George Michael, Father Figure to a Generation of GBTQ Youth

George Michael, Father Figure to a Generation of GBTQ Youth

This is repost of an album review I did the year of George Michael’s death for Pride in June. And I figured I’d repost it on the anniversary of his death during the Holidays.

I have not done an album review in some time but it is Pride month in CA and this got me thinking about how there are a plenty of female gay icons loved beyond the GBTQ but very few gay music icons who are male that transcend the gay divide into major mainstream icon status. We had some fringe dwellers of the male variety like Divine, Sylvester, Liberace, & even Tim Curry in the 70s. They never really got worldwide longstanding chart success, though Tim Curry has had loads of film and theater success. RuPaul has seemed to cross over somewhat but like Divine it is more as a man doing a woman. And on the charts she is a more of a one-hit wonder outside of dance club circles. Adam Lambert seemed like he might become a crossover star but, alas, American Idol fame rarely translates to iconic mainstream success.

In the 80s, you had several new wave acts who were gay and out and making hits; The B-52’s, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood but it didn’t seem to extend beyond the 80s for most of these acts outside of Erasure and Pet Shop Boys (the biggest selling duo of all time). And most of those acts did catchy pop and dance fare, nothing that really oozed and dripped any kind of strong male sexuality that appealed to everyone; gay, straight, male, or female. So the people who ended up coming to mind were the usual big three as it were Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie.

Elton John’s crazy costumes and glasses hit when glam rock, disco, Alice Cooper and Bowie were big, so his flamboyance was easier to take in that context. Plus, we had Liberace who was even more flamboyant, so Elton may have seemed tame by comparison, and rock at the time was flamboyant period. He was also helped greatly by Bernie Taupin writing songs so undeniably amazing they could not be ignored. However, by the late 80s Elton had toned down the crazy duck suit shtick. And at the end of the day Elton was never a sex god, he was more Bowie and Beatles than Marvin Gaye or Prince in terms of blatant sexuality in his lyrics, and in terms of image was seen as more Liberace than Adonis in that 70s period. Unlike Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury wore his sexuality right on his sleeve, whatever form it took, even if he never openly discussed it. Great songs and a great fucking voice who turned rock into a kind of opera for the arena more so than theater with costumes and dramatic sets like Alice Cooper. or Kiss. Plus songs like “Radio Ga Ga,” “I Was Born To Love You,” and the iconic cross-dressing in the music video of “I Want T o Break Free” helped cement his status as possibly the queen among “queens”.

And while he had sexuality to spare, it wasn’t the main driving force of Queens lyrics. Also, watching Freddie in live clips, I always got the feeling he wasn’t everyone’s type, even if his music did touch worldwide audiences.

And neither was Bowie, who like Elton, had his own chameleon like costuming and much like Mercury and Taupin wrote songs one could not dismiss as pop pap. “Rebel Rebel,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “The Jean Genie,” and “Life On Mars” became adopted anthems by the GBTQ as well as outsiders of any community… and eventually the world. But by the 80s, he too was leaving behind much of the theater of his shows in favor of a more polished sound that would produce some of his biggest hits. And while Bowie may not have been everyone’s type, he seemed to have a type for everyone. Every stage of his career offered something for every persuasion, which is probably in part what made him so loved.

What all of these artists had in common was great lyrics, unique vocals and phrasing, great production on the not just the hits but the albums cuts, plus an iconic and often evolving image. And despite the hits and huge success, they still felt like outsiders one could relate to. And so by giving voice to all they were also giving voice to much of the GBTQ. The music was so undeniably music for all, unlike say the more hedonistic rock of the Rolling Stones, or the traditions of country, or the apathy of goth in the 80s and grunge in the 90s. And icons they are. But you can’t pick one album or song from their catalogs and say, “Here is a GBTQ magnum opus album game changer”. In fact, even the female gay icons never produced a gay magnum opus outside several iconic singles like “I’m Coming Out,” “We Are Family,” “Vogue,” “Supermodel,” “Over The Rainbow” etc.

When Freddie Mercury died from AIDS in the early 90s, both Bowie and Elton performed at the famous tribute concert and they gave a good showing, but it was George Michael who stole the show, singing and owning “Somebody To Love”. Watch this performance right now and tell me you don’t feel something.

 

And that brings me to George Michael and his 1987 album Faith. Before going solo, he and Andrew Ridgely fronted Wham!, a new wave soul/pop confection that was bigger in the UK but produced a fair number of hits stateside as well, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” being one of the biggest. But during his stint with Wham!, he was basically a pretty boy pop singer.

