“Wham! were cool . . . their music was modern, it was optimistic, and in its stated desire for the pair to avoid steady jobs but still make a success of it, spoke to our own lives and ambitions. In other words, unlike say, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who we loved but who were utterly alien to us, it was British. Our excitement for Wham! lasted but a year at best . . . along the way, and hardly surprisingly, the audience switched with them, from male teens aspiring toward musical and political multiculturalism, toward one almost exclusively comprised of female teenyboppers.”
—music writer Tony Fletcher in 2017
I am thirteen in my memories of George Michael at his zenith. He is a superstar musician, a poster on my wall. As a poster on my wall, his self is incidental. His music, however, is not. Each hit engineered to sell. Each song physical touch. Watch me lay there, on my bed, on my blue wall-to-wall carpet. Play the album “Faith” on my stereo. Or, in my Walkman. The songs wash through me. Such pleasure is available to anyone with a radio, yet private—and mine—nonetheless.
Pleasure was leisure. “Desperate, but not serious,” as Adam Ant would say. Not a study. I wouldn’t take my pleasure seriously until college, reading Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and later on, Audre Lorde. Reading bell hooks helped me embrace my own abilities to see layers in the culture around us, this sea we swim through daily.
If you ask if I knew sensuality in middle school, I’d say yes: through music. Wham! gave me joy. George Michael gave me pleasure. Say a band is for “female teenyboppers,” and watch gates rise from the ground, excluding the band from any space where serious people speak of serious music. Use those fighting words, and you reduced pop stars and their fans to the dust on your shoes. May I say here that my teen pleasure mattered? Or, may I repeat that joy is worth our exploration?
* * *
I mean, loving George was easy. He stood pretty but not apart. He did not sneer. He did not scowl. If he looked tough, he gave Grease, not Sid & Nancy. He sang to us. Not just come ons. Sometimes he sang “I don’t even think that I love you!” but in a tight shot as he stared right at us. He stared at us often, at turns seducing—imploring—but safely, behind glass.
Cut to a close-up of his backside. His one-two hips. His flawless blond, blow-dried hair kept poshly feathered just so. Rush past him on a tabloid cover and you’d mistake him for Princess Di—at least Andrew Ridgley, his Wham!-mate, claimed to later in a recent memoir. George eclipsed Andrew in those days. As a solo artist, George filled the screen full-stop. The camera panned up George’s rip-jeaned leg. Panned slowly up his backside until we saw the word “Revenge” painted on his black BSA leather, a single cross earring hung from his left ear. So gloriously butch, this sex object and this man in control of our looking. He kept on his sunglasses and we kept looking and buying.
In George Michael’s “Faith” video, he’s earned his distance. We lean forward. He plays his guitar, or, he performs playing guitar. Whether he is truly playing guitar is immaterial. He performs the promise of rock and roll. The camera cuts to a pair of lovely femme legs in heels. George’s booted foot keeps time on a Wurlitzer jukebox. The femme’s high heeled shoe does the same, opposite. That’s the video: George Michael playing guitar in a square of screen. Each time I watch, I’m hypnotized by motion from his body and the film cuts.
Critics accused video makers in the 1980s of destroying attention spans. Some videos of the time are a frenetic mess. Not “Faith.” Each frame is intentional. Each frame speaks to the next. This is magic and motion that reaches through the screen. This is how a girl feels touched without touch.
* * *
In suburban Detroit, I coped with racial segregation– in my apartment complex, at school, in music. My mixed family defied this segregation. We crossed borders as we pleased. White mother, brown stepfather, Black daughter. We flipped radio stations as we drove between the city and the suburbs. You could feel allegiances, prejudice. How Black people could be declared inferior and scary. How Asian people should be quiet and buy American. Jokes at school told us this. So did narratives on the news. Quincy Jones could produce “We are the World” in 1985, but showing musicians of different colors together was still a statement.
Think of Wham! videos and yes, think of George and Andrew, but also think of Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman. Think of Pepsi DeMacque. Think of concerts and Top of the Pops performances where the composition of the crafted image was never just two pretty white boys but a mixed race backing band and two backup singers, always standing together, always one white and one Black, co-equals, at least of Backup Ladyland. You may not think the 1983 song “Club Tropicana” will do anything for your politics. Watch the video. Yes, tanned young George and Andrew are presented for your consumption. But there’s more here. Dee and Shirlie play “The Girls” on the hunt for holiday love opposite “The Boys,” George and Andrew. Dee and Shirlie together, no one elevated above the other. Dee C. Lee would leave Wham! early to join Paul Weller’s The Style Council, the band that English rock god formed after dissolving The Jam. She’d marry Weller in 1987, two years after singing one my favorite songs of resistance: “Walls Come Tumbling Down.” Indeed.
