A week after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I overheard a story on CBS Sunday Morning from my kitchen about Smokey Robinson. I came bounding into the living room with terror in my voice, “What happened to Smokey?” At this point, if I heard any more bad news, especially about a musical artist I loved, I was going to lose it. My spouse chirped “Oh, nothing! They’re just giving him an award.”
Unfortunately, 2016 did not go by on that sigh of relief. On Christmas Day just minutes after I was listening to “Last Christmas,” my all-time favorite holiday tune on account of being so brazenly forlorn, I learned that we lost George Michael. This time, I did lose it.
The year started and ended with the deaths of two of my favorite artists, David Bowie and George Michael. Unlike the way I pored over every style choice, every film foray, and every song lyric of Bowie, I never bantered on about how much I loved Michael or analyzed his music. In the wake of his passing, I wondered if it may have been because I didn’t need to. In every sense—his voice, songwriting, image, and charity—I felt his work stood for itself. At once transparent and private, he was just there. Until he wasn’t.
Michael had this subtle, elegant ability to subvert, reverse, and reclaim stereotypes and convey messages through brilliant subtext. He didn’t need personas. He didn’t need gimmicks or frills. He integrated soul and R&B into his work seamlessly while respecting and crediting his African-American influences. He hardly needed to do anything but make music—something that seemed to come so purely and effortlessly to him. He wrote “Careless Whisper” at 17. Like Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury, he had a true genius for songcraft and genre-blending.
With a strong handle on the abstract, Michael presented us with new uses for metaphors and structured multilayered meaning in his songs. It took me a long time to realize “Father Figure” did not refer to the sexualization of a parent, but held a deeper, spiritual meaning that I now understand on a metaphysical level but, much like the plays of W.B. Yeats, can’t quite articulate into words.
As a teenager in 1998, when I heard the news about Michael’s entrapment in a Los Angeles bathroom and the media subsequently raked him through the coals, I was confused and indignant—why are they ostracizing for him for being gay? Why were we not over this as a society already? The echoes of the life and tribulations of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (in other words, being gay) and who died alone and too early from a prison-related injury, are not lost on me.
A child of the 80s, I’ve had a crush on George Michael for as long as I can remember. My mom sometimes likes to remind me “Oh, you liked him when you were five.” What? The blonde guy in the oversized white outfits? When I was five? No way. Later on in my 20s, I reflected upon this and felt like it retroactively confirmed a pattern of mine: I had a slight tendency to fall for gay guys. Long before I fell for Anderson Cooper. Long before Michael was even officially out. Perhaps I always knew. Yes, there was a first so shh, no one can ever know.
In retrospect, Michael’s sexual identity seems so obvious. He was telling us all along, as Daniel Larkin so keenly notes in his piece “The Thinly Veiled Queerness of George Michael’s Love Songs.” Yet, his work transcends gender and sex. With songs like “Faith” and the ever unnecessarily controversial “I Want Your Sex,” he challenges us to remove the shackles of taboo and heteronormativity. In his live performances, he exudes this kind of bold sexuality that’s neither straight nor gay nor black nor white. It defies all labels. It’s kind of incredible. He’s just so… himself.
Earlier this year, I got through writing a scientific piece playing “Freedom 90” and “Fastlove” on repeat… for hours…days at a time to calm and focus me, until I refined every last word. This was when I started listening to Michael seriously again after many years and with a sudden, premonitory insistence. I remember listening to “Father Figure” and reading Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which analyzes the Arthurian legend of the Grail through the lens of pagan motifs, and finding the missing pieces of the puzzle I needed to outline a story I’ve long been attempting to write. Something about his music allows me to uncover and connect concepts.
George Michael's performance of "Fastlove" in London, 2008.
Nearly three years ago, a close childhood friend passed away at age 32 from breast cancer. She was a physician, a mother, a wife. My first memory of her was when my parents dropped me off at her house one evening while they were away. I was scared they wouldn’t return. Shy and insecure little thing I was, I remember her comforting and reassuring me. She was my first real friend. Throughout high school, she had encouraged my writing. I knew that she would have never wanted me to stop. After she was gone, I wrote my first poem in three years. It was as though in her physical departure, she guided me back to poetry as a muse. From that moment, I have written and published some of my best work in years.
Part of me wonders if artists like Bowie, Prince, and Michael are simply too good for our emerging world: the era of Trump, misguided populism, and neo-Nazi, white ethno-nationalism. We don’t deserve them. The thought haunts me in the back of my brain. These artists have worked so hard for and have contributed to so much for which Trump and his entourage stand against. Are we seriously going to unwind the clock on LGBT rights and other social progress? On multiculturalism? I live in a world where I can watch a woman with my skin tone, Priyanka Chopra, kicking butt on ABC with other women, many also of color. I can’t go back now.
My friend and fellow blogger Sitting Pugs mused, “Who’s going to continue the struggle now?”
Compounded by the election, I poured my grief over Michael’s death into my writing. I outlined and started short stories I’ve been hesitating on for months. Reading Michael Darer’s stellar piece in The Huffington Post on “Why losing George Michael hurts especially badly in 2016” brought into laser-sharp focus what I need to do. Just in time for 2017, I have the beginnings of a roadmap-infused with Michael’s own unbridled optimism in the face of adversity-to lead me through this quagmire. Now more than than ever, I feel the urgency to respond and fight with writing. Because it really is the one good thing that I’ve got.
I’ve taken the death of Michael really hard—as if I knew him personally—because even though I loved him, I too underrated him. The sheer irony of him is that I didn’t realize how much he meant to me until he was gone. But I also think in all his sly humor and cheek, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it to be. And in his exit, he has given me the ultimate gift of becoming my muse.