It wasn’t until singles like “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper,” that we start to see the hints of R ‘n’ B and soul that would show up on the Faith album and later singles like the stellar “Fastlove”. Whether that transition was planned or not, I do think it helped ease the mainstream public into what he would present to the world on Faith, an album that dominated most of 1987 and ALL of 1988.

And in-between Wham! and going solo, he did the hit duet, “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who was on a comeback. That video is where he left behind his teen idol image and debuted a new more mature “manly” look. Singing with The Queen undoubtedly helped him gain traction with black audiences because if The Queen is willing to grant you an audience and cut a record with you…

 

Also, it should be noted at the time, Prince was everywhere making sexuality – full-on hedonistic sex – an acceptable cornerstone of life and society in general. It is ALL over the lyrics, from cuts like “Erotic City” to “Sexy MF” and “Gett Off,” to side project hits like “Nasty Girl”. Yes, there is the feminine and some androgyny and he is loved across borders, but lyrically he is very very hetero. And whether that was done to mask his more Rudolph Valentino leanings is up for interpretation. I argue “Gett Off” is basically a gay/bi sex anthem, just with the wrong pronouns used to sell more records.

And not the obvious feminism boundary pushing Madonna was doing but building upon the likes of what James Brown, Betty Davis, Barry White, Millie Jackson, and Donna Summer and laid out in the 60s and 70s. Just straight-up no apologies men-and-women-like-to-have-sex-music.

This music helped lots of people, not just the GBTQ, feel better about the sex they were having or wanted to have. So we were, pardon the pun, lubed and ready to go in a way for what George Michael would release on Faith.

What George Michael was able to do on Faith was leave gender and sexual orientation out of the equation, even when he was using gender specific pronouns. This may be the greatest album of all time to bridge the GBTQ world with the mainstream “straight” world and usher in larger acceptance of the GBTQ community as a whole, through music.

And it did so specifically because it was devoid of drag queen get ups and androgyny. There was no question George Michael was a hunk o’ man. At the time there was a lot of promotion and a heavy push to separate himself from his previous Wham! image. But on the album cover, all we have to go on, is that iconic earring on and a black leather jacket. Plus some facial stubble, which in the post disco world was not common for a gay pop star. The leather jacket and earring was no longer just rock god attire it was for everyone.

As a side note: It was about this time in the mid 80s the artsy new wave scene was fading out and dropping a lot of the makeup and wild hair that defined it’s image, which was then transferred to what would later be called glam metal. Ironically, the gay George Michael presented a more “straight” rock image than what was postured on the covers of Poison’s Look What The Cat Dragged In or Cinderella’s Night Songs.

Faith, like many a glam metal album, is a highly sexual album BUT it is not sexist. It deals with a myriad of sexual topics in a myriad of styles from full on funk with “I Want Your Sex,” to house (“Hard Day”), soul (“One More Try”), country (“Faith”), and even jazz pop on “Kissing A Fool”. And it was delivered in a way both the queer and the straight felt comfortable listening, dancing, and in many cases, fucking to.

The album – and George Michael himself – oozed a sexuality that everyone wanted to get and was arguably more accessible than sex demigod Prince. It was the kind of sexual pop that let even the most shy nerd know he had a chance of getting loved and laid, even if he didn’t know how to dance with or talk to girls (or boys). Michael presented the possibility for all to be a part of the sexual realm, while Prince, god love him, told you the many things you could do when you got there.

Faith also allowed straight white dudes to show some sexuality in ways that the mainstream really only ever saw from the likes of Barry White, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. I argue this album allowed “white” people to have “soul” with their sex without feeling like some minstrel copy cat show. And most importantly it allowed the GBTQ a mainstream voice for their sexual world. Despite the media circus around what his sexuality was, the fans and music listeners were basically the loving parents that always knew their son was gay and never cared.

And it cannot be understated the importance of this acceptance because while artists like Boy George and Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive were out and proud and even had hits, they did not present as what at the time was seen as straight. In that era, the make up and clothes of those acts meant one HAD to be gay, a hair band, or Prince. So for George Michael to present an alternate homosexuality that would normally be seen a straight was revolutionary in part because it gave those in the GBTQ who didn’t care to put on make-up or dress in wild clothes somebody to look to and it made the GBTQ community as a whole stand out less in the world like a curious circus sideshow.

