George Michael stole our hearts with perfect pop but still couldn't escape his fate
The musical colossus soundtracked our lives, though hoped-for return to form was not to be, writes Gail Walker
It’s got nothing to do with the year, for a start. It’s not 2016’s fault that so many famous people, especially musicians, have died in it.
All those big frowny-face tweets from surviving celebrities ignore the fact that people are dying every single day in ordinary and extraordinary ways. What makes certain deaths more poignant for so many people, though, is the particular impact of the deceased — as writers, or sportspeople, or actors, or superstars.
It’s bad enough when the dead people are just simply famous, or hugely influential. But once the famous dead start being from “our generation” — that is, the generation that invented first video culture and then the internet and all its applications — the loss is felt particularly personally.
There was something peculiarly potent about the announcement of George Michael’s untimely death. In an era where we are schooled, not only to applaud the writings and performances of idols of all sorts, but also to find our private and public identities by means of them, Michael’s departure at 53 carries a particularly powerful charge.
I remember watching Club Tropicana on Top Of The Pops with my dad, who was hugely amused at the absurdity of it all: pilots, pools, tight-fitting shorts, and the lyrical cure-all: “All that’s missing is the sea/But don’t worry you can suntan.” While he was probably more knowingly in on the joke than his teenage daughter, I think we were both entranced by the sheer exuberance of it all. The colour, the vitality, the sheer thrill of (very innocuous) hedonism. It was a far cry from 1980s’ Northern Ireland. Just like almost every other young girl, I had posters of Wham! (never forget that exclamation mark) on my bedroom wall. Right next to my poster of Freddie ... (how could I not see... mind you, I was so naive I thought Andrew Ridgeley co-wrote the songs).
We all have our own memories of George, but his achievement should not be shrouded in misty nostalgia with talks of perms, jumpsuits and ra-ra skirts. Michael’s reputation rests on a more substantial platform than ‘I Love The Eighties’ fodder. He remained a vital artist — right to the end.
Say it loud: he was a pop songwriter of genius. Young Guns, Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go), Careless Whisper, Club Tropicana, Freedom, Faith, Outside, Jesus To A Child, and, of course, the now hugely poignant Last Christmas. I could add a dozen more, but the point is made. George Michael — the creation of the shy, north London boy Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou — is there in the pantheon of great pop songwriters, with Lennon, McCartney, Bowie, Dylan, Jagger & Richards, Elton & Bernie, Leiber & Stoller.
True, we, in our foolishness, sneered sometimes at the flimflammery — the espadrilles, the Make It Big T-shirts, that weird beard/moustache combo George donned off and on throughout his career. But when all of that is stripped away, we’re left with songs of a kind of pop perfection, exhilarating (yes, even the ballads) and inevitable.
“Classic” George Michael tracks ticked all the definitions of great pop: they seemed effortless and, in a good sense, obvious. It was as if the melodies were always out there, waiting... just waiting for the right time.
A George Michael song drilled itself into your heart, soul and mind on first listen — yes, even the “novelty” Wake Me Up. But most importantly of all they made a curious little jump from him to us, the listening world; they became not just hummable pop ditties, but part of the warp and weft of our lives. We “owned” Careless Whisper. We “owned” Faith. We “owned” Last Christmas. These songs became a kind of common property. This was the stuff of first dates, first serious relationships, the office party, friends’ weddings, of broken hearts. This is part of the strange alchemy by which stars take hold of our hearts.
And it is this sheer talent that makes his death paradoxically both sad and untimely, but also triumphant. Would George have slipped from the pantheon if he had lived to be 90, but never wrote another hit? Absolutely not. Those songs written were already enough. To want more would be ungrateful and trivial: “Only nine symphonies, Herr Beethoven?” And yet — like Bowie — we also knew that genius could flare like a flame on a low-burning ember to produce another great song, another album, a reinvention. After all, had he not done it before? From pretty-boy pin-up to serious artist? From “moon/June” pop balladry to serious songs about death, desire, need and loss.
Of course, we saw only part of the picture: his car ploughing into Snappy Snaps in London, falling asleep at the wheel, the drug busts, being fined for performing a lewd act in public toilets.
But life is rarely black and white, and behind the headlines was a complex, tormented human being, one who it emerges gave generously and anonymously to good causes. George once spoke of his “golden child” upbringing, as a Greek boy in a patriarchal family of girls. He spoke, too, of his simple awareness that he was supremely talented, with more magical power than 99.9% of the planet.
In any company, however glitzy, or Oscar- or Grammy-laden, no one had “more” charisma, or genius, than him — and no one looked as good as well. Clad head to toe in leather, bathed in the strobing of a thousand lights, George looked so at ease, it was as if he spent his every waking hour on stage.
Fame was hard though. He realised early on that he’d been chasing something that wouldn’t make him happy. He admitted to being self-destructive, yet no matter how off-the-rails his life lurched, his career righted itself miraculously, as he memorably put it, “like a plastic duck in the bath”. Perhaps that’s why we, too, always hoped, against all the odds, that George would have some late and long-lasting recovery... but no. We should have known he was always a superstar of the old Hollywood school.
Maybe we are getting this now. Maybe we are working out in our own age what the ancients knew of old when they said: “Those whom the gods love die young.” We’re working out that those who have everything, or seem to, are in fact just as prone to the sudden exit as those who have nothing, or seem to.
Maybe we’re finding out that, even with wealth, global fame, huge artistic satisfaction and the acclaim of several generations, we are all truly singular people left alone with our own selves and no number of hangers-on, acolytes, lovers, managers or fans can stand between us and our own reckoning.
Even George Michael. We used to laugh at the various syndromes of celebrities, their diva demands, their “first world” problems, their visits to clinics and rehab and retreats for the famous... their heartfelt seasonal sit-down TV interviews with sensitive couch doctors. Maybe not anymore. Not even wealth and fame and success protect us from the savagery of our own lives and how we live them.
After all, this morning George Michael is dead. And we will go to work as usual, hoping, for us, it might all be somehow different.