I’ve been listening to Amazing by George Michael on a loop for the best part of a week now. I thought George was pretty amazing. He was actually my second boyfriend. My first boyfriend was Jason Orange. He had a cool penthouse apartment in Castlefield, Manchester. It was a converted mill: exposed brickwork, steel girders, the works. Very sexy. It was fun for a while, but when I finally got over Jason’s jaw line I dumped him and moved in with sexy George. He was the perfect boyfriend for my teenage self. Hot and always up for it. In fact he was the only person at that time, other than Madonna, offering me any form of sex education. He was also the first openly gay man I knew of who openly had chest hair. This was a big deal for my post-pubescent self. I couldn’t see my reflection anywhere in the waxed and shaved gay media until George came along and undid his shirt. He was sensitive. An artist. Every night for about 6 months he serenaded me to sleep with the songs from his Older album. His lyrics were complex. I loved them and didn’t understand them in equal measure. I didn’t understand them in the same way that I was struggling with the lyrics in Sondheim’s Company. But (and possibly because of this) I couldn’t resist them, just as I couldn’t resist him. I kept going back for more and more.
In 1998, I moved to London; and George and I split. I still loved him, but the world was now offering me more. At the same time, George “came out” publicly, telling the world what I’d long known. It was spectacular. Growing up, I’d come to believe that sex equalled shame. This wasn’t just a gay thing. Sex, regardless of sexuality, is a taboo in our world, bizarrely; and anything that’s taboo carries the burden of shame. George had long used his music to campaign for the good of sex, acknowledging it as being intrinsic to the human experience. But now he was going much further, releasing Outside in all its glory. Oh, the glory! The lyrics. The performance. Listen to the humour in the vocal delivery of that first section: he sings it down the octave. And then there’s the video! Have you seen the video? Watch it! That LA cop wanted to shame him, the media wanted to shame him; his response was a resounding, joy-infused, “No!” No shame here, just unapologetic celebration. Giggles and good times. I ain’t done anything wrong! I’m just fulfilling my humanity. The only people shamed in that whole episode were those trying to bring him down (the cop involved actually tried to sue George for mocking him with the video; he didn’t win). This was all tremendously encouraging for my 19-year-old self.
Time and time again, over the years, we saw the media trying to bring him down. Sometimes, to be honest, he messed up. But don’t we all (mess up)? After every potentially career-derailing embarrassment, George owned it. He didn’t get defensive or try and blame someone else; he just owned it. How frustrating that must have been for the media. No matter what story they were spinning, he kept defusing the shame (out of it). Shame is endemic in the world today. Most of us are ashamed of, well, being human. We try so very hard to hide that we’re human. It’s one of the reasons we look to art (in all its forms), to seek reassurance; to be reminded that there are other humans walking among us. Why do we keep trying to cover up our “flaws” and fuck ups? We all have them; we all make them. I wish we could all find the courage to be more like George. The people who fuck up are far more inspiring to me than those goody two-shoes who don’t, because ultimately I don’t believe the ones who “don’t.” I was a goody two-shoes at school. I never broke the rules (I still rarely do); but I knew myself well enough to know that there was a whole other private world going on inside. That contradiction is where the conflict lives. The fear and the shame.
In 2006, George was arrested for possessing drugs. In an interview afterwards he said that it was his “own stupid fault, as usual.” I never forgot those words. They somehow seared themselves into my subconscious. We’re used to big stars “going off the rails”; it often seems to be part of the gig. But how many stars fess up and take the rap? It’s not that George was humble; rather, he didn’t try to glamourise his mistakes. He didn’t lie. He didn’t use the mistakes to ramp up the allure of his stardom; they were just stupid things that he’d done and often regretted doing. He was a real human who also happened to possess that voice and write those songs. As a fellow artist, as a fellow human, this was incredibly inspiring: you can make a dog’s dinner of things, but still achieve greatness.
He may have spent his final months hiding and privately struggling with shame around his appearance, if the reports are to be believed (and if they are to be believed then that’s fine because he was human); but in those moments that he publicly interacted with the world, he was honest. In interviews he was honest. In his art he was honest. He fucked up. He struggled. He lived. No shame.
On Desert Island Discs, he talked about his inability to lie, “I’m too honest to dye my hair. I’m too embarrassed to dye my hair. I’m not a liar.” I saw that, I got that, I respected that, I admired that, I loved that. It was an invaluable lesson to my 19-year-old self, coming to terms with my sexuality; and it’s still a lesson to my 37-year-old self, coming to terms with this living malarkey.
Thank you, George. You seemed more human to me than any pop star I can recall. I shall miss you terribly.
Listen to the ‘Desert Island Discs’ episode here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b008006s