* * *
George Michael was mixed, too. Not Black, but mixed enough to grow up “other” among Englishmen with his English mother who’d been a dancer and Greek Cypriot dad who opened a restaurant. George’s parents named him Georgios Kyriacas Panayitou. In print, I read his first name as “gorgeous,” each time—which dear God he was—but the story goes like this: in high school, Andrew Ridgeley was the good-looking, self-assured one. George was shy and chubby with unmanageable curly hair as described by Shirlie Holliman, who in addition to Wham! backup vocalist, was the duo’s former classmate. George and Andrew dropped out of their London high school together to make music. They started a ska band called “The Executive” which I’d never heard of until I started this essay. The ska band died a quick death. The duo phoenixed as Wham!
Songs don’t have to be for you to make you happy. George pushed Andrew away as horseplay in the “Bad Boys” video and we get that lingering shot of their locked gaze. The 1983 “Young Guns (Go For It)” lyrics ridicule the “happy with a nappy”-changing young men who instead could be out with their boy/friends. How the song “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do?)” includes the lyrics “I choose to cruise” and “caution pays”—which I’d always heard as “abortion pays” and per the Internet, I’m not alone.
Wham! sang from serious “bros before hoes” territory in that first year, yet I never felt excluded. I imagine this has everything to do with that Tony Fletcher year, the one I did not have. Wham! blew open American FM radio and MTV with their second album “Make It Big” (1984) with its hits of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants”—songs, you could argue, that were for me, as a girl or a woman, the songs that made Wham! big and propelled George to superstardom. Loving Wham! made me eager for more, made me stop and savor what came before, helped me know, I suppose, that I was safe. That a man could play many personas as long as you knew one was for you.
* * *
My friend’s dad made her throw away her “I Want Your Sex” single. We felt misunderstood about loving George’s 1987 hit, one of a string of hits off Faith, yet we got it: any song that made its intentions so plain, even including the lyric what’s your definition of dirty, baby, what do you consider pornography was going to get pushback.
The video avoided MTV censorship. As far as I could tell, “I Want Your Sex” played on heavy rotation. George co-starred with makeup artist and then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung. I remember strong messages that you could call mixed. That screen square again. This time: a woman’s face, partial. Not any old Hollywood blonde. An Asian woman. Short blonde wig. Later, her black hair, stylishly cut, wet. She tousled her hair in slow-motion. Cut to this woman in a black teddy, walking. We see her torso and hips from the side. On her hip, a blue birthday bow, or, the ribbon pinned to a prized pig. At thirteen, I’ll know it’s remarkable that they cast an Asian woman as the white superstar’s love interest, and not purportedly in a creepy Rod Stewart “Every Picture Tells a Story” way that extolls the love of a “slant-eyed lady.” More like Deep Purple’s “My Woman from Toyko,” a man in lust, maybe love, trying to seal the deal, though it’s never that simple, of course, but it is, but it’s never.
The video for “I Want Your Sex” is definitely male gaze-y, but Kathy Jeung did more than strut and vamp. She smiled. She laughed. She curled her toes as if pleasured. They presented her for viewing but she didn’t seem hunted. She sashayed. Sometimes we watched her backside as she sashayed. George lipsticked the words “explore” and “monogamy” on her nude body, or the body double for the music video. I’ll read George say they included the monogamy language to keep the video from getting banned.
I read, much later, that George cruised for men when he was with Kathy. How he and Kathy handled his full sexuality within their relationship is unknown to me. Whether George and Kathy had an intimate relationship at all, as some have questioned, is a mystery. Yet, what we saw with our own eyes felt bold in the worst decade of the HIV-AIDS crisis. See George in his Katherine Hamnett-designed “Choose Life” t-shirt in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” How the critics only saw sunshine and short shorts. How they couldn’t see what it took to be this positive. How they didn’t see how poignant it was, in the face of fear, in the face of this killing disease, to celebrate joy. To indeed, choose life. Before, of course, the command was commandeered by the anti-abortion right.
* * *
In 2019, I read interviews with George Michael where he tried to make sense of his sexuality and his early career. He declared he never had crushes or attachments as a school boy. He spoke of a numbness. I wonder how much fear was poured into him early, through his family, through the culture. Love free and die. Love free and lose your family. How, despite having gay encounters in his youth and young adulthood, George felt attracted enough to women to maintain the front of heterosexuality. To pursue women. To fuck women. To fuck men. He declared to friends he was bisexual. He wanted to be the biggest selling singer in America. His maternal uncle and maternal grandfather had both committed suicide and were reportedly gay. They lived in a time in England when to be gay was considered wicked. How his own father would not allow him in the flat above the family’s restaurant if the waiter, who was gay, was around. How his own mother apparently blamed herself for possibly passing down a “gay gene,” how she worried her son would be like her father and brother, “unable to cope.”
