The enduring resonance of George Michael’s subversive music

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Before his sexuality was known to the public with certainty in 1998, Michael, who would’ve turned 59 this month, mined the private pain of gay men, made it legible in an era defined by virulent homophobia.

Take 1990’s “Freedom!”: “I think there’s something you should know / I think it’s time I told you so / There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” Michael sings on the funky pre-hook. The most obvious interpretation of “Freedom!” is that it’s a rebuke of the bubblegum pop Michael had created during his Wham! years. But I’d argue that the song’s theme of liberation operates in another register, too — that it’s a coded embrace of homosexuality: There’s someone else I’ve got to be.

More than three decades after Michael embarked on his solo career, with parts of the world engaged in a fresh battle for LGBTQ equality, the pop megastar’s subtle, moving explorations of queer life feel no less impactful.

To parse the enduring resonance of Michael’s story, I spoke with James Gavin, the author of the new book, “George Michael: A Life.” During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discussed the dueling sides of Michael, the hurt that the singer experienced because of homophobia and the necessity of empathizing with Michael in a way that audiences only rarely did in his lifetime.

Part of what your book does is explore the different sides of George Michael — the Michael who was a “hypermacho sex god,” as you put it, and the Michael who was an insecure person. How did you approach that process?

Michael spent the first half of his life creating that character you were just describing (the hypermacho sex god), and the second half of his life destroying that character.

He reached that incredible pinnacle in 1988, during the Faith tour for the album that made him the biggest pop star in the world at that time. That’s what he’d been dreaming of for almost his entire life, and it left him miserable. That’s an old story in the pop world: You get everything you thought you wanted but wind up miserable. What fascinated me, though, was the process that followed, when Michael began by tearing down that initial persona and then he continued by tearing down himself.

I approached that work by talking with more than 200 people who had known him, sometimes very briefly, sometimes extremely well. That whole process was like rolling a boulder up a hill. When I started on the book, nearly everybody ignored me or said no, and I think for two reasons. One, it was very close to his death, and people were still raw. And two, people were just instantly suspicious, and part of that was because Michael had lived his entire life in hiding. The people around him knew that in order to stay in his good graces, they had to keep his secrets.

I see your biography as part of a spate of recent works seeking to reappraise our collective mistreatment of stars we claimed to love, and the psychological toll of celebrity. There’s Gerrick Kennedy’s 2022 book, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston,” and Samantha Stark’s 2021 documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.”

You’re raising a very good point, because pop music, which is what Michael set his sights on, is ephemeral. It changes all the time, and most people get left behind fairly quickly. And Michael — like any of the people you mentioned, like anyone who’s achieved what he achieved — never thought that it was going to go away. And it crushed him when it did.

This was certainly true of Houston, too, but I think that Michael was so in need of love and acceptance from everybody that when his second solo album sold half as much as his first solo album — we’re talking about 7.5 million copies versus around 20 million copies; 7.5 million copies is a phenomenal success — he was devastated. He took it as a horrible blow, and he perceived the album almost as a failure.

There’s also the unreality of life in that stratosphere. You completely lose touch with the people down below.

I also just want to say that he had a big heart. One of the very nicest things about Michael was the fact that he gave away millions of pounds to charity. At a time in the mid- to late 1990s when things were starting to really unravel for him, he stepped up his charitable contributions. And I think that that was a self-healing gesture on his part. I think that it was one way he felt that he could affect people’s lives first hand, beyond a more abstract pop star way.

Michael endured so much pain early on in his life and career: the loss of his lover to AIDS, the loss of his mother. Did he ever recover from those losses?

No, he did not. He just got worse and worse and worse. He felt terribly victimized, like the world was out to get him.

Part of my book talks about that. There’s a passage about Equality Rocks (a 2000 benefit concert for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group). At this celebration of emerging equality and freedom and a sense of togetherness, Michael could only look out at that crowd and see all the pain that being gay had caused him. And the monologue he gave at the concert, it’s a long rant about everything that had hurt him in his life. He was angry, angry about all of it.

What would you say is missing from our conversations about Michael?

I wrote an epilogue that I hope is more upbeat than what precedes it, because I don’t want to leave people on a really down note. I tried to focus on the fact that any time I mention the name “George Michael” to people, they smile. Instantly, that name brings a rush of good associations, and they seem to override all the sad and dark stuff.

Also, you have to do your best to try to empathize. I couldn’t have told this story if I couldn’t find empathy for Michael. You have to somehow be able to put yourself in the place of the person you’re writing about. If you can do that, you won’t fall into the trap of judging. And judging is a bad thing for a biographer to do. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael, who had it all, and not feel anything for him. But I can’t overstate the importance of empathy.