As one-half of Wham! and as a solo artist, George Michael left behind a winning collection of sticky-sweet pop singles - but also honest, risky and sad songs. Most of what his haters couldn’t stand about him were exactly the things that his fans loved: his bleeding-heart sincerity, his constant cheerfulness.
In 2016, it’s easy to see these things as something from the past, but they stuck out in his late-1980s heyday, too. Then Britain was sharply divided over Thatcherism, Michael’s brand of optimistic pop sounded naive, even ignorant.
Time would reveal that it was actually brave.
Michael and friend Andrew Ridgeley formed a ska band in 1979. It didn't work out, but Michael and Ridgeley reemerged as Wham! and sent a demo to an new independent label called Innervision, which loved the sound. They put out a debut album called Fantastic that had a quick hit in Wham Rap!
Wham Rap! was stupid fun, teenage girls loved it, and the song became a small hit. More important, Michael and Ridgeley were an easy sell: young, handsome, funny and known for taking the stage with open suede jackets and shuttlecocks stuffed down the fronts of their jeans.
They soon realised that they were getting a bad deal from Innervision, so they got out of their contract and onto a new label by giving up all future profits from their first album. That would have seemed like a rash move if Wham! had proved to be a one-hit wonder, as so many of their starry-eyed rivals ended up being. Suffice to say, Wham! was not a one-hit wonder. Their first single under their new label was Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
If you don’t know anything else about Wham!, you know that song. It tells you a lot of what you need to know about the group, and Michael in particular. It sounds like everyone should start pirouetting on restaurant tables when it plays. It’s candy, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you’re not, it’s positively awful.
Enough people were into that sort of thing in the mid-’80s to make Wham! a global sensation, rivaling Culture Club for the title of Britain’s most popular pop act of the ‘80s.
But the smoldering anger among Brits affected by government policies had fed an alternative scene. This meant Wham! would forever be barred from a certain level of hip respectability and critical acclaim. The Smiths debuted the same year that “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” dropped, and while critics liked Wham!, they loved the Smiths.
But people struggled to understand in 1983 when he appeared on a talk show called Eight Days a Week and gushed about Joy Divison’s haunting, sad Closer. But, anyone paying attention could see that his finger was firmly on the pulse of the moment. He had just chosen to respond with defiant optimism instead of brooding rage.
Britain was then (as Hong Kong is today) sharply politically divided by generation. Michael and many other stars of the time were opposed to Margaret Thatcher’s conservative policies, and bands were finding themselves increasingly on the front lines of the rebellion.
And he lived his boundless optimism, too. In the wake of his death, dozens of stories have popped up on social media about Michael’s generosity, from four-figure tips for struggling waitresses to anonymous volunteer shifts at homeless shelters.
It's hard to check that these stories are true, but Michael’s fondness for giving to charity is well known. Whether it was a free concert for National Health Service nurses as a thank you for taking care of his mother, or a secret donation to a “Deal or No Deal” contestant who needed medical treatment, Michael wasn’t content in a bubble of hope, but lived to spread it to others. Every red cent of royalties that Last Christmas earned went to Ethiopian famine relief.
And then there was his work for the LGBT community. Rumours swirled around Michael’s sexuality for most of his career until he finally confirmed after a run-in with police in Beverly Hills that he was gay.
He also opened up about one of his life’s great tragedies - a brief but passionate relationship with a Brazilian designer named Anselmo Feleppa that lasted from 1991 until Feleppa’s death from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993.
Michael wrote Jesus to a Child for Feleppa and became a high-profile supporter of the Terrence Higgins Trust, an HIV charity. But nearly as important, he was a proudly gay celebrity in the 1990s, and that was no small thing.
Looking back, the joy that characterised Wham! and some of Michael’s solo work seems even more profound. He was writing deliriously popular songs about love and heartache to a society that he knew would not fully embrace his own sexuality.