued fame during that period – thanks to further hits like ‘Everything She Wants’ and the perennial festive favourite ‘Last Christmas’, in addition to both members appearing at the seminal Live Aid concert (albeit seperately) – before eventually calling time in 1986 after a much-publicised farewell show at Wembley Stadium, finally allowing Michael the chance to re-invent himself and attempt to become a serious singer-songwriter, and ultimately become a star under his own direction and on his own terms.
His solo debut, 1987’s ‘Faith’, unquestionably achieved both of these ambitions; ostensibly taking more than a little influence from Prince, the album was a musical tour de force, incorporating hints of funk, R&B and soul, as well as displaying a more mature (read: sex-obsessed) lyrical slant than fans had come to expect from his largely squeaky clean former band. Establishing Michael as a cultural icon and radio mainstay, ‘Faith’ remained ubiquitous for the remainder of the 80’s and would eventually become a certified diamond; its rockabilly-inflected title track (one the album’s six singles) remains a radio staple and was the biggest selling single of 1988, whilst the album itself won the prestigious Grammy Award for Album of the Year the following year.
1990’s ‘Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1’ continued Michael’s creative unshackling. Though it only sold a fraction of its predecessor, the album’s more sombre and stark mood – the musically claustrophobic, humanitarian plea of a lead single ‘Praying for Time’ was hardly the pop smash record companies were likely looking for, whilst the rest of the record mostly consisted of acoustic ballads (‘Heal the Pain’, ‘Waiting for that Day’) and morose, eulogy-like piano pieces (‘They Won’t Go When I Go’, ‘Cowboys and Angels’) – was initially blamed for the dip in his commercial dominance. His refusal to appear in any music videos to push the release, meanwhile – a decision which, along with the album’s pleading title, stemmed from Michael’s continued insecurity about being branded a teenybopper – didn’t help the record’s marketability, and the ensuing fallout with Sony Music would signal the beginning of a period of misfortunes and struggles that would becoming a recurring theme, both personally and professionally, for much of his life.
After spending the remainder of the early 90’s entangled in a legal battle to absolve him of his contract with Sony Music, whom he blamed for the relative failure of his second album, and mourning the passing of his lover Anselmo Feleppa, Michael revamped his look (wearing his hair short and jet black, donning mostly leather and debuting his now-famous goatee) and returned with ‘Older’ in 1996, a soulful and reflective album that, whilst again failing to match the commercial zeitgeist of ‘Faith’, remains his most consistent and accomplished work, featuring among its track list the smooth, futuristic pop hit ‘Fastlove’ and the jazzy, Bond theme-esque ‘Spinning the Wheel’. ‘Jesus to a Child’, the touching lead-off track, meanwhile, was written as a farewell to Feleppa (as was, Michael later suggested, the entire record); a gesture rendered all the more moving and brave in hindsight, given the fact Michael had still not come out as gay and wouldn’t do so until two years later, when his arrest for soliciting sex in public restrooms and intense media scrutiny into his private affairs ultimately forced his hand. ‘Outside’, the lead single from 1998’s Ladies and Gentlemen compilation, was written in response to the incident, and received positive reviews for its unflinchingly defiant and self-deprecating nature.
‘Songs from the Last Century’, his covers album largely consisting of jazz standards (as well as, notably, a lounge re-working of The Police’s ‘Roxanne’) followed the year later, after which Michael slipped into another quiet phase; a noted perfectionist, the length of time between the release of original recordings seemed to increase with each one, and it wasn’t until 2004 that ‘Patience’, which took three painstaking years to record – and would prove to be his fifth and final studio album in his thirty year solo career – was released, featuring a modern, adult contemporary sound aimed at giving Michael another popular revival amongst a new generation of fans. The album, featuring the refreshingly breezy ode to new love ‘Amazing’ and the raunchy techno sex-funk of ‘Freeek!’, was received warmly and sold well – but in the years following, various substance abuse arrests and controversies, as well as numerous health scares, made it hard for him to sustain his comeback on a logistical level, if not creatively.
The final decade of his career saw him embark on the massively successful 25 Live tour, which saw him sell out stadiums and arenas around the globe whilst performing highlights from across his entire musical output (including Wham! hits, to the delight of fans), as well as the ambitious, orchestral Symphonica tour. Whilst another studio album never materialised, he released a smattering of singles including a slower re-working of New Order’s ‘True Faith’ for Red Nose Day 2011 and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘You & I’ to commemorate the royal wedding; his final release was ‘White Light’, an original track inspired by his widely publicised battle with pneumonia that was performed at his last high-profile live outing, the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, and was to be included on a new album he was reportedly gearing up to record with producer Naughty Boy.
George Michael was at the forefront of pop music from the very beginning of his career, adapting from humble teen pop beginnings into a brilliant, once-in-a-generation singer-songwriter who managed to withstand changing musical and cultural climates to remain relevant and engaging. His story was also one of evolving along with his audience in a way very few artists do; as his fans grew from being carefree teenage disco-goers into mature adults faced with love, loss and adversity, so too did Michael and his music – and his continued re-invention from disco-pop hit-maker to moody, sophisticated balladeer to wise, meditative elder statesman reflected this. A true enigma, he remained both fiercely private and the embodiment of rock star flamboyancy, and along with David Bowie and Prince (two other legendary artists who have, tragically, also left us this year) challenged the way gender and masculinity are perceived in music – the lasting impact of which, along with his timeless back catalogue, will not be soon forgotten.