After George Michael’s death at 53 on Christmas Day, stories began pouring in about the ways the pop icon privately supported fans and charities. Like Prince, Michael was largely uninterested in recognition but focused on doing good in the world, wielding his immense financial privilege in small ways that would change peoples’ lives. There was the stranger in a cafe whose debt he paid off anonymously as he was leaving. The homeless shelter where he secretly volunteered. The woman he saw on a television program whose IVF he paid for the next day.
George Michael was above all a humanist, and these anecdotes just a microcosm of the outspokenness and charitable acts he would also stand for publicly throughout his career, donating millions in proceeds to charities and acting as a celebrity endorser for others. Even with WHAM!, the group he formed when he was just a teenager, he and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were making political statements against Thatcherism and its vagaries; in the most famous of these, he wore a silk t-shirt reading “CHOOSE LIFE” for the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, made by the political British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett. (It coincided with shirts she made against nuclear proliferation, and was a statement Hamnett borrowed from Buddhism. “A friend was organizing an exhibition, trying to get out a Buddhist message and so the central message of Buddhism is ‘Choose Life,’” Hamnett told The Fashion Spot in 2013. “We put that on a T-shirt and it’s now been appropriated by the anti-abortion lobby, which is pretty annoying.”)
In recent years, Michael was seen as having been somehow calmed, both musically (the soft soul contained in 2014 live album Symphonica) and spiritually, after decades of provocative statements and salacious run-ins with the authorities for “lewd acts”—cruising, mainly, a sexual impulse he was not ashamed of—and minor drug possession charges. This gentler George Michael perception was, very specifically, in stark contrast to the explosive way he emerged from Wham! as a solo artist—first with a massive Aretha Franklin duet, an honor few achieve, and then with the 1987 solo debut Faith, which necessarily imbued Michael with a less poppy, more adult image, so that he could both make a splash and be taken seriously as the blue-eyed soul singer he was.
Faith was slick and gritty, and imbued with a sensuality that Wham!’s squeaky clean neons never quite achieved, even with vaguely suggestive lyrics like “If you gonna do it/do it right/do it with me.” With Faith, Michael—who then identified privately as bisexual but would come to identify as gay—reacted and responded to the cultural sea change in sexual expression; he embodied desire in an era during which desire could kill. And though he was not publicly out until 1998—after being arrested for cruising an undercover cop in a Beverly Hills public restroom, a fact which he later spoofed in the video for “Outside”—he was nonetheless producing some of the mainstream’s most indelible queer iconography, a rejection of traditional masculinity that would render itself ever sexier for his comfortability within it. He had his portrait shot shirtless, with a single cross earring dangling from his ear. One could argue that he reinvented white male butts—the specificity of this body imagery, clad in rugged Levi’s, that would be a defining facet of the late ‘80s across the pop spectrum.
With Faith, he came out swinging, releasing “I Want Your Sex” as its lead single. The song not only left a certain sense of lyrical ambiguity as to whose sex he might want, it also advocated against puritanism through its very existence. Even on radio edits that truncated the chorus to, absurdly, “I Want Your,” he made a good argument for its normalization: “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it but everybody should” and, in a falsetto’d bridge, “It’s natural! It’s chemical! It’s logical! Habitual!—Can we do it?!” Even the video was somewhat bisexual, ostensibly between a man and a woman—his then girlfriend Kathy Jeung—but with homoerotic shots of water blasting on male abs. It was a blurring of the lines that indicated self-acceptance, bravery, intimated a freedom of expression. HEUH, SEX! The song’s only conservative theme was written in retrospect, with its insistence that “sex is best when it’s one on one,” along with the word “monogamy” in the video, both rewrites to tone down the song after it was criticized as promoting promiscuity just as AIDS awareness was sweeping the western world—and the song was still banned on both the BBC and one-third of US radio stations.
It was this culture of fear and repression that made the openness and virility in his songs so much more appealing, and the rejection of his sexual celebration both amplified it and hit a nerve. Michael would go on to work tirelessly for AIDS awareness among his other charitable efforts—in 1993, he would commence a relationship with designer Anselmo Feleppa, and in that same year Feleppa would die from complications of AIDS—and his music would become more somber accordingly. But in this early stage, there was a renegade, defiantly human and expressive quality to his music that would echo and reiterate that early Wham! message: “CHOOSE LIFE.”George Michael opens the first of three sold-out Madison Square Garden concerts with “I Want Your Sex,” 1988. Image via AP