In the music industry, when a young star hits the international scene, it’s called “doing a George Michael.” The man behind this phrase started off in a duo with Andrew Ridgeley (Wham!) and then progressed to a solo career that brought him global success. George Michael underwent a substantial transformation between 1984 and 1987, swapping the joyful youth and innocence of Wham! for a decidedly more mature, spiritual and sexual persona—particularly when it came to clothing.
On November 4, 1982, Wham! made their first television appearance on the legendary BBC show Top of the Pops. They performed their track ‘Young Guns (Go for It)’, on which George Michael lays down a typical 80s rap over a disco funk beat. The duo, who met in college, quickly attracted a lot of attention. The two young men stood out for their carefree attitude and casual appearance. Nineteen year old Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (George Michael’s real name) caused a sensation with his blue jeans (which he wore without socks) and his sleeveless leather jacket that was always undone, revealing a shaved chest. The press often described their aesthetic as “hard time chic”. After a series of successful singles, in 1983 they released Fantastic, an album that embodied this post-disco vibe. It was followed by an unusual tour on which Wham! were accompanied by only a DJ (a short film was shown half way through the concert too). The following year, they released their second album (Make It Big), which was launched with a career-defining single: ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’—a huge hit with a retro feel that sounds like it came straight out of the Motown catalogue.
In July 1984, in the midst of all this hype, they released a song which put George Michael in the spotlight (Andrew Ridgeley only appears as a co-writer). ‘Careless Whisper’ would be the singer’s first step towards a solo career. He swapped his short shorts and salmon sweaters for a dark jacket, white shirt and socks. The track features Andalusian-style guitar and a sizzling saxophone; it’s lightyears away from the ‘50s frivolity of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. French conductor Johan Farjot even goes so far as to find similarities between the mournful ‘Careless Whisper’ and the melancholic ‘Interlude V’ from Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. After a year packed with concerts (including two highly publicised concerts in China), Wham! broke up in 1985, with George Michael having decided to launch his solo career.
Wham! liked to play around with the idea of youth. In addition to the colourful clothing and bouncy choreography, some of their hits have a slightly bluette feel to them ('Last Christmas'), sometimes even an airy and carefree summer fugue vibe ('Club Tropicana'). Let’s not forget the track 'Like a Baby' and the explicit references to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in the 'Bad Boys' music video. In order to counterbalance the naive and juvenile persona he took on with Wham!, the new George Michael had to be truly ‘adult’. His duet with the incredible Aretha Franklin ('I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)') in January 1987, when he was 23, was a sign that this boy had become a man.
Nevertheless, Baby George hadn’t disappeared completely: the music video shows George Michael staring in awe at an image of the “Queen of Soul” that’s been projected onto a giant screen (much like little Salvatore in the 1988 film Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore). Despite the studded leather jacket, perfectly groomed facial hair and mirror effect aviator glasses, the English singer would always retain an almost childlike vulnerability, right up until his death in 2016.
George Michael’s solo career was dotted with insightful socio-political messages: from celebrating sexual freedom ('Outside', 1998) to denouncing George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq ('Shoot the Dog', 2002). These political stances often juxtaposed with Wham!’s seemingly carefree approach to life, but the duo was far more political than they let on. Some of their early songs are even considered social chronicles of Thatcherism, filled with lyrics that advocate for non-conformity. They were never afraid to speak up for what they believed in, holding a concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall in September 1984 to support the miners’ strike and even ostensibly donning “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirts in the music video for 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go'. The t-shirts were designed by activist and creator Katharine Hamnett, and choosing life meant rejecting Margaret Thatcher’s policy and right-wing politics. One thing that’s remained consistent throughout George Michael’s career is his political stance.
The George Michael of 1987 is sold as the ‘authentic’ George Michael, far removed from the artificiality of Wham! and its “misleading” crypto-gay image. He wanted the public to see that he’d transformed into a star with genuine depth, that he’d outgrown the persona he conveyed with his tight white shorts at the beginning of his career. Whether this transformation was genuine or not, his first solo album, Faith, really magnified his growth as an individual. This record was inspired by Michael Jackson and Prince, two artists who George Michael loved, and their influence on this perfectly balanced pop and R&B album is clear.
In a Rolling Stone article dated the 27th of December 2016, critic Armond White referred to George Michael’s music as “drag in reverse”, since everything – from the lyrics to the music videos – is centred around heterosexual romance, with George Michael as the unlikely protagonist. In the music video for 'Father Figure', references to a very straight Hollywood film industry (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and even Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ weeks) are mixed with erotic heterosexual scenes performed by George Michael himself. It was an aesthetic that contrasted with the much more “gay” Hollywood that Madonna was referencing during the same time (particularly through her obsession with Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe). George Michael would officially come out as gay in 1998.
Is this nothing more than the hypocrisy of the music industry? Or is it simply the actions of a man who was happy to embrace his inner child and disguise his true self? Arguably, he only fooled those who wanted to be fooled, and the George Michael of the late 80s was anything but a caricature. As he said in 2007 in a gay magazine, “If your goal is to become the biggest-selling artist in America – which was still my bizarre goal – you’re not going to make life difficult for yourself, are you?”
Whilst he undoubtedly had fun playing the role of a straight man, he also had fun playing around with gender ambiguity. Michael doesn’t make an appearance in the music video for 'Freedom ! ’90' (which was directed by David Fincher in 1990). Instead, viewers can admire the top female models of the time (Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford…) miming the lyrics. The ‘new’ George Michael adopted a look that was so masculine it was almost reminiscent of artist Tom of Finland’s work, which fetishized ultra-muscly leather-clad men. The music video for 'Faith' also features a jukebox that’s distinctly phallic in shape, adding an extra layer to the aesthetic of his music. These layers all seem to point in the same direction and, coupled with the theatrical choreography that many might describe as “camp”, he made it clear that he refused to embody the stereotypical idea of masculinity.
All this aside, George Michael (alongside the likes of Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood and The Righteous Brothers) is also one of the representatives of blue-eyed soul, a genre of music that refers to white recording artists who faithfully imitate the soul music of the 1960s and onwards. George Michael was inspired by all types of music, including: British rock (like Elton John), American rock (like Elvis Presley), jazz (which was a clear influence on his 1999 album Songs from the Last Century) and even bossa-nova (his 1996 album Older is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim). However, it was soul music that he found the most inspiration in. It might not come as a surprise to learn that this gifted performer was crowned best rhythm and blues artist at the 1988 American Music Awards, and he later stated that his soul “isn’t black or white. It’s pop inspired by rhythm and blues”. However, perhaps George Michael’s biggest transformation can be found in his vocals. From 1987 onwards, he performed songs that were expertly written to showcase his exceptional vocal talent and elasticity. In fact, George Michael’s music possesses a real maturity, despite that boyish charm he kept hold of throughout his life. The release of his second solo album in 1990, Listen without Prejudice Vol 1, featured some very revealing lyrics on the track ‘Freedom’ : “There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone else I’ve got to be. […] I just hope you understand / Sometimes the clothes do not make the man.”