You Can't Divorce George Michael From His Anarchic Queer Legacy
There was nothing wrong with Coldplay covering Michael at the Brits, but you'd be hard-pressed to find two musicians further apart.
In 1982, George Michael introduced himself to the UK with an extremely guttural "ugh!" – a sound of defiance and pleasure that barely took up a second of Wham!'s debut single "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" but stands as a self-contained expression of everything the duo, and George Michael specifically, would go on to represent. "Wham Rap!" was George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley's affirmative mission statement for "club men" and "pub men" alike and, to this day, remains a love letter to living life however you want to irrespective of anyone else's opinions. "So you don't approve, well who asked you to?" Michael hollers, playfully shaking his leather and stud-decorated arse at the camera. Looking back, it's difficult to believe that at this point he was just 19 years old, or that anti-gay legislation was still in place across the UK, stigmatising homosexuality as morally corrupt and, as the HIV/AIDS crisis escalated, something to be feared.
George Michael's death on Christmas Day – the timing so theatrical it almost feels like he designed it himself – was a national blow that landed so hard the grief was tangible; a physical burden even greater than trying to digest 12 hours of constant eating. Outpourings gushed from every corner, lauding him as a defiant gay icon and the greatest male vocalist of his generation. Testimonial after testimonial came in about his kindness and quiet generosity, whether it was working with homeless shelters or giving money to someone who appeared on Deal or No Deal with the aim of getting IVF treatment.
But one quote that flew around Twitter in the days and weeks following his death was about his sexuality. Taken from a 2005 interview with The Guardian, it read: "Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say I'm a dirty filthy fucker and if you can't deal with it, you can't deal with it." This, for many, was the sort of thing that made George Michael was especially important. Beyond being a rare talent able to write "Careless Whisper" at an age when the rest of us were still fumbling with our genitals in the dark, George Michael was outspoken and fearless. He was an avid appreciator of fucking and being fucked. He was a man who, four months after being arrested for having sex in a Beverly Hills toilet, released a hit single about shagging, accompanied by a video that features a police helicopter hovering over couples of all sexualities getting it on all over LA. It felt strange, then, that after a moving tribute by Andrew Ridgeley and Wham! backing singers Pepsi and Shirlie, who described him as "a supernova in a firmament of shining stars", the person selected to honour his memory at the Brits was our country's biggest comfort blanket: Chris Martin.
Before we get into it there is, of course, nothing wrong with Coldplay covering a George Michael song. Coldplay are probably one of the best live bands the UK has to offer right now, and I would be a liar if I said I was not guilty of watching them do "The Scientist" at Glastonbury 2011 through a veil of furious tears. I couldn't tell you if George Michael was a Coldplay fan, but Coldplay have been covering George Michael songs for a decade – from their damp "Yellow" beginnings to huge vibey concerts in Abu Dhabi, so, fair play. That said, you'd be hard pressed to find someone in British music who is a greater antithesis of George Michael than Chris Martin.
Performing "A Different Corner" from Wham!'s third and final album Music from the Edge of Heaven, Chris Martin gently and, to be fair, very passionately swooned his way through lounge piano version of the orchestral and Morrissey-esque original. There is nothing particularly offensive about Chris Martin, but that's just it. George Michael is a rare and unique artist with a voice that could bring Grant Mitchell to tears. That stands on its own, regardless of politics. But to divorce his artistry from his sexuality is a huge misstep that hushes his anarchic queer legacy. As Owen Jones put it for The Guardian back in December: "When people die, we have a responsibility to remember who they actually were, not a sanitised and false version that is palatable to some."
In the wake of Michael's passing, there was a lot of national backslapping about how much we all loved him, how much he meant – completely ignoring the fact that a huge number of people spent the last three decades taking the piss out of his addictions and seething at his sex life. Hell, there were even claims of hateful comments overheard at the Brits themselves, not to mention the field day British tabloids continue to have with his so-called "scandals".
There is a particular sense of British ownership over George Michael based on the sentiment that he is one of "ours", just like The Beatles are one of "ours" or Kate Bush is one of "ours". If George Michael belongs to anybody inasmuch as any of us truly can, it's to the LGBTQ+ community. For all the tweets, comment pieces and declarations of appreciation for his candid approach to identity, there are still certain sides of the industry that continue to wash over his politics and activism in favour of portraying him as your mum's greatest fantasy, as though his entire fan base was comprised of a million Heathers off Eastenders and not confused teenagers and adults struggling with their identities in a garbage world that George Michael may have made a little brighter. Incidentally, George Michael's own Twitter account is still very much there. Quiet, now, but accompanied by a picture of a rainbow-filtered crowd mirroring a post from 28 June 2015 – the same day as NYC Gay Pride – reading: "Live Without Prejudice". That – and his enthusiastic endorsements of gay sex – is who George Michael was.
In many respects, it doesn't matter all that much what this one particular homage was like. The BRITs haven't done a particularly stunning job of representing anything about UK music since Geri Halliwell stormed the stage by emerging from between a giant inflatable stage set of her own legs and tributes to such great flames rarely match their light. In Andrew Ridgeley's words, George Michael's "legacy will continue to shine and resonate for generations to come. George has left for us in his songs, in the transcendental beauty of his voice, in the poetic expression of his soul, the very best of himself." That much was evident in the fact that he had to posthumously swoop in and rescue his own memorial performance. But wouldn't it have been better to have a tribute from someone who isn't drier than the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag? Someone who didn't belt through "A Different Corner", duck out and reappear half an hour later doing exactly the same thing with Chainsmokers? It was fine, it was innocuous and it was tasteful. But for those same reasons, it just didn't feel much like George Michael.
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(Image by University of Houston Digital Library via Wikimedia)