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Monday, December 26, 2016

On the death of George Michael and the shape of things to come


It’s hard to believe George Michael is dead, and I write that as one who, ordinarily, doesn’t give two slaps for the Facebook-fueled celebrity death count. None of us knows the hour or the day; our time- be it long or short- is rounded with a sleep. Some live long; George Michael died at 53.

But he lived a compressed life. His first #1 album on the British charts came when he was eighteen years old. By his mid-twenties he was world-famous. His clock speed was that of a London cab meter. And so, on Christmas Day, he died.

Why did I pay any mind to George Michael?

Mostly, because he was a supremely gifted songwriter in an evanescent genre. Pop songs are not built to last. They are of a time and a place and once their moment has passed, they- most of them- leave only a half life, slowly decaying. Think Pat Boone, whose last hit was half a century ago, but who still shuffles about, vying for space at NewsMax with Chuck Norris. But it is not for his music that his fans click his links.

Four decades after George Michael’s debut, a surprising percentage of his catalogue is still in play. More remarkably, he died with an audience for his current work. He knew the songwriter’s craft. He adapted. His audience grew up with him.

At a less high-falutin’ range, he was also, to me, devastatingly good looking. Tastes in such things vary; he was very much to mine, to the extent I paid any mind to that World of People So Beautiful They Are Not Found In Nature. One can admire the pictures in a museum without expecting them to spring to life and invite one home for dinner.

Mostly, however, I admired George Michael because he was gay, and screwed up the courage to say so in his own time, and then told anyone who didn’t like the way he went about being gay to take a hike.

I grew up in the same sort of world as George Michael: in a conservative, traditional family. His parents were Greek Cypriot immigrants to the UK; mine were small-town Presbyterians. We were both keen to be a good son, and make the family proud. We wasted a lot of time on those bootless enterprises.

George Michael came out in 1998, at 35, under pressure from a press scrum that hounded him endlessly. I came out three years earlier, at 40, under pressure from my conscience, and the discovery that when you hit that age unmarried, people who will, a minute later, tell you that you needn’t be telling them, will get in your face and start asking, “Are you gay?”

Both of us worried, in our own worlds, about career death, no matter how we came out. As the British journalist Owen Jones wrote in The Guardian today,

Coming out wildly differs from person to person: it is an experience imposed upon gay men – and all LGBT people – by a society still far from entirely accepting us. For a superstar back in the 1990s, it was considerably harder than it was today. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, in the year Michael came out half of all Britons thought same-sex relations were always or mostly wrong (nearly four in 10 said “always”), while only 23% opted for “not wrong at all”. From section 28 (only a decade old) to a different age of consent, the anti-gay laws were still in place.

There was a price. In my case, the loss of most of my friends, a boycott by most of my family nearing a quarter of a century, and professional isolation: I was screened off, immediately, from my firm’s best clients- even as mine was one of the names on the door- and within three years felt myself pressured to leave.

George Michael’s outing was more public: he was popped by a cop in a Beverly Hills public restroom, and across America, the Christianists rejoiced: until he simply replied, “Well, duh”. As Owen Jones recalls it,

George Michael was famously outed for a “lewd act” in a Beverly Hills toilet – and promptly humiliated by institutionally homophobic newspapers. Some might have been consumed with shame and grovelled before a tabloid press that had assumed the position of hypocritical moralists once occupied by the medieval church. Instead, Michael penned the biggest “fuck you” in musical history: Outside, a song that unapologetically flaunted his human sexual appetite, and declared war on the hypocrisy of others. Sex was natural, the song said; it was the attitudes to it that were not: “There’s nothing here but flesh and bone.”

...Yes, it’s true that the manner in which he was outed became a standard playground homophobic trope, a means for bigots to express their revulsion at how sordid and morally corrupt they deemed gay men to be. But haters gonna hate, as the expression goes – homophobes will latch on to anything to confirm their bigoted narrative. For LGBT people consumed with terror at the realisation of who they were, to see the man who sang Last Christmas telling his tormentors where to stick it was liberating.

In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, gay men were dying in their thousands from HIV/AIDS. Much of society alternated between pity, disgust and a sense of “they’ve brought it on themselves” as they perished. Michael was among those who watched his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, tortured and killed by the illness. His No 1 1996 hit, Jesus to a Child, was about this terrible loss, underlining how his sexuality and his music cannot, and must not, be divorced.

Being gay and out is one thing, but often it is on the terms of a disapproving society. As long as you are sanitised and, preferably, sexless in appearance, you can gain acceptance – or so the unspoken pact goes. While once bigots persecuted gays, as Matthew Parris noted, now “they haven’t stopped hating, and their new cry is this: ‘Why don’t you just shut up about it? Who asked what you get up to in bed, anyway? Your private life is your affair but please stop ramming it down our throat [snigger, snigger]’ …”

Michael rejected the unspoken pact. He had an open relationship. He loved anonymous sex. “You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are so clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening,” he told the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone in 2005. “Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.”

Thus the contrast with the evangelical enthusiasm for Donald Trump, whose lusts and vulgarities known no self-censorship, and who hoovered up the votes of angry old Vietnam vets while accepting their medals as gifts, explaining that his heroism in that war arose from not getting the clap from any of the pussies he grabbed: with, or without, benefit of Tic-Tacs.

Thus, too, the mourning of the masses for the late Zsa Zsa Gabor, a grifter and courtesan whose intellectual vacuity, aired over almost a hundred years of movies and television,  must have made dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor seem like an evening at Plato’s Retreat: the philosopher's symposiums in the Athens suburbs, not the 1970s Manhattan sex club for straight people.

Coming out should not be some sort of duty for public figures: it is a highly personal experience, and life is complicated. But, undoubtedly, Michael coming out offered a liferaft to so many LGBT people – not just gay men – struggling in a society that judged them and made them internalise shame,

Owen Jones- whose article I quote because he is so much more eloquent than I- says. He continues,

We live in an age where bigots are newly emboldened. They treat supporters of anti-racism, feminism and LGBT rights like this: “You’ve had your party, now it’s over, and it’s our turn.” It is tempting to turn and retreat. But, as a closeted teenager back in 1998, it is impossible not to recall the courage and defiance of George Michael. A talented and much adored musician, yes. But also a gay man, and a gay icon, who made the lives of so many LGBT people that little bit easier.

Lately, posting comments like this has begun to cost me money. Negative feedback on my Facebook business page has shot up this month; its growth rate has fallen into negative territory for the first time as, almost every day, another “Unlike” gets recorded.

I can live with that. I didn’t get outed to the world; my troubles are miniscule in the scheme of things, however worrisome they may be to me.

But George Michael did. He took the hits, and he showed us how to keep showing up- unbowed, unrepentant, and- as much as we can be, each in our own lonely path- true to who we are. He was flawed and human, just as those who flog his corpse to show their own godliness insist- oblivious- that they shine by his, not their own, light.

Trying times lie ahead. George Michael leaves us a timely lesson on how to beat the bastards.

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