George Michael's 'Outside' and Its Celebration of Cottaging Is Still Bolder Than Most Pop Music 20 Years Later
This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, writer and former MTV VJ John Norris looks back on George Michael's audacious "Outside" single and video, the stir it caused at the time, and how it holds up two decades later.
To this day, I might be out somewhere where “Freedom ‘90” comes on, and a stranger will raise an eyebrow, smirk, even point in my direction, as George Michael declares his disdain for “the boys on MTV.”
The fact that my longtime employer figured its way into a lyric about artistic emancipation, as emblematic of the lemming-like pop conformity from which the artist sought to be emancipated in the early ‘90s -- well, it’s a miracle that this one-time boy from MTV got to interview famously press-averse George even once. That I was able to do it five times, I consider a privilege. His was a unique life and career, showcasing superhuman musical talent but fueled as well by a pugilistic determination to do things his way, including the unexpected way he was to come out as a gay man. It was the thorniest decision of all, and one that ultimately was done for him.
There are many great memories of those interviews and other times spent with George, but the one that makes me smile the most is the one where he seemed, at long last, personally free and at peace: a live MTV special 20 years ago this fall, called George Michael TV. On it, the singer joined me for the premiere of “Outside,” one of the unlikelier PR wins in pop music history, a beyond-cheeky video celebrating getting busy en plein air that was not only bold, but went further than most queer artists today would dare to.
Coming a year after what was arguably his most beautiful, but most mournful single, Older’s “You Have Been Loved,” “Outside” was George seemingly reborn -- ebullient, carefree disco funk, and gloriously DGAF. What prompted this renaissance of spirit, this reclamation of life? Of all things, the most notorious incident in this musical giant’s too-short time among us: his April, 1998 arrest at a public restroom in Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, CA on charges of “engaging in a lewd act” with an undercover police officer.
To backtrack -- a refresher for those of you who were around then, and a primer for those who weren’t. While LGBTQ persons in every corner of the world are on a journey to their truth, if they’re public figures, that journey involves the decision whether, when and how to share that truth with the world. George’s timetable was particularly long and tortuous, perhaps more so than any pop artist of modern times. George chose to remain in the closet --albeit an increasingly stifling one -- through his first decade and a half of stardom, for a variety of reasons.
There was his Greek Cypriot family, with whom he was close -- particularly his mother, who he didn’t want to “disappoint” by being gay. There was the spectre of AIDS, which exploded just as Wham! did, in the early ‘80s -- and which hung as a backdrop to virtually all George’s of adult life, including his unforgettable performance at 1992’s Freddie Mercury tribute concert, his frequent work on behalf of AIDS-related organizations, and his ultra-generous under-the-radar donations to those groups. An HIV-related brain hemorrhage claimed the life of George’s first great love, Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa, in 1993. And there was a major label that not only wanted to tell him what to wear, what kind of music and videos to make, and when and how to promote them, but was definitely not interested in having an out queer pop star on its roster.
C-suite d-bags, then as now, aren’t known for progressive thinking -- and one, Columbia’s Don Ienner, allegedly referred to the singer, in an argument with his then-manager Rob Kahane, as “that f----t" client of yours,” after George refused to appear in videos or promote 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (Ienner has denied the allegation). Kahane once told Billboard that it was that homophobic slur that was “the trigger that set George off,” and helped lead to the singer’s quixotic, failed lawsuit against Sony, seeking release from a contract that he likened to slavery, and which cost the singer £30 million.
It was that very stubborn, principled nature, a growing insistence on doing things his way -- burning the jacket, blowing up the jukebox, not doing interviews -- that gave Kahane and the label fits, but also won over many of George’s hardcore fans, including a lifelong admirer in me. How inspiring it was to see an artist clawing his way out of a proscribed box, rejecting the cartoonish, fan-friendly personas of Wham! and Faith, and finding his own musical voice. Still, he jealously guarded his private life, even as the Nineties sorely tested him. After losing Feleppa and the lawsuit, his beloved mom died in 1996. But what doesn’t kill you, as they say… and a funny thing happened on the way to George Michael being destroyed in his mid-thirties: he got stronger.
