On paper, Adele probably seemed like an appropriate choice for the George Michael memorial tribute at the Grammys on Sunday night. After all, both artists are from London, they shared an affinity for one another, and the evening itself was orchestrated to be Adele's second Album of the Year coronation. But Adele brought little of the wild, energetic love for pop music that Michael had preached since he first shook his denim-clad derriere in the '80s. Her slowed-down rendition of 1996's "Fastlove" was emotional, of course. But its forlorn tone felt off — less a tribute to Michael's spirit than a grim reflection of his irresolvable absence.
"Fastlove" was the second single from Michael's third solo album, Older — following his hit "Jesus to a Child," which, unbeknownst to the public at the time, was a tribute to his partner, who had recently died of AIDS. It would be two more years before Michael came out of the closet, following an arrest for "lewd behavior" in a Los Angeles public restroom. He took that incident in stride, addressing the controversy with the self-deprecating single "Outside," where he sang about the thrill he found in public sex.
When Michael passed away this past December 25, a flurry of articles followed from queer men and women inspired by Michael's frankness when it came to his sexuality, what turned him on, and his views on monogamy. These pieces recentered Michael as a queer pioneer, dating back to his cheesiest '80s pop. 1987's "I Want Your Sex" comes to mind, with its unashamedly salacious lyrics: "What's your definition of dirty, baby / What do you consider pornography?" In the '90s, "Fastlove" continued in that tradition as a funky, upbeat dance floor anthem that celebrated sexual gratification without commitment.
Yet viewers could be forgiven if they forgot Michael's sex-positivity and sense of humor while watching Adele's tribute last night. Her stripped-down rendition of "Fastlove," performed as a glacially paced ballad, played to her strengths as a performer, but it had the unfortunate side effect of converting one of Michael's most lively songs into a funeral dirge. It could have been a James Bond theme, except it probably would've been rejected for being too somber and depressing.
As a ballad, lyrics like "Had some bad love / Some fast love is all that I've got on my mind" sound like the words of a reluctant participant in casual sex, rendering the song a condemnation of non-monogamous relationships — the exact opposite of Michael's free-love, tongue-in-cheek approach to his sexuality. Even his torch songs, like the aforementioned "Jesus to a Child," address gay sexuality with a directness that's still hard to come by in modern pop music.
The Grammys tribute could have made a powerful artistic statement, in line with Lady Gaga's recent performance of "Born This Way" at the Super Bowl — a rejection of an administration that seeks to police the sexuality and bodies of women and queer individuals. And maybe Adele could have been the one to deliver it, if she'd returned to the brassy, kiss-off era of 21, when she was regularly singing songs like "Rumour Has It" and "Set Fire to the Rain." That Adele could've knocked "Freedom '90" out of the park, for sure.
Instead we got the solemn Adele of 25, who gave a sincere but oddly mismatched performance. It's hard to avoid the nagging feeling that Adele was chosen mostly because she's a Grammy darling — what's one more performance in a show she had already opened, and where she swept all five of her nominated categories?
There are plenty of other artists better qualified to honor what made George Michael special. Some of them were even there at the Staples Center. While Lady Gaga's tribute to David Bowie at last year's Grammys met with mixed reviews, I'd like to have seen what she'd have done with Michael's music. As a queer woman who's fond of expressing herself in catchy, confrontational pop songs, she could have sounded just right belting out Michael's unapologetic lyrics about his sexuality. But who could expect a bold statement like that from the notoriously unprogressive Grammys? At least it wasn't Sam Smith.