From Goodreads: “George Michael was an extravagantly gifted, openhearted soul singer whose work was both pained and smolderingly erotic. He was a songwriter of true craft and substance, and his music swept the world, starting in the mid-1980s. His fabricated image—that of a hypermacho sex god—loomed large in the pop culture of his day. It also hid—for a time—the secret he fought against revealing: Michael was gay. Soon his obsession with fame would start to backfire. As one of the industry’s most privileged yet tortured men began to self-destruct, the press showed little sympathy. George Michael: A Life explores the compelling story of a superstar whose struggles, as well as his songs, continue to touch fans all over the world.”
When my 11-year-old self listened to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” I thought Wham! was going to be bigger than the Beatles. Infectious pop music, two cute guys, the sky’s the limit, right? It was not to be. When Wham! broke up after only two records and George Michael started his solo career, I couldn’t wait for his first album, Faith. The debut song, “I Want Your Sex” made my 14-year old self extremely uncomfortable to listen to around my uber-conservative parents, but they must have been oblivious because my parents let me buy the album. I remember that album as the soundtrack to the time shortly before and after my father’s death. After that, I sort of lost track of George Michael and what he was doing, beyond his duets with Aretha Franklin and Elton John. He dropped off my radar, and now I know why.
George Michael: A Life (Amazon) takes a deep dive into the life of one of the biggest pop stars of the 1980’s. Most of what I knew of George Michael was incorrect, fed to me by teeny bopper magazines. There was speculation for a long time that Michael was gay, but I didn’t care. He was drop dead gorgeous, had a smooth and silky voice, and wrote some of the best songs to the soundtrack of my formative years. Even at a young age, I didn’t care about sexuality, but George Michael did. In the early to mid-1980’s, coming out was not something one did without serious repercussions, and George Michael did not want to alienate his rabid female fan base. He was also keeping his sexuality a secret from his parents, although he did eventually come clean to his mother shortly before her death.
Because Michael was in the closet, he led a tortured life. I can’t imagine what it was like living a lie for so long, especially to his very traditional Greek father. He was a genius, but a tortured one. Isn’t that always the case? As he craved and then received fame and adulation, his perfectionism and fright at his sexuality being found out put a huge strain on Michael.
Michael’s life seems like a textbook case of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He began to smoke pot and graduated to various harder drugs and alcohol to numb his internal pain. In the late 1980’s George finally came clean to his fans and admitted he was gay because he’d finally found love. That bliss was not to last, however, as his partner contracted AIDS and died. The U.K. press was vicious to him throughout the rest of his life.
George Michael’s career after that did not make too many headlines in the U.S.A., which may explain why he sort of dropped off my radar. His subsequent albums following Faith did not register too high on the American charts, and he got very little radio play. And that really bugged him. He was successful in the U.K. and other countries, but continued success with North American audiences eluded him.
I had no idea until reading this book just how many times Michael crashed his Range Rover or was caught with his pants down in a public bathroom. I simply don’t know why or how I missed these scandals, as at that time it was my habit to watch celebrity gossip shows like Entertainment Tonight. What’s most shocking is how lightly Michael got off for each offense. Well, maybe not. In Wisconsin, where we have seven of the ten drunkest cities in the U.S., repeat drunk drivers rarely make the news until it’s their tenth OWI. Reading about Michael’s slow decline and repeated drug use was hard to swallow. George Michael’s various run-ins with the law just didn’t gather much press in the U.S.
I do remember the shock of hearing of Michael’s death at a relatively young age. The official cause of death was heart failure, but now I know there was more to it than that. Michael became one in a long line of entertainers who killed themselves with drink and drugs, and I got really depressed reading the book, as often happens when I read the truth about celebrities I’m interested in. I’m glad I got a closer look at Michael’s life, because his music brings me joy, and hope that he’s found peace at last.
I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book from NetGalley and Abrams Press in exchange for an honest review.
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