What George Michael’s career meant for music and sexuality

One of pop’s biggest stars in the 1980s and '90s, George Michael died on Sunday at age 53. Michael shot to fame as a member of the duo Wham! and then embarked upon a successful solo career. Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast joins William Brangham to discuss Michael's music and personal struggles, his openness about his sexuality and the legacy he leaves behind.

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    One of Michael's important legacies over time was how he eventually came out and dealt with his sexuality and identity.

    Tim Teeman wrote about that and more on The Daily Beast. He joins me now from New York.

    Tim, before we get into that issue of his sexuality, I wonder if we could just talk a little bit about George Michael as a musician.

  • TIM TEEMAN, The Daily Beast:



    When you look back at his career, where do you put him in the pantheon of pop stars?


    Oh, I put him — personally, I put him right up there.

    I mean, if you grew up in England — and I'm sure he was very famous over here as well with Wham! and later on as a solo singer — but if you grew up in England in the '70s and '80s, as I did, he, along with Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet and Culture Club, Boy George, these were big, totemic cultural figures.

    And Wham!, as Angus Walker described in his report there, were — they were almost the harbingers, the heralds of Thatcherism himself. The group was very anti-Thatcher, famously anti-Thatcher, but their brand of pop and the kind of aspiration and the brightness of that pop was radical and revolutionary.

    And Britain, at that point in the early '80s, emerging from a period of sort of late '70s gray industrial decline, this was the kind of pop that heralded the big, brash '80s.

    And look at George's hair, look at his clothes in that time. And those songs, you either — as I say in my article for The Daily Beast, you either hit the dance floor, and you just flailed like a windmill dancing crazily at them, and then for the slower songs, those slower songs still are the songs that are at weddings, the last song of the night, people weeping on each others' shoulder.

    They are slow dances. And they have remained. And they have transcended. If they were considered cheesy — and they were considered slightly cheesy back in the day — they have stood the test of time.

    Look at "Last Christmas." "Last Christmas" is right up there with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as a Christmas cultural classic.


    As we heard in that report, George Michael was rather rudely forced out of the closet by this arrest back in the '90s.

    And up until that point, he had been rather quiet about his sexuality. I wonder if you have a sense of why he wanted to keep that to himself.


    I think, sometimes, especially now, with the acceleration of cultural change and acceptance, as it's known, I think we sometimes forget what those times were like back in the '80s and even into the '90s, before he was forced out of the closet.

    These were not times of large numbers of celebrities of any kind out of the closet at all. You might remember, in the very late '90s, Ellen's coming out over here was a big, big cultural moment.

    And so I sometimes think we forget how, in those days, coming out of the closet, if you were famous, and, in fact, coming out of the closet if you were anybody was a very brave, wonderful act.

    Harvey Milk, the wonderful Harvey Milk, had it exactly right when he said the most important and wonderful thing an LGBT person could do was come out. It was the most powerful statement they could make.

    So, the interesting thing about George Michael is that, yes, he kept it quiet, though it always — I remember growing up in the era of tabloid bait and insinuation around stars like George Michael and his sexuality. He did play equality concerts. He donated and sang at HIV and AIDS benefits.

    While he was in the closet, he fell in love for the first time. And his first lover died in 1993 of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. So he had a gay life, and he was coming to terms with something himself in that period.

    And he talked later on about the complexity of his own sexuality. Maybe he wasn't ready. Maybe there were commercial concerns. But then, in 1998, as you say, and as Angus Walker said in his report that you just played, came this arrest in Los Angeles.

    And George Michael's completely fantastic, wonderfully defiant, mischievous response to that, which wasn't the usual contrite, yes, I have been bad, I have a few personal issues — it was to release a pop song which proudly celebrated sexuality and also…


    This was "Outside."


    Sorry. This was "Outside," absolutely. You're right, yes.

    It was a song that not only proudly celebrated sexuality, but also proudly and defiantly aimed itself squarely at law enforcement, which famously for years and years in your country and in Britain as well would entrap gay men in public lavatories just to arrest them, the use of pretty policemen, we called it in Britain.

    And in this video, George skewers it all and also, if you listen to the lyrics, celebrates defiantly his own sexuality, which he spoke about in later years. He liked having public sex. He spoke about it openly. He had lovers. He fell in love. He had commitment issues. He was horny. He talked about all these things in his song, and occasionally in wonderful public interviews, which I talk about in my article.


    You said that the culture has changed quite a bit since that notorious arrest.

    Do you think, if the next George Michael is coming along and knows his sexuality, that he could be more comfortable today being who he is?


    That's a very interesting question. And I have been talking about that with colleagues today.

    I think we like to think things have moved on. And I think, for a certain level of celebrity, I think things have moved on, and I think careers are continuing. You look at Neil Patrick Harris, you look at Ellen, there are some people who are excelling. And it's wonderful, and it's a demonstration of how far we have come and how far we like to think we have come.

    And then you look at the top tier maybe of the music industry and you look at the top tier of Hollywood, and there it remains, at that very top tier, fear, prejudice, a self-patrolling closet on the part of celebrities and their representation.

    And I think we have yet to really breach that sort of top, top, A-list film star, music star moment. It's happening. There are more stars out than ever before. And we should be happy about that.

    I would hope, in the future, that the example of George Michael and the openness and fierceness and the defiance and the mischief and the big smile and the joy he took in some parts of his life and what he tried to convey to us in music and how he spoke about it all in interviews, I hope that younger stars and even established stars who haven't felt able to come out will look at that and think, he did it, and he did it with such style, and such fierceness and with such grace, let's do it.


    All right, Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast, thanks for this lovely remembrance.


    Thank you so much.

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