No less important, it prevented homphobes and gay-bashers from being able to escape or distance themselves from the reality of GBTQ existence by simply dressing “straight.” To present an image that in some way said queers could be among you, not a common notion in the 80s.

These days, nostalgia and history have whittled down his solo career to to the hits “Careless Whisper,” “Everything She Wants,” and “Faith.” Not bad, not bad. And certainly, “Faith” seems to be a standard now of the millennial and younger crowd when they want to go “old school” at karaoke. But I think, the Faith album as a whole should be up there with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, A Night At The Opera, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

No, it does not attempt to achieve any arc or story or grand metaphor but that is precisely why I think it deserves such recognition. These songs are unabashedly, unashamed, straight ahead soulful, pop, r ‘n’ b. There is no wowing you with instrumental wizardry or deep analysis needed (even if he played many of the instruments on the album). “I Want Your Sex” pretty much says what it’s about. “Faith” doesn’t need a second reading between the lines. Every song on this album is catchy as hell with zero filler. It is a masterpiece of pure unrestrained chart-busting craftsmanship.

Hell, than man managed to even make Elvis-flavored country hip in the mainstream with “Faith,” which opens the album, before going full on soul with “Father Figure” as the second track… a bold move in 1987. And one simply didn’t close out a dance record with a torch ballad like “Kissing A Fool” which was also boldly released as the album’s sixth single.

It is worth mentioning, George Michael wrote and produced the album himself (there was only one co-write), which to this day is kind of unheard for most pop albums and acts of any era – or hell – any genre. Even Michael Jackson’s Thriller was led by the Quincy Jones production machine, with the band Toto as the session players, and a list of songwriters that included James Ingram and Rod Temperton.

On Faith, George Michael played keyboards, bass, and drums on the album and all instruments on “I Want Your Sex” and “Monkey”. So when people go and on about how many people it takes to make a hit song or album, let this be Exhibit A.

Six out of the nine songs on Faith  hit Billboard’s Top 10, four of those hit #1. That’s something Bowie, Elton, Queen, and even Prince never achieved. “Hard Day” probably would have been the seventh charting single, had their been a music video produced for it. It was a HUGE club hit. And almost every one of the songs on the album found their way onto the dance charts or the dance floor.

The only other albums of that late 80s era to come close were Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl (five Top 10s, four #1s) and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (a whopping seven Top 10s). Not even Madonna at the height of her 80s pop powers and controversy achieved that much mainstream charts success from one album. Also, Madonna, gay icon that she is, has never managed to do what George Michael did with Faith: get major, mostly unanimous respect from across genre isles and age ranges.

Many people still hate Madonna and decry her as mainstream watered down garbage even if they admire her fortitude and business savvy. But not George Michael. Back in the day I remember headbangers giving props to George Michael, even if only in secret. As I said above, people knew he was gay even if the media wanted some saucy narrative for the tabloids. I believe part of what helped his success was that unlike today we didn’t always need to shout out our identities so vocally or try and squeeze our identities into a box with a constricting label.

There was a lots less tribalism in the 80s. Part of that was an attempt to hide or blend in with mainstream society and not be noticed out of fear, especially if you were part of the GBTQ community, but also it should be said that in many circles and certainly larger cities you could just be you and people knew and many times most people did not care as long you were not an asshole.

And yes; Bowie, Mercury, Elton, and Prince, certainly paved the way but all their sexuality on some level was also questionable or at the very least androgynous (except for maybe Elton’s) if not seen as outright straight. With George Michael, there was no question if he was, to quote David Bowie, “a boy or a girl” (no matter how he presented, or hid it) and it didn’t seem to matter to anybody.

And that laissez faire attitude towards his sexual orientation, coupled with his new more mature image, and one sexually-charged chart smash after another was a beacon of hope for the GBTQ that we were making serious headway in our fight for acceptance in mainstream society. It allowed acts like Melissa Etheridge, K.D. Lang, The Scissor Sisters and others to continue the push the community forward out in the open into the larger society without having to conform to long standing stereotypes.

Now, I may be biased because I like to dance … a lot. And so I love a good dance record … a lot. But I declare Faith a pop, soul, r ‘n’ b, dance – scratch that…

I declare Faith a music masterpiece.

And like any musical masterpiece it always sounds best played loud on expensive home studio equipment or an audiophile’s headphones or blasted on your basic car stereo or cheap boombox because Faith – and George Michael – is for everyone.

Tasty Tracks:
ALL OF THEM

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