Heart failure killed George Michael, 53, on Christmas 2016. Wham’s 1985 hit “Last Christmas” will never sound the same.
Michael’s songs poeticized queer desire and charted hits. Although many ’80s stars embraced gender-bending and flamboyance, like Prince, David Bowie, Boy George, and even Michael Jackson, Michael pushed further, with lyrics that endure as thinly veiled expressions of queer love.
Wham’s breakout second album, Make It Big (1984), catapulted young Michael and Andrew Ridgeley to worldwide notoriety. From the start, their songs oozed with queer resonances, which haven’t been fully unpacked in most of the articles written in Michael’s wake.
The success of “Careless Whisper” (1984) surprised even Michael himself. As he explained to People, “I don’t know why it made such an impression… But it’s ironic that I wrote it when I was 17 and didn’t know much about anything. Certainly nothing much about relationships.”
Michael wrote the song to be conspicuously ambiguous about the gender he desired. All the references to “you” and “we” leave us in the dark. That ambiguity allowed listeners across the sexuality spectrum to relate to his story of a love lost carelessly.
The most detailed interview Michael ever gave about his sexuality — with Judy Wieder for the January 1999 issue of Advocate — is sadly not online. In it, Michael explained to Wieder that he first recognized his attraction to men in 1979, after some encounters while traveling. Upon returning home to Britain, he shared the news with his friends.
I nearly came out when I was 19. My two closest friends at the time were Andrew Ridgeley and his girlfriend, Shirley. I’d been friends with Andrew since I was 11 and friends with Shirley since I was 15. I had come back from a trip to Cyprus on my own, where I’d had a few experiences that, well, opened my eyes to certain things. I had decided I was really bisexual and told them.
For most of his 20s, George Michael identified as bisexual. But it was a fraught identity because he never actually fell for a woman, though he did sing explicitly about one in the tellingly conflicted “Everything She Wants” (1984).
The song’s most searing line laments, “I don’t even think that I love you.” Many straight listeners could identify with not loving a particular woman, but for Michael, the conflict was broader. It would take him until 1991 to reach this epiphany: Men stirred deeper feelings in him than women. The catalyst was his romance with designer Anselmo Feleppa. It was his first time falling in love — and it was with a man.
As he explained to Wieder:
Obviously, as a young man who was adored by millions of young girls, the convenient thing was to think, Well, hopefully I’m going to find that woman that I’ll fall in love with one day. But I wasn’t finding her… I went from being a relatively unattractive child in school to becoming famous. I was suddenly given the opportunity to have sex whenever I wanted it. I had way too much sex with way too many people, most of them women but some men. And because I had no emotional understanding of myself, all of it was fairly unsatisfying. Also, I would choose men who were completely unavailable or who were similarly confused sexually. When I did finally allow myself to get into a relationship where there was real commitment going, I was 27. From then on, I believed I was gay.
His lyrics’ ambiguity throughout the ’80s mirrors how he was flirting with both queer and straight persona in his early 20s. His songs weren’t just veiling queer themes to widen their appeal (although that didn’t hurt). They were authentic expressions of him probing his own boundaries. Years later, the songs still stand as some of the most evocative descriptions of queer desire to achieve broad commercial success.
In 1987, Michael launched his solo career. His song “Faith” (1987) predictably left the gender of the desired person is ambiguous. The song, about declining hookups and patiently waiting for a more meaningful connection, portrays a balancing act with which gay culture has long wrestled. “Well I need someone to hold me / but I’ll wait for something more / yes, I’ve gotta have faith” is just as meaningful in 2016 in a culture searching for love while swiping left.
“Father Figure” (1987) plays on the way a man in love can take on a paternal role, encouraging and inspiring his partner. Many queer men suffer alienation and rejection from their fathers, and “daddy issues” often rear their ugly heads as these men begin to explore emotional intimacy with one another. The song’s poignant message is, “I love you enough to take on and help you resolve your daddy issues.” That trigger isn’t limited to gay men, of course, so the song also appeals to a wide audience.
At the height of panic around sex during the AIDS epidemic, George Michael released “I Want Your Sex” (1987). Once again, the lyrics leave the object of lust undefined. The woman in the music video is a wink to his bisexuality at the time, and, unsurprisingly, homoerotic themes lurk within its subtext. The song’s crux is saying yes to sex despite fears of AIDS, which frightened gay and straight people alike.
The video ends with the phrase “explore monogamy” scrawled on the screen. Like many other queer men, Michael negotiated what sex outside of his relationship meant, and he thought a lot about how he defined fidelity and freedom.
Contextualizing this “monogamy” ending, he explained to Weider:
At the time, I believed in it. I still believe in monogamy as an ideal. I’m not saying that I’m perfectly comfortable with my sexuality in terms of my enjoyment of casual sex. And that’s coming from someone who really would like to be monogamous — even though I’ve failed dismally. I don’t know whether I’m capable of it anymore.
Michael went on to explore these themes further in “Freedom” (1990): “All we have to see / is that I don’t belong to you / and you don’t belong to me.”
In 1998, George Michael was entrapped under suspicious circumstances in a public men’s bathroom in Los Angeles. That the paparazzi just happened to be in close proximity to the restroom at the time has long fueled speculation that they were colluding with police. Those photographers banked big bucks for capturing Michael’s arrest. In a fuller account of the entrapment, which is buried in the Advocate archives, Michael claimed that an undercover police officer started to masturbate near him and he reciprocated. (This tactic no longer stands up in court today.)
Michael ridiculed the entrapment in “Outside” (1998). The video for that song mocks the way queer men are held to different standards about sex. Straight rock stars screw groupies in bathrooms all the time without police interference. “Outside” courageously defends the concept of cruising.
George Michael never again achieved the level of critical acclaim or commercial success that he did in the ’80s. Yet “Flawless (Go to the City)” (2004) still found its way to many, including myself, and it became a theme song during my first year in New York City. Moving to the big city to be out and flawless is a storyline that resonates with many queer men.
In “One More Try” (1987), Michael sang, “There ain’t no joy / for an uptown boy / who just isn’t willing to try.” Throughout his career, his music’s recurring message was to keep trying. And while everyone can appreciate redoubling efforts, let’s not lose sight of Michael’s queer resonances and audience. Many gay men are still struggling to release shame, embrace self-acceptance, and love courageously, all of which is much easier said than done. It’s far simpler to champion abstract ideals than to internalize them, turning aspirations into authentically felt feelings that hold even on bad days. There will always be a special place for music that poeticizes queer dynamics. Gay men need pick-me-ups when we fall into ruts. George Michael leaves a legacy of uplifting music, telling all of us to renew faith, quash self-doubt, and always give it one more try.