George will sing, much later, of his uncle in the song “My Mother Had a Brother.” George said his mother didn’t even tell him about his uncle until he was sixteen years old. His mother kept her uncle’s life and death secret from George for sixteen years. How George wished his uncle and his grandfather could have known his freedom. A cop busted George for cruising in a public Los Angeles toilet in 1998. Coping with fallout pushed George to come out to the world, perhaps not on his terms, or, totally on his terms, once he decided to speak. He’d make the glorious “Outside” video, filled with lovers loving and trying to avoid CCTV and paparazzi helicopters and cops, so many cops and watch as the bathroom urinals swivel to reveal a sexy disco scene and George dressed as a sexy cop with his own sexy cop dancers. George would still get laughed at and ragged in the tabloids. He’d run his Range Rover into a photo shop and get his license suspended. More jokes ensued. But look at him. He was his own freedom song – the song where he wants the freedom, where he’s as free as fame and talent and riches allow. He achieved what so many men before him had not: he didn’t have to hide who he was or who he wanted to be.
Articles I read described George growing reclusive in later years, before he died at age 53, on Christmas Day in 2016 from heart disease and a fatty liver per the Oxfordshire senior coroner. In the last years he stayed inside his beautiful homes and smoked a lot of weed. But I also read that he continued to cruise. A lot. Maybe “every day” at Hampstead Heath. That this was his culture and anyone who had a problem with it, could, as they’d say in England, piss off.
* * *
In a 2019 Vice article James Greig interviews Hampstead Heath partygoers celebrating George Michael’s life, particularly his life as an out and proud gay man. Greig interviews gay men about the thrill of cruising, a lost art for some in the age of hook-up apps. How so much depended upon eye contact and vibe, how you might choose someone you wouldn’t normally choose because you like the way they carry themselves, or, you’re horny and you’re not going home without release. And you’d fuck outside. Outside! Or maybe in a men’s room, yes, but it’s the outside part that attracts me, the idea of a forest, or a secluded parkland, and you both found each other, and you both want to be there, and it’s hot, it feels and sounds so hot, a “Hungry Like the Wolf” video, but you’re both the hunters and you’re both the prey, and I have to admit I am aroused, that I find all of that hot, and yes, I see creeping at the perimeter the danger inherent in the moment, in every second of the encounter, how men can be so violent if they turn on you, if they lured and preyed upon you, how the hunter could be a cop undercover, coming on to you to betray you and parade you downtown. How as a woman I can’t dream of doing this with men, or, I can dream of it, but it is fantasy, only fantasy, at least for those of us who won’t court the death women are told they deserve when they open their bodies to the wrong men.
To be the man. To be with the man. I read this story and my face is pressed against the glass. Again, I’m trying to get through and there’s no going through, like me at gay clubs with gay men so many years ago. The numerous times I’ve wished I could be more than a tourist, wished that energy could be more than weather around me. How I’ve wished, and lusted, in safety.
That’s what George gave me. Sexiness so close, so physical through his music, yet never a threat. The voyeur’s pleasure is pleasure but not intimacy. His music played through me but never broke the seal. Just held me, held you, like we want father figures to do.
* * *
Is it my fault that George Michael named his song “Father Figure”? I didn’t want my father in an oedipal way, but I know some relationships I sought and lived felt like reunion. Felt like remembered odes on loop.
My father died in 1980 at age 31 when I was six years old. Each time I type this, I still feel shock that he was able to commit suicide through alcoholism so quickly. I don’t have a clear picture of his face in my mind. Or of his height. Or remember sensations of what his hair felt like on his head, on his cheeks, on his arms. Just flashes.
Music brings him back. Blood, Sweat, and Tears. And when I die, and when I’m gone, they’ll be one more child in this world to carry on. We lived in at least four different Detroit apartments before my father’s death, three of them with him and one of them without him and the last place we lived together was in the duplex where my grandmother rented the top apartment and we rented the bottom. On a back dresser stood my father’s reel-to-reel player. That’s a real memory. Blood, Sweat, and Tears always plays. I must admit memory is meshed with wish fulfillment for my father sings to me you’ve made me so very happy. He sings to me they’ll be one more child in this world to carry on. How terribly on the nose those songs were. Like “Father Figure.”
I flashback to eighth grade, age thirteen, and that school field trip to Washington DC, and it’s 3:00am and the boy behind me kicks my seat and I am desperate to sleep. How the only soothing I’ll know is with my Walkman, with that Faith cassette, with those synthesizer notes, with George slipping into the dream, pulling me through and I am sinking into warmth and memory. I will be the one who loves you til the end of time. Ahead of me, the massive front bus window as we submerge deeper into the night. Doesn’t matter. I am soothed.
Stacy Parker Le Melle is the author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (HarperCollins/Ecco). Originally from Detroit, Le Melle lives in Harlem where she curates the First Person Plural Reading Series.