Older, released in 1996, and showcased on an MTV Unplugged for which I conducted another rare interview with him, was an elegiac, mostly somber record, written in the heartbreak of Feleppa’s death. But it included a spark of life, too -- “Fastlove”, jazzy, mid-tempo, and a frank admission that George was DTF. “I ain’t Mr. Right,” he sang, “I just want to have some fun.” It was quite an evolution for the man who a decade earlier prefaced the “I Want Your Sex” video with a disclaimer that assured an AIDS-spooked world that “This song is not about casual sex.” Turns out, maybe casual sex wasn’t so bad after all. But George still wouldn’t -- sorry -- cop to being gay. For that, it took the bathroom arrest in Beverly Hills.
Tabloids had a field day, George pleaded no contest to the charge, was fined $810 and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. But an apology tour? Hell no. By 1998, George Michael was done with apologies, and an indiscreet moment with undercover officer Marcelo Rodriguez was not about to make him slink off in shame. On the contrary, he responded with “Outside”: The most joyous track we’d heard from him in years, and the lead single from his greatest hits collection Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.
The nearly five-minute piss take (unleash the puns!) on sex in public and those distressed by his engaging in it, the song begins with George in an almost comically low register, confessing, “I think I’m done with the sofa/ I think I’m done with the hall/ I think I’m done with the kitchen table, baby” before persuading his intended to take it “back to nature”. He even leaned into his critics, mockingly: “Yes, I’ve been bad/ Doctor won’t you do with me all you can/ You see I think about it all the time, 24/7.” Fuck shame. Fuck sadness. Fuck death. And fuck your judgments.
The video for “Outside”, directed by veteran Vaughan Arnell (George’s “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel”, Robbie Williams’ “Angels”) doubled down on the loo-cruise, and on the trolling of the Beverly Hills PD. Breezy and brazen, it opens with a grainy send up of an eastern European porno, complete with mock opening titles and a busty blonde seducing a man in the gents. The dream is shattered by a cop’s badge -- it was a sting! -- a helicopter and a stars-and-stripes emblazoned “Hollywood”. Sure, George’s arrest could have happened many places. But he rightly saw the U.S. as uniquely puritan and given to pearl-clutching offense about sex, as well as the land of AIDS-denier Ronald Reagan and AIDS-celebrators Jerry Falwell and the despicable Fred Phelps. So yeah, Hollywood.
When we first see George in the clip, he looks as devilish as he sounds, leering over his shoulder with that Tom of Finland ‘stache. Couples of all genders and orientations get frisky all over L.A. -- a flatbed truck, a glass elevator, on and rooftop -- all the while surveilled by prying cameras and eventually nabbed by police. But the real kicker, the moment that makes “Outside” outstanding, comes at 2:23, when a set of grimy urinals flip around into shiny chrome, a disco ball drops down and… voila! Welcome to Club Loo. George is in uniform as your friendly neighborhood cop complete with nightstick, dancing with his fellow outdoor fetishists. So deliciously, subversively good -- and it echoed so many cultural cousins. It was in the toilet-cruising tradition of gay cult classic Taxi zum Klo and Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears (“cottaging”, the Brits call the practice). It echoed Madonna’s “I’m not sorry, it’s human nature”, Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien”. It was disco Fassbinder.
