George Michael was given to embracing new forms, be they instruments, the burgeoning medium of music videos, or his own continual reinvention throughout his career. He was a white British kid who loved the sounds of Motown, and, later, house music, and bringing soulfulness to everything he did. In the ’80s, pop was becoming an auteurist form, challenging rock-centering arguments that pop was disposable while rock was built to last. Much of ’80s rock was, of course, disposable and just as appearance-driven as pop supposedly was. The early ’80s brought digital synthesizers and seminal drum machines like the Roland TR-808 and Linn LM-1, which radically transformed the sound of pop. Wham! appeared in 1981, fully embracing the new possibilities, threading them into older sounds.
George Michael didn’t believe in hard binaries; he saw no disconnect between using traditional instruments and computerized ones. Michael established early on in his solo career with “Careless Whisper” that he was unafraid of softness — of a beautiful saxophone solo, a delicate synth pad sound, or his own falsetto. “Careless Whisper” features electric piano from Anne Dudley of Art of Noise, who is known for her crucial role in developing the ’80s British pop sound with producer Trevor Horn. Michael fully embraced the role of pop star that he was born for while he was still in Wham! As an MTV artist, he understood that each new single required a music video, and that the look and feel of the music video were becoming as important as the music itself.
Michael initially didn’t think that posing for a camera was any kind of betrayal of musicianship or deal with the devil — it had just become another part of the job. He couldn’t help it that he was so handsome. A singer’s job, particularly, was to entertain a crowd; what did it matter if that crowd was live or gathered around a TV set? Mick Jagger’s live performances were tailored for a camera, so who cared if it was a music video or a taped lip sync for Hullabaloo? Music and television had joined hands in sound and vision. My earliest memory of a sexual urge is seeing the George Michael video for “I Want Your Sex” on TV, and retroactively I understand exactly what it must have been like to see Elvis on Ed Sullivan.
Much like David Bowie and Prince, Michael helped transform traditional ideas of what masculinity could mean. And in his Tom of Finland–esque uniform of leather jacket, white tee, jeans, and aviator shades, the layers were lost on squares. Signifiers like his one earring mostly were a code for those in the know, and Michael’s gender play was of a different sort than Bowie and Prince’s, who preached bending the strict limitations of heterosexual masculinity in the direction of the feminine — wearing makeup and high heels, spotlighting your own androgynous beauty, and maybe making some straight men question how straight they actually are in the process.
George Michael, meanwhile, wore the exact same working-class uniform of maleness as Bruce Springsteen: leather and jean jackets, white tees stretched across their chests, and denim jeans. They dwelled in their own status as sexual fetish objects, showing off the taut shapes of their bodies, making their jeans-clad asses the centerpiece; they were unafraid of their own sexiness. Michael and Springsteen were both continually dressed in a costume that was a gay subculture classic in San Francisco’s Castro, modified from the outfits of ’50s greasers like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Wham!’s dynamic was homoerotic, but not more so than any other all-male band in history — have you seen The Beatles share a mic to sing harmonies?
In the ’80s, the idea of self-commodification as empowerment that eventually became third-wave feminism rose to power in tandem with the ’80s’ hypercapitalistic yuppie ethos. Many artists decided that sexual capital might as well be cashed in on — there was no point in letting it expire on the shelf unused, right? Stars like Madonna saw that sexiness could be its own power — perhaps the only kind of power women were allowed to have. George Michael preached a third-wave masculinity where sexuality was malleable and seductiveness didn’t need to be defined with traditional labels.
The mid-’80s rise of the music video codified two paths: photogenic stars highlighted their hotness, and less photogenic stars generally compensated by putting hot models in their videos as eye candy. Music videos were ultimately a commercial selling a product, and nothing sells like sex. But George Michael never merely sold sex. He just also sold sex. His true message was always one of freedom — from labels, from limits, from preconceived biases. George Michael taught us that you should never assume anything about anyone based on their appearance — be it sexuality or personality — that you always should listen, and look, without prejudice.
Michael eventually felt drained by his relationship with the camera — which, as a singing star known for his sex appeal, he was theoretically to always keep delighted and seduced even though he was realizing he just wanted to fuck aurally. By 1990, during the release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Michael decided he didn’t want to be in the “Freedom ’90” video. He told the L.A. Times, “At some point in your career, the situation between yourself and the camera reverses.” He spoke of feeling like the cameras are really “taking something you don’t want to give.” Michael requested the five female models on a 1990 cover of Vogue U.K. for the “Freedom ’90” video, and five male models were cast as well.
Madonna and George Michael both spent the ’90s rejecting the materialism of the ’80s in favor of more earnest, universal connection. Madonna has spent the rest of her career explaining that “Material Girl” was satire, and Michael burned the fetish icons from his “Faith” video in the “Freedom ’90” video in a cleansing, jukebox-exploding fire. Fresh off of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Propaganda Films’s hot-shot video director David Fincher brought his burnished dark-wood touch and created a series of tableaus of beautiful people enjoying themselves sensually lip-synching to “Freedom ’90.” It’s a perfect pop song with an ecstatic gospel chorus that practices exactly the kind of pure release it preaches, and a perfect match between star and subject. Fincher’s visual interest in sleek surfaces and the sleazy truths underneath — “when you shake your ass, they notice fast” — was made for Michael’s beautiful ode to the ugly side of the music business. For a pop song, it is subversively long, at six and a half minutes.
Despite its length, the song became a huge hit, aided by Fincher’s iconic visual in constant rotation on MTV, with Michael’s MTV-mocking lyrics intact. The video proved Michael’s point that he didn’t need to be onscreen to sell the music. You could easily outsource the image to any “brand-new face” — in this case, gorgeous ’90s supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington — lounging in the sort of beautifully dingy environments Fincher would soon become known for as a film director. The song is a long lyrical deconstruction of Michael’s career up to that point, spanning the teeny-bopper stardom of Wham! to the realization that he had to start privileging his own happiness over the conventions of superstardom: “Today the way I play the game has got to change ... Now I’m gonna get myself happy.” The video became a huge hit, even as it mocked what music videos had made of the music industry, vindicating his own “faith in the sound” as the key to his artistry rather than his looks.
Behind the scenes, Michael was miserable in his contract with Sony. His last single for the label was the Thierry Mugler fashion show–themed video “Too Funky,” featuring Evangelista and other models like Tyra Banks and Beverly Peele, all dressed in Mugler’s cartoonishly feminine dresses with outrageous silhouettes. Michael appears in the “Too Funky” video himself as a voyeuristic director filming the fashion show, symbolically reclaiming control of the lens. As an in-joke, he wears David Fincher’s ’90s-trademark baseball hat, but it’s also Michael adopting a ’90s uniform of male bro-ishness and tweaking it.
The major music video era peaked in the late ’90s — the 2000s moved the medium online, even if it didn’t alter the message particularly when computer screens replaced televisions. Consumption habits changed, and music video budgets, which began as minuscule operations in the ’80s and then became enormous in the ’90s, grew small again. George Michael made the right choice prioritizing his own happiness over the star machine. Had he chosen to remain onscreen, he would have regretted it. His body of work is proof that his voice transcends the flesh.