Rob and I were driving to my sister’s house in Martinborough on Boxing Day morning 2016 when I read that George Michael had died. I’d been scrolling through my Facebook feed mindlessly and came across one of those – fuck you 2016 – posts, followed by a link to a press release with minimal details but enough to know it wasn’t a rumour. I said, “oh my god George Michael is dead, what the fuck”, then promptly burst into tears. Like, proper, I’ve just lost a true, old friend tears.
People who have spent a reasonable chunk of time in my company will know how I feel, have always felt, about George. No other artist’s death has affected me in the same way before or since and I’ve thought a lot recently about why it is that I have so much love for him after recently watching his 2016 documentary Freedom (he was working on it when he died).
I think the first song I heard him singing was Wham’s, Wake me up before you go-go, which is an utterly ridiculous but infectiously perfect cheesy pop song. I remember sitting in front of the Tele, my eyes glued to the screen as George and Andrew cavorted across their studio stage in micro shorts and pastel pullovers. But the thing that captivated me then and has continued to captivate me all this time was the voice. Even in that cheesiest of songs, he finished each chorus on one of his spine-chillingly soaring notes, that seemed to flow effortlessly like melted gold, from his throat. There was something totally joyful about Wham’s songs, a sense that the two of them were part of an elaborate in-joke that we all desperately wanted to be part of. And then there were the slow songs. Despite the fact that Careless Whisper is ridiculously overplayed, it’s still totally fucking A-grade, and A Different Corner is so good it makes my toes curl.
I was 12 when Faith came out, which was pretty much the perfect age for a young GM fan to experience the scandalousness of I Want Your Sex. And this version of One More Try is still my favourite thing to put on when I need to sit back and glory in the wonder of pure talent, then have a good old cry. In the doco, he said that before Faith came out it was easy for him to visualise success, but that he never imagined he would be as huge a pop star as he became once the album came out. And imagine what a head fuck that must have been, to be catapulted into superstardom in a version of yourself that is a construct, designed earlier in your career to sell albums and have a laugh with your mate. I wonder at what point did he started to feel trapped by his persona?
His 1990 album Listen without Prejudice was when I really, truly, fell in love in Mr Michael and his extraordinary voice. We went on a family holiday that year and played the tape in the car constantly, until my sisters and I (and Ma and Pa), knew each and every word. Dad and I also spent a good few hours discussing the structure of the songs and the ways that each one was a homage to a genre or style that the artist loved. I also recall us talking about how interesting it was that none of the lyrics referred to a ‘she’ or a ‘he’ in the romantic bits. I guess that was George laying foundations for coming out, even that far back (he came out publically in 1998).
Even though I remained an avid George fan in the years following, it’s these earlier albums that whallop me in the gut when I hear them. Throughout the later years of his life there was all the media attention around the drug driving episodes, his contractual battles with Sony and his extremely candid views on the way he chose to live his life. Yet I always got the sense that he was able to laugh at himself and that despite wanting that fame when he was in Wham, it quickly became something that he would have preferred to have gone without – the celebrity status and lack of privacy. I used to think that he seemed deeply unhappy but after watching the doco the other night, I think that the imagined melancholy was actually just deep-rooted integrity with a generous dose of self-awareness.
For me, it always comes back to that connection I have with his voice and his melodies. I come from a family of musical talents – on both mum and dad’s sides – and have always loved to sing. My happy places all involve song: driving around in my car listening to music, singalongs with the whanau at Christmas time, singing in my band, and now I get to groove around my lounge with my baby in my tummy as I accompany George on one of his exquisite pop songs.
One more George connection: One of Rob’s first jobs was as a manager’s runner for the final Wham tour back in the day. AND, directly before George was about to hit the stage at Wembley, he couldn’t find his sunnies and asked Rob if he could use his Raybans to perform in. So, here is George fucking Michael with my boyfriend’s glasses on at Wembley.