The George who sat down with me to premiere it in 1998 was a sight for sore eyes -- beaming, as though the closet door had finally, fully been kicked in, even if the BHPD had done the kicking. He later admitted that he probably knew what he was doing -- that it was a “subconsciously deliberate” act),a celebrity playing with a fire that would eventually burn him and force him to come out. In any case, far from apologizing, on our show he made light of it all (“I’ve never been able to turn down a free meal”, he joked) and dragged Rodriguez, saying that it was the officer who first engaged him. “He started playing this game of… I’ll show you mine, you show me yours, and then when you show me yours, I’m going to nick you.” (Rodriguez denied that that was the way things went down in the park, and used that interview and others -- along with the video, which concludes with two male cops kissing -- as the basis for a $10 million defamation lawsuit against George, which eventually was dismissed.)
Great a moment as it was, “Outside” didn’t reignite George’s career in America in the way some -- including Billboard, in a glowing review at the time -- may have predicted or hoped, because just as George had gone his own way in the ‘90s, the U.S. had gone another. Steps away from the studio where George sat down to talk “Outside” and the “incident,” a show called Total Request Live had lit a spark that very same fall, and tapped into a new school of pop more interested in Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC (who themselves had a gay member who would stay in the closet another eight years), rather than a thirty something man having tongue-in-cheek fun with public sex.
Having thrown off the shackles of Wham! all those years ago, George wasn’t about to go back to sitting at the kids’ table, and honestly, the kids’ table probably wouldn’t have had him. U.S. radio was similarly uninterested -- the song didn’t even scrape the Hot 100, despite multiple singles from Older having previously reached the top 10. His disconnect with America continued through subsequent albums Songs From the Last Century and Patience. The rebuff was something that George might have shrugged off publicly, but I believe it still stung, and certainly only fed the idea that politically and culturally he would never feel at home here. “That’s what you get for changing your mind,” someone once sang.
There’s been undeniable progress on LGBTQ rights in the 20 years since “Outside” -- on some fronts, with breathtaking speed. One measure is certainly the fact that many of today’s notable young queer artists did not wait until they were 34 for a police officer to arrest them to do the uncomfortable business of coming out. Of all the condolences tweeted in the days after George’s gutting death on Christmas Day, 2016, one of the most inspiring for me came from Years & Years’ whip-smart Olly Alexander, half George’s age, who nevertheless found his own unapologetic, activist voice much earlier in life. Bravo too to Shamir and Troye Sivan, 23 and 22, respectively, who have each shared their queer truths at an age when the thought would have terrified a Wham!-fronting George.
Still, I have to wonder whether any of those much younger artists would ever go as far as “Outside” did two decades ago. While Sivan’s “My My My” was plenty sexy, and even felt like it could have come from mid-era George, its queerness was subtler, feeling at times more like a gay male take on Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”. And his more recent “Bloom” treats bottoming as a special gift: “Hold my hand if I get scared,” “I’ve been saving it just for you” -- that’s the stuff of romance novels, and a far cry from anonymous bathroom hookups.
I have to say, among my millennial and post-millennial friends, I notice whiffs of conservatism -- a premium on dating, coupling up and monogamy, more skeeved by the idea of truly anonymous sex -- that just wasn’t as prevalent in 1998. I’m not sure we haven’t backslid into a place where non-monogamy is harshly judged, a place where “good” queers are expected to find partners, and where the very thing that we decry when it happens to women -- slut-shaming -- we engage in ourselves. Sure, Grindr and Scruff in a sense have replaced bars, back rooms and loos. But they also feel safe by comparison. And safety is a good thing. But it’s also a safe thing. Monogamy is a choice, but hardly the only valid choice.
I’d venture to say you’d have to go as left of center as an artist like SSION or Mykki Blanco to find someone who’d make a video as bold as “Outside” in 2018. Life’s funny. One very gifted but conflicted man’s personal “scandal” turned improbably into the most liberating, emboldening event in his life -- and produced a song and video that encapsulated that side of him, so long hidden, in a way no major pop star has allowed themselves to be presented since. It put his critics on blast, and it quite simply was a blast. George’s life ended heartbreakingly sad and alone. But I choose to remember him free and smiling and very much alive, on that bathroom dance floor, 24-7.