First, let me preface this post by saying that I am a middle aged, straight man. As a straight man, I have had the experience of being "closeted", albeit to a much lesser extent than my gay brothers and sisters. Let me explain how...
I was in high school, when Wham! started making waves in the world of music, and was in my senior year, when George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (the "other guy") took the world by storm with their hits, "Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)" and "Careless Whisper". As a heterosexual male, it was unheard of to be a fan of Wham!, let alone openly admit to being so. I was far too "New Wave" to pay any attention to cheese Pop, let alone from two pretty boys like George and Andrew... yet, when "Careless Whispers" would be played at my school dances, I was always trying to find a young lady to slow dance with. I didn't acknowledge to liking the song then, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was good.
As the 80's wore on and the demise of Wham! was announced, I didn't pay heed, nor did I care. Truthfully, I was secretly hoping that it would be the end of George and Andrew, since they were becoming the obsession of many a schoolgirl.
I was serving a mission for my church, when George resurfaced with his album "Faith". The titular track was my first exposure to the album, and not the last... which is ironic, considering I wasn't supposed to be listening to popular music during that time. But I couldn't escape it. George was EVERYWHERE. As 1987 began winding down, the song "Father Figure" began its climb up the American charts. Although it was no "Careless Whisper", it did have a nice sound to it, yet I continued to abstain from paying it more than the slightest of attention.
By the summer of 1988, the album was still riding high, and further singles kept getting released. "I Want Your Sex", Hard Day, Monkey... all catchy songs, all popular on the dance floor... but when the song "Kissing a Fool" was released as a single, I was stopped in my tracks. The lush arrangements, in addition to some wonderful Jazz sensibility, made this ballad a standout for me. I loved it. And by 1989 I was considering myself a closeted George Michael fan. I mean, after all, I was a single man and I didn't want to taint any prospective girlfriends with the notion that I actually liked the music of George Michael. How gay would that be??
By 1990, I was married and the popularity of Faith had worn off. Just as I was once again feeling confident in my masculinity, the news of a forthcoming follow-up to Faith was released. The album, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1", hit record store shelves and fueled by the lead single, "Praying For Time", was set to continue the multi-platinum success of Faith. Except it didn't. At least for me. Not with "Praying For Time" being the supposed "hit" of the album. Truth be told, I didn't much care for it. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it.
In addition to my lackluster reaction to "Praying For Time", the overall release of the album was enigmatic, at best. The album cover was simply a black and white photograph that looked something like a "Where's Waldo?" picture. In addition to the non-descript packaging, the label also failed to release a video for the lead single... at least anything more than a black screen with lyrics. Truth be told, George, himself, refused to appear in any of the music videos associated with the album. In the "Freedom '90" video, it became evident that George was taking great strides to be considered a serious artist. The video consisted of several supermodels lip-synching to the song, in addition to a scene where George's leather jacket (of Faith fame) goes up in flames.
I decided to take the dive and purchased the CD of "Listen Without Prejudice". Once I got past the mediocrity of "Praying For Time" (my opinion, not to be confused with the positive opinion of others) and the Pop campiness of "Freedom '90", I was blown away by the seriousness and beauty of the album. I ADORED George for blatantly fighting the image that surrounded him with the Faith album. I, for one, began to take him seriously as a musician. To this day, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" is my favorite George Michael release, but thankfully it was not the last of its kind. By time 1995's "Older" was released, it firmly solidified the talent and ability of this amazing songwriter. With songs like "Jesus To a Child" and "Fastlove", it was loaded with diversity and maturity.
And have I mentioned his voice? I have been a music enthusiast for nearly 40 years of my life and I have NEVER encountered a voice as pure and beautiful as George Michael's. While many artists can sound impressive on tape, there are far less that can sound every bit as amazing in a live context. George Michael could do it all. If you doubt this, just watch his cover of the Bonnie Raitt hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me", from his MTV Unplugged performance. That stirring performance still brings tears to my eyes.
Although George became more and more reclusive, following the negative reactions to his now open sexuality and consequences from some of his more interesting life choices, his talent never faded away. Whether covering some of the most pivotal songs of the 1900's on his album "Songs From the Last Century", or any of his amazing duets, George failed to disappoint.
As I close this post, I have been touched by the outpouring of love and respect for this amazing artist by fans and musicians alike. Sadly, when I see lists of music critics "Top 10 George Michael Songs", following the announcement of his death on Christmas Day, I never see the songs that truly touched me. There was so much more to this amazing musician than the songs that flooded the radio waves. Just last night, my music loving wife, Joan, and I were tracking through some of his songs, when I felt the need to play her one of the most beautiful collaborations that George Michael participated in. The song "Waltz Away Dreaming", which was a collaboration with Irish singer/songwriter Toby Bourke is not only one of the most beautiful music videos ever created, but the song has an emotional honesty that is scarce in most music today.
To pay tribute to this amazing singer, I just wanted to share this oft-overlooked video.
Rest in peace, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. Thank you for sharing your songs... and that voice of an angel. You will be missed.