When we look back on the music of 2016, we’ll likely remember the voices that stopped singing more than the ones that started; that’s what happens when a calendar year is ravaged by multiple artistic geniuses passing away. To bookend the year with the deaths of David Bowie and George Michael — with Prince‘s loss in between — makes for a devastating sum, especially considering how untimely and unexpected all three deaths were. Michael, Bowie and Prince should all still be here on this planet, and yet they’ve gone, exiting this plane of existence before we were ready to let go of them.
Michael’s professional career will not be placed on the same level as Bowie’s and Prince’s by rock purists, since his apex of popularity was shorter and his tunes were often more unabashedly bubblegum. Those people are wrong. Although Michael’s chart reign was more pronounced and his latter years quieter, the London native was perhaps the greatest hook author of his era, able to deliver impossible-to-top choruses with a voice that could naturally soar or simmer. He knew what his gift was, and he did not shy away from the genre that crystallized it.
“If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form?” Michael asked in a 1988 Rolling Stone cover story. “Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
The connective tissue of Michael’s career was his otherworldly writing ability, but the hidden talent of Michael’s career was his power as a producer and studio musician; 1987’s landmark Faith album had an astonishingly small number of collaborators, and was entirely produced by Michael. And his connection to Bowie and Prince, the quality that turned each from brilliant musicians to all-timers, were their shared ability to evolve. All three men refused to be contained by one pose, era or political idea. All three could have tried to replicate their early success, but demanded more of themselves.
Prince used the success of his 1999 singles to fuel the ambition of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack two years later, and spiraled into the disparate worlds of Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy soon after. Bowie invented a new type of performative rock after hitting the charts with “Space Oddity” in 1969, hopscotching across album concepts, alter egos, producers and sonic experiments over a nearly five-decade run. Both interwove bold statements about love, sex and social defiance in and out of their music, redefining the role of a rock star by demanding our attentions outside of three-minute singles. Prince shifted into a grand funk wizard and mentor to female rock artists; Bowie aged out of glam-rock gracefully while never shedding his warmth and androgyny.
As one-half of British pop duo Wham!, meanwhile, Michael made his understanding of pop songcraft apparent from the first refrain of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” He was a gifted pin-up, a dreamy boy-bander — and after “Careless Whisper” made his solo stardom a foregone conclusion, he dropped the coiff and gave his all to the leather-jacket pop-rock fantasia of the Faith era. The evolution was effortless, and Faith went on to beyond-blockbuster success, reaching Diamond-certified sales in the U.S., spawning four Hot 100-topping singles, and even winning the Grammy for Album of The Year. And then, Michael transformed again, leaving his days as a pop idol in the rearview and making a more conscientious, less video-focused and ultimately more daring project with 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.
Michael never once buckled to expectation. His third album, titled Older, arrived over a half-decade after his commercial zenith, and featured a seven-minute first single titled “Jesus to a Child” that served as a moving tribute to longtime partner Anselmo Feleppa. Following his arrest and outing in 1998 and the public backlash that ensued, Michael defiantly owned his sexuality and became an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Although he often railed against his own stardom, especially during a nasty showdown with Sony in the early ’90s, Michael’s passion for popular music was always obvious, and he allowed his inspirations to twist into fresh approaches while maintaining his identity. To hear news of his passing was not only to reckon with what has been lost as a past legend and spectacular live performer, but what might have been in the future — Michael was apparently working with British producer Naughty Boy before his death.
Pop artists often capture our imaginations fleetingly, uncovering the key to commercial and critical success for only one song or album or, if they’re lucky, a multi-year sprint before interest wanes. This year claimed three artists that never flinched in the face of this fact. George Michael, David Bowie and Prince forged wildly different paths, but all committed to reinvention in a way that thousands of musicians have tried to duplicate, but precious few have been able to pull off. Their histories had brilliant flourishes contained with different conversations. Their shared lesson: never settle for what already was.