How George Michael Transformed Pop Music


George Michael, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 53, was a pop star who could only have been incubated during the 1980s. The mix of ideas and institutions that were in the process of figuring themselves out during that chaotic decade—MTV, gay rights, the function of pop stars in an increasingly celebrity-soaked culture—all became intrinsic to Michael’s cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal, igniting his songs and helping solidify him as an icon.

Wham!, Michael’s duo with his school pal Andrew Ridgeley, released its first album, the fizzy Fantastic, in 1983. The prejudices of the era—particularly the ones that automatically looked down on music that appealed to young women, and music made by those acts whose telegenic nature proved to be a big hit on the then-nascent MTV—led people to write off Wham! at first, although certain savvy observers latched on to Michael’s talent early. Writing in the British pop magazine Smash Hits, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant praised Wham!’s early single, “Wham Rap,” as “one of the most striking dance records of the year” and remarked on Michael’s confidence. Legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel, after spinning the bouncy “Young Guns (Go For It),” admonished any potential critics with a witchy warning: “The first person to write in and say, ‘You shouldn’t have played that—you should have played the [British punk pioneers] UK Subs instead,’ will be turned into a toad.”

Tributes left outside the home of British musician George Michael in London, on Dec. 26, 2016. © Tim Ireland—AP

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