George Michael has had a confounding influence on my life.
I remember watching videos for “Careless Whisper” and “I Want Your Sex” and recognizing that, yes, I find him desirable. But I was at an age where I didn’t know what desire was, and in an age where that kind of desire would imperil my life.
When his arrest forced him out of the closet in 1998, I was surprised on the level of “How the hell did I not pick up he was gay?” It was the kind of realization that put the past in perspective — of course, I found him desirable! He was signaling all this time!
But my brother called dibs on George Michael in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. At first, we were competing over who would get Make It Big by Wham! till radio played all the singles to death and gave neither of us much incentive.
My brother scooped up Faith, but Michael’s popularity was so ubiquitous, I became ambivalent. “Kissing a Fool” was great the first few times. Hearing every five minutes for weeks on end failed to entertain.
When Michael released Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, I was on my way to exploring music further outside the mainstream. The revelation of his sexuality wasn’t enough for me to become a fan, but I did pay attention when he created new music.
Three decades had to pass before I was receptive to examining his music. That ubiquitousness gives Faith a familiarity that feels comfortable. The non-single tracks don’t stand out as much.
Listen Without Prejudice got a lukewarm reception in the US, but it’s the album that shows a lot more maturity and craft. It’s not the hookfest of Make It Big or Faith, but it has a lot more heart and a greater sense of adventure.
It also demonstrated how far Michael had come since Make It Big. The optimism of Wham!’s second album captures the early half of the ’80s well, but it also sealed its fate as a sonic time capsule.
George Michael’s passing epitomizes that Joni Mitchell lyric: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In my case, it’s literal. It took his death for me to overcome an ambivalence formed at a time when other’s people opinions mattered.