The guiltiest pleasure of them all.

Photo: Kevin Winter for Getty Images

George Michael’s music was confined in the cage of “guilty pleasure.” But as Charles Saatchi once said, “There’s nothing guilty about pleasure.”


As the crust of youth vaporizes from age, we romanticize simpler times. In other words, we turn into walking cliches. For some, it means buying the Mustang you remember seeing in the driveway at your neighbor’s house when you were but a little boy. For others, it means clinging to the figures that guided you in the skewed journey from innocence to your first kiss.

Boys experience a much different journey than girls. That’s why kissing someone for the first time is tantalizing. You’ve touched the very outer prism of a world, you are bound to know little of but never tire of exploring.

The figures you look up to are tantamount to shaping your adulthood: you turn to them in times of tribulation, times of bewilderment or, simply, when you need to escape. One of those figures I turned to was George Michael. His music offered a bitter sweetness, his figure a rare suave, his words offered comfort to a young boy struggling to understand the romantic world around him.

Confessing your deep admiration for Michael, as a late-teenage boy in my time, raised many eyebrows. For the girls around me it just meant that you were closeted.

I believe in two things: that if you follow—or worship—someone because of the person you want to be, you won’t break the pattern of imitation later in life. The other thing is: if you follow someone because they strike a chord—a secret chord—in something you can’t resist following, then you will follow a pattern more in tune with the honest-to-gut fabrics of your character. In my youth it was cool to listen to Nirvana and slice up your jeans (or your wrists), it was cool to listen The Doors and wear an obscene amount of accessories on your wrists, it was cool to profess love to Bowie despite not really knowing why. For the very few that mirrored themselves in the pain of Cobain the chord was honest. But, for the majority, it was an obscene exercise in vanity. We all did a great many things to score social rank in the hormonal league of puberty.

Needless to say, such figures were safe bets. In my personal case following a character such as George Michael was not cool. And I’m not referring to FAITH or Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 George (the safe bets) but the full-blown gay-and-I’m-very-proud George Michael. The shameless character who sported the notorious goatee and who, exclusively, sported suits in styles that looked awfully awkward when imitated; such as with a late-teen boy such as myself. He could pull it off – I, truthfully, resembled an androgynous Arab at the empty table of an arranged marriage. But how I could resist? To listen to Michael meant letting go, it meant embracing all the self-doubting elements and quirks of your flawed persona by wearing them on your sleeve, pushing your vanity to such an extreme that, in my case, rendered any mission with the ladies hopeless.

Two memories George Michael brought me: the striking Pakistani girl, to whom I held a hopeless crush, who—in all secrecy—handed me a valuable gift; the 2-CD set of Ladies & Gentlemen. It was her subtle way of expressing that she shared my crush. This record, to this day, mimics the thrill, although fainted by time, of holding the gift in my hand. A gesture unfolding in an empty cafeteria at my upper secondary school. Few months later, she turned to radical Islam, so it was the end of that blossoming affair. My adolescent love-life in a nutshell.

The other memory was when I was being stood up for a date. It was during the final year of my upper secondary school—yes, the pattern is blatantly obvious to me—and I waited. And waited. This was a time where owning a cellular phones meant sacrificing all your living expenses. But she never showed up (this was a different girl). I, in all eagerness, went for all the girls I knew I couldn’t have, pushing myself to the brink of the disappointment. In an attempt to take my mind elsewhere, I put on Move On, the eighth track in Older (1996). Every beat, vocal, back-vocal, mood and what-have-you seemed soothing and reassuring. In this case, the figure that I turned to made it all seem alright. Move on, he professed in the fine chorus. And so, I took that chorus to heart…

In intellectual art – the art that’s promoted by critics – it’s about what moves the mind, not the body. Michael’s music moved both. Even more so, it stirred the very sexual ambiguity that’s present in every teenager, the kind that lingers well into adulthood. Both Prince and Bowie celebrated that ambiguity – there was no absolute end to their sexuality but it was clear, telling from their public choice in partners, that they were, indeed, hetero males reaching fame in a time where sexual experimentation was a massive trend (the 70’s). But for Michael that ambiguity was only present well into the 90’s because of his apparent sexual denial. It reflected well in the schizophrenic journey of his career, shifting from one on-screen persona to the next until the pivotal moment where he was arrested for “lewd behavior” by the Beverly Hills police in what became the biggest “coming out story” in music history.

Whereas Bowie and Prince enjoyed eager praise from critics, and deservedly so, Michael was still a guilty pleasure for many. What sets Michael apart from the others was the absolute end in his sexuality – the ”I might be bi,” on the other hand, flourished in the image of the other critic-friendly musicians.

Sexuality is at the core of our existence. Celebrating figures that adhere to that very notion is crucial in coming to terms with our true urges.

 

Michael became confined into the cage of a “guilty pleasure.” But as Charles Saatchi once said, “There’s nothing guilty about pleasure.” The shameless and crude honesty which thrived in his lyrics sung by the vulnerable timber of his strong and majestic voice turned the music into a sheer expression of sexuality. Unlike Prince and Bowie, the explorative sexuality wasn’t part of the vanity, it was full-blown and absolute and present in every note. That very reason was why confessing your deep admiration for Michael, as a late-teenage boy in my time, raised many eyebrows. For the girls around me it just meant that you were closeted.

I will always stress that it’s healthy for any young teenager to look up to at least one gay figure in his life. Not because of political correct reasons, far from it, but because the ambiguity that’s present in every teenager’s life will, somehow, be better dealt with. The utter boldness that is Michael’s music is a healthy stepping stone for any definition of sexuality. It is normal to be attracted to both genders at an early age—the ancient greeks built an entire culture on that very notion—and it certainly is normal to doubt every aspect of your being. Sexuality is at the core of our existence. Celebrating figures that adhere to that very notion is crucial in coming to terms with our true urges.

Michael gave me the early present of being shameless and accepting my feminine side. That very side which later progressed into writing and producing columns for a wide female audience. Well, wide for my standards, at least. Figures, such as his, make us stand by ourselves rather than the safe version of ourselves. Perhaps, it’s his most important legacy of them all. Tonight, I will listen to Older. Again. My ears might have matured but the boy inside me hasn’t.

Rest in peace.