And if all that there is is this fear of being used
I should go back to being lonely and confused
If I could, I would, I swear
– A Different Corner
George Michael. If there’s a sweet spot for 80s pop, a time where almost all of the songs we think of as being “80s classics” come from, it is between 1983 and 1988. Inside that sweet spot, in perhaps the sweetest place of all, was George Michael. In those years he released Fantastic, Make It Big, The Final and Faith. It was a gushing, fizzy confection and being 11 when that period started, and 14 when it finished I was in secret sullen adulation right before bands like Guns’n’Roses turned by head and I lost the faith (for awhile).
I was a confused boy. Not in that way. I’ve never been confused about my sexuality, but I have been about my masculinity. It wasn’t that I was tortured, but there were a series of moments where I just pursued something that seemed “normal” to me only to discover that it wasn’t considered “normal” by the people in the small town where I was growing up. I’ve written about all of these moments before. The time I thought legwarmers were something guys could wear (because Leroy did in Fame), the time I thought technicolour oversize jersey’s were something guys could wear (because of 80s boy band posters), and the time I got a perm… because of George.
I missed the message that all those wonderful videos and photo shoots of the era were trying to make. They were trying to make teenage girls’ hearts swoon, but I was thinking: “those guys look cool. I wanna look like them.” Which was not the correct response for a teenage boy on the Kapiti coast in the 80s. The “correct” response – as many of my male friends told me – was: “who are those poofs?”, or any number of homophobic slurs and threats of violence. While the threat of a gaggle of scrawny, teenage boys with pitching, fluting voices in New Zealand may not have meant much to George specifically, they did represent the climate of queer hate that was our normal at that time. It was in 1986 in New Zealand that the Homosexual Law Reform Bill passed, and also when the paranoia around AIDs was reaching its height. Even though that law passed it passed only after some awful things had been said and done, and the Bill itself did not, when it became an Act, make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Decriminalising a private act between consenting men was one thing; tolerance was quite another.
By the time the album Faith was released I was sufficiently attuned to my environment to conceal how much I loved the single Faith. How much I loved the ridiculous extended organ opening, and the video, and George Michael’s new look (designer stubble and distressed jeans). Or how many times I had played The Final from start to finish and loved every song on it from Wham Rap! to The Edge of Heaven (and loved A Different Corner probably the most).
There are a lot of lyrics from that period that read quite differently in light of what we learned in the late 90s about George’s sexuality. For me his whole journey in those two decades makes him an incredibly sympathetic character. Knowing how boys reacted to him in my small town in the 80s when he was a female heartthrob tells me all I need to know about why he struggled to express himself. There is a kind of thoughtlessness to derogatory comments about his arrest in public toilets in 1998, comments that don’t really get history, and the danger of visibility. Let’s not even go into the morally questionable actions of a society that has its police force soliciting sex acts.
Straight after the single Faith I mostly lost interest in George Michael. I didn’t really get all that Father Figure stuff, and the banned/not banned I Want Your Sex, but the main problem for me was discovering Guns’n’Roses soon to be followed by the bigger problem of grunge. For a time I pretended that I didn’t like Wham! but it didn’t last too long. After the white heat of grunge had burned through me I was straight back at that 80s sweet spot.
George was 19 and 20 when Wham! floated to the top, a wonderful champagne bubble in the pastel salmon white jacket hair spray world I adored. Will there ever be a time again when hirsute men can wear little shorts and get perms and be acclaimed for their sexiness? Most of the world may say: “I bloody hope not”, but my fingers are crossed.
George, you’re forever dancing across that sweet spot in time for me, flashing your perfect teeth, skipping down the stage clicking your fingers, glancing back at your mate Andrew, a little amazed at what is happening, right at the edge, but not able to quite – not yet, not then – get to the centre of heaven.