Monday, December 26, 2016

George Michael

Since learning last night the news of George Michael's demise -- Christmas Night, of all nights -- I have been a little at sea and without knowing what to say.

Gen Xers treating the year 2016 like some kind of mummy's curse of a year due to the loss of so many popular icons need to come to grips with the fact that all their childhood heroes are going to die someday. It's called time.

My own personal feelings of grief were better described when I said it feels as though all the doors of my life are closing behind me.

But there's more to that with George Michael, because he became my personal totem, in spite of or perhaps because he was widely seen as a has-been.

"You're a joke, George!" yelled James Cordon in a very funny scene he and George Michael performed together for Comic Relief five years ago. When George was regarded as a lightweight 80s pop star, I protested without irony that I love him and I love his work as my way of keeping it real.

He has such an incredible voice. At the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in early 1992, artists like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant and Axl Rose embarrassed themselves trying to sing the songs of Queen. Only George Michael had the range and the soul to match the powerfully angelic Freddie.

Like Freddie Mercury, George Michael's success in America was much shorter than it should have been due to lingering homophobia which, while it hasn't entirely gone away, no longer necessarily dooms one's career in the United States. First, artists simply passed as straight, but in the 1980s as many took risks walking that line of sexual ambiguity, George bravely or foolish stepped over it several times.

Halloween 1988: The year everyone dressed like George Michael.
(Click to enlarge.)
Finally forced entirely out of the closet in the late 90s due to a charge of cottaging, the American issue of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael was missing an amazing duet with Mary J. Blige of Stevie Wonder's "As" -- again, who on earth could dare out-sing Stevie Wonder? -- which led to rumors at that time that Blige's management did not want her associated with this "controversial" artist. Regardless, as an original single on the collection, it should have been a hit in the United States. It went to number four in Britain,

As my feelings about homosexuality evolved, as they have for so many straight men of my generation (I have written about this) George Michael kept pushing me in the direction of acceptance and understanding.

And there is more to it than even that. The fact is, I started to love both Wham! and then his solo work after the first tremendous blush of his popularity. In 1986, I dated someone who really liked his work, and I am nothing if not an emotional chameleon who immediately conforms to the artistic and cultural interests of the women I find appealing.

So, though I knew all the Make It Big hits that inundated the airwaves and MTV during my junior and senior years, it wasn't until "The Edge of Heaven" that I began listening to George Michael, you know, without prejudice. That one is aggressively sexual, but also suggests a fatalistic view of relationships, identifying sex as the one thing that keeps some of them together (see also, that summer's Peter Gabriel single, "Sledgehammer.") Not exactly the best lesson for a callow fellow about to enter college.

Working backward, the betrayal and deception inherent in hits like "Careless Whisper" and "Last Christmas" and the child-like response to a one-night-stand described in "Nothing Looks The Same In The Light," are a template for poor interpersonal relationships. Lying awake last night, thinking of songs like those and pretty everything on the album Faith, I was struck by how easily dismissed his music, production, performance and appearance was, while his lyrics tapped into this dark and shamefully honest corner of human behavior.

My new work, The Way I Danced With You, the one I took to Alaska and was further developed at Playwrights Local, was originally titled The George Michael Play. Several of his songs get name-checked, but it is really the underlying theme of his songs themselves which provided the inspiration for the script. While I never had any illusion about sharing this script with him, it is another thing altogether to have to accept that I never can.

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

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