A couple weeks ago, I gifted a friend with two Wham! LPs I’d found while digging for vinyl. They were jokey presents, emanating from a conversation we’d had some time before over beers, bringing to the surface the deep philosophical import of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” or some such comedic endeavor. I don’t remember. But giving him the records led to another conversation, about pop music and the lasting pleasures of what at the time might seem like disposable teenybopper tuneage.
“Wake Me Up” is a great example of that kind of thing, from the “Jitterbug” refrain to the silly chorus to the sillier video, with its “Choose Life” t-shirts and black-lit neon short-shorts and cutoff gloves. It was a perfect piece of supposedly disposable pop, a fitting entrant in a long line of songs (I’m thinking of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “1, 2, 3 Red Light,” “Little Bit O’ Soul,” etc.) that provide hooks a-plenty and sentiments that are precision-guided strikes to the hearts and minds of young fans, but which dissipate harmlessly before hitting the Unmoved or the Uninterested or the Too Cool. In the end, the Unmoved and the Uninterested and the Too Cool wind up being wrong. The disposable winds up becoming indispensable; the cumulative impact on the listeners who got it winds up being stronger over time.
And here we are, 32 years and change from Wham!’s first stateside impact, reading obituaries for George Michael, dead at 53, many of us once again this year (this damnable year) floating in streams of memory that only music can coax us into.
My wife is, of the two of us, the bigger fan; she saw him live once from the fifth row of the old Philly Spectrum, and still marvels at his skills as a performer. His skills as an interpreter are what kept me interested in his work in more recent times. His cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” in 1990 can still knock me over, and a more recent cover of Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town” is quiet yet bold, an exquisite thing to hear. His 1999 album Songs from the Last Century is beautiful from start to finish; what strikes me most is his restraint; each track deserves a supple touch, and he provides it seemingly effortlessly. Though nothing on the album screams “definitive version,” it’s all gorgeous stuff.
A record like Songs from the Last Century could only have happened once Michael shed both his earliest teenybopper inclinations and the practiced sex symbol moves of Wham!’s final record and his first solo album. The first transition seemed easy for him—he was, after all, Wham!’s voice and main focal point, and had been forging an identity for himself outside of his partnership with Andrew Ridgeley since “Careless Whisper” (released in England as a solo single). The second transition—from sex symbol to mature artist (whatever that meant then or means now)—seemed at best awkward (when you have to tell an audience to Listen without Prejudice, you risk striking them as a bit pretentious), at least at first, but in the end, he probably had the last laugh, going on to make pop music for adults, tracking the concerns and desires of his audience like few artists of his era. Sometimes those concerns were about the dire state of the world (“Praying for Time”); sometimes they were about dealing with loss (“Jesus to a Child”). Sometimes, though, the audience just wanted to dance; Michael could still get them to do that, too (“Outside,” “Fastlove”).
But the first thing I wanted to hear when I found out he’d died was “Somebody to Love”—this big, moving moment with the surviving members of Queen at the Freddie Mercury Tribute show, Wembley Stadium, April of 1992. Listen to the energy and command Michael brings to the song, his locked-in groove with the band, and watch the way he captures the crowd, throwing the final “Love” to them and reacting so genuinely when they send it back to him. It was one of the two or three defining moments of the show, a moment that moves me to this day, nearly 25 years after first seeing it.
This year, we’ve seen the creators of many of our most precious pop culture touchstones pass from this life. Adding George Michael to this list—on Christmas Day, at that—is just the latest dart to our hearts. Music in general has lost a unique, beguiling auteur, but those Eighties kids who danced to those early hits (and later ones, too)—those kids have seen another chunk of their adolescence float off into the ether. In their mourning today, here’s hoping they pop a CD into a dusty player, or load a cassette into an old tape deck, and bring those songs and that voice to life again.