For George Michael, pop stardom was an entry point, not a final destination. It was a vessel for his music, and once he reached its pinnacle, he strove for something less transitory. That’s not to say Michael thought himself better than pop music; to the contrary, it was fame and its gilded confinements that bored him. For more than 30 years, he spent his career in pursuit of pop perfection. Rather than treating the music as innocuous and disposable, Michael proudly championed great pop music as true art.
“If you listen to a Supremes record or a Beatles record, which were made in the days when pop was accepted as an art of sorts, how can you not realize that the elation of a good pop record is an art form?” Michael told Rolling Stone in a 1988 interview. “Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”
At first, Michael, who died Sunday, was easy to dismiss. A bottle blond cutie chirping “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the first international hit for the British duo Wham!, formed with his childhood chum Andrew Ridgeley, Michael seemed as substantial as a jelly doughnut. Yet that song was also a perfectly yummy slice of pop Velveeta, written, produced, and arranged by Michael, then barely out of his teens. He would handle those duties on most of his biggest hits, including his fantastic first solo album, “Faith,” which won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1989.
For that album, he dove into pop-star iconography, curating a more mature image that left his boy band origins in the dust. Especially prominent were the mirrored aviator shades that allowed Michael to see out, but none to see in. (Or, perhaps, when you tried to look into his eyes, you saw only your reflection.) Buoyed by its slick, sexy videos, “Faith” was massive, mixing upbeat hip shakers and soulful ballads. Still, there were doubters. Was he another cultural appropriator mining black music and regurgitating it for a wider, whiter audience? (He was not.) Was he gay and, if so, why play coy in the peak of the AIDS crisis, when it would have meant everything to have an out-and-proud gay man as one of the biggest stars on the planet?
Michael, who was always generous with his time and money in support of LGBT causes and fighting AIDS, would deal with his sexuality on his own terms — much the way he handled his career. He refused to appear in the video for “Freedom ’90,” the biggest hit of his follow-up album, “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1”; he wasn’t even on the album’s cover. Just as he had broken with Wham!, he shunned his “Faith” persona. This was more than a typical “fame-is-hard” lament — this was an artist unwilling to trade his musical restlessness for the comfort of guaranteed success. “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” didn’t sell as well as “Faith,” but it was a more daring modern pop album, as Michael fashioned songs that were lyrically and musically complex, provocative, and inclusive.
And he did it all himself. These days, rappers outsource for their best rhymes. Pop stars are propped up by a bevy of trendy producers and songwriters, while claiming someone else’s introspection as their own. Michael was a complete, undeniable talent, whose influence can be heard in Adele and Sam Smith. He was who Justin Timberlake, another boy band expat, thinks he is, but will never be. With Michael’s death, pop music has lost one of its greatest acolytes and craftsmen.
A deeply expressive singer and sorely underrated songwriter, George Michael sought to be — and became — more than a pop star. He was one of pop music’s last real artists.
Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com.