Let's Go Outside: How George Michael's Sexuality and Music Never Stopped Maturing

To be gay requires watching for hints. When nearly 100 percent of pop songs aren’t about or for the queer life, gay fans learn to study shifts in emphasis, to stay alert. In 1986’s “A Different Corner,” on which the late George Michael played and programmed every note, a man admits that falling in love is terrifying: "I've never come close in all of these years/ You are the only one to stop my tears/ And I'm so scared.” The lyrics suggests that the object of desire is a friend -- “Dedicated to a memory,” the sleeve says. Straight men don’t sing and write songs like “A Different Corner.” This top ten hit wasn’t a repudiation of 1984’s “Careless Whisper” so much as its affirmation, a grim one: if he’d turned a different corner he would’ve been mocked, ostracized -- alone. So he didn’t dare.
14 years before an undercover cop arrested him for solicitation in a Beverly Hills park, the artist once known as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was hiding in plain sight. In 1984, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville could be overt; in 1985 Michael and Elton John had to work themselves into a gross lather to convince the audience and each other that they loved girls. While it’s hard to know what Andrew Ridgeley did as one half of the duo Wham!, the videos show what Ridgeley did for Michael: he gave the singer confidence and a self-deprecating streak, for without them how could any young male artist on the make get through “Club Tropicana”? Despite the pleasure with which Michael and Ridgeley flaunt their washboard abs and toned legs, the homoeroticism is the sexless kind, of swimwear ads in men’s catalogs.

Fine with queerness so long as the artists didn’t ask or tell, the 1980s were the last time pop stars could wear fingerless kitchen gloves without audiences assuming the stars were gay. In the video for Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Michael and Ridgeley gamboled like school chums liberated from adulthood, or indeed manhood itself. As a sign of his marketing ruthlessness, Michael released a follow-up under the credit “Wham! Featuring George Michael,” preparing listeners for an inevitable solo career. A ballad graced by one of 1984’s most lissome melodies, “Careless Whisper,” in whose video Michael’s guilty feet have rhythm enough to dance with a female model, was an attempt to recast Michael as a heterosexual who took his pleasures with a kind of sullen defiance. It worked: “Careless Whisper” bested Billboard's Year-End Hot 100 chart for 1985.

When he discarded the fiction of Ridgeley as a musical partner in 1987, he embraced pop song form; in his curious hands it proved pliable, recombinant. On Faith, which sold 12 million copies in the United States alone, George Michael also proved himself as much a master of the studio as Prince. The rockabilly of “Faith,” the torch song languor of “Kissing a Fool,” a dance track keyed to a chimpanzee sample that was more addled than Peter Gabriel’s -- he embraced them as snugly as his leather jacket did his torso. And he was hiding in plainer sight than ever: in the Hot 100 No. 1 “Father Figure” he pledges his troth to model Tania Coleridge, with Michael cast as the horny man of experience; “One More Try” he’s the devastated student, wailing over an organ preset of exquisite tinniness, reminding his “teacher” that there are things he doesn’t have to learn. “One More Try” is the gay “Maggie May,” and it topped what was then called the Hot Black Singles chart for a week -- not bad for a white Englishman of Greek descent.

An epic battle with Sony in the 1990s precipitated a waning of his American chart success, but already the pop song, returning his devotion, was consuming him; he disappeared from his videos and let models lip sync his songs. The acoustic material on 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was its own kind of self-obliteration. During this time he put more energy into his alignments with gay pop stars as if hoping the flamboyance of Elton John and Freddie Mercury could shake the blues. Again, it worked: his live cover of John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (guesting John himself, and becoming his 10th and final Hot 100-topper in '92) and show-stopping rendition of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” for the same year's Mercury tribute concert not only projected a fan’s ardor but worked as a gay man’s valentines to artists who had probably saved his life.

Yet happiness was never an option for Michael. No sooner had he found the greatest love of his life to date in Anselmo Feleppa than AIDS-related complications claimed the Brazilian designer’s life in 1993. Three years later, third solo LP Older boasted “Jesus to a Child,” an elegy to Feleppa set to a functional bossa nova lilt that might be the saddest song to ever hit the American top ten. His “Sprockets” look -- goatee, tight black tees and pants -- emitted a faintly louche air, Michael having had enough of the masks. In “Fastlove,” his last single to hit the Hot 100's top ten, he tries to coax a trick into his BMW because he saw “lovin’ in his eyes.” The public dissembling stopped after the 1998 arrest, responsible too for “Outside,” a buoyant thumper whose video revels in Michael’s disgrace. “I'd service the community/but I already have, you see,” he sings with an imp’s delight.

And an imp he remained into the new century. Instead of sobering him, the arrest led to further arrests and zero contrition -- Michael had gone outside, and he loved it. His British sales remained steady, while in America he was essentially run out of town. A pity: 2004’s Patience contained his strongest material since Faith. The real Older, the warmth and plushness of Patience adduce its creator’s rediscovered talent for mediating between the sounds in his head and the rigors of the dance floor; tracks like “Amazing” don’t break a sweat because they don’t need to. And “Precious Box” is unlike any track Michael had ever released: a quiet, pulsing interior monologue during which George wonders what happened to his family, admits to feeling sick of the same faces, mutters, and, at last, politely asks a lover to strip again. He had always courted the absurd; if anything the vulgar suited him better.

George Michael’s art had built up to this moment: a folding of his true desires into a fabric of ever-billowing grace.  His last single, 2012’s “White Light,” another buzzing oddity, demonstrated how sure his touch remained, an ominous health scare notwithstanding. “I’ve just got to keep breathing,” he yowls in the video, surrounded by pleasures of the flesh. For Michael, lyrics have never been meant to be taken literally.


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.