Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race,” which is available for pre-orders now and will be released in June. Follow him on Twitter: @claycane.
Cane: Make no mistake, without George Michael there would be no Sam Smith, Adam Lambert, or many of the openly queer artists of today
Cane: Michael rose to fame in an era in which music was racially segregated and mainstream culture was ferociously homophobic.
On Christmas Day, 2016 gave us another blow. George Michael suddenly passed away of reported heart failure, aged 53.
Social media exploded, reminiscing on his biggest hits like “Father Figure,” “Faith” and “Praying for Time.”
George Michael was more than a pop star with a godlike voice, superb songwriting skills and devastatingly good looks. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, he was a white, male, queer, soul singer who rose to fame in an era in which music was racially segregated and mainstream culture was ferociously homophobic.
Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Sam Smith and many others owe him a debt of gratitude. Like Michael, none of these artists are pop singers; they are R&B singers, but only labeled “pop” because they are white.
The privilege of being a white artist singing R&B – who will also be played ad nauseam on pop stations – is often ignored in the music industry.
There has always been a deep segregation in music. The music industry was built from “race records” with artists like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and John Lee Hooker making labels rich, but only themselves pocketing a fraction of the money. Meanwhile, white artists like Pat Boone or Elvis Presley made millions singing music that was originally recorded by black artists. Even the R&B single charts were bizarrely titled “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990.
There was a differentiation between “black” and “white” music, which was eventually destroyed by Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. However, George Michael wasn’t just another white artist rummaging in R&B. He didn’t strive for a “soul sound”; he was soulful without trying. There was never a hint of cultural misappropriation, unlike the accusations hurled at Justin Timberlake. He wasn’t in “urban drag” or co-signed by a heap of black producers. He was as soulful as any black artist, similar to the late Teena Marie.
In 1988, George Michael became the first white artist to reach number one on Billboard’s “Top Black Albums” chart. He also scored a number one hit on the “Black” charts with “One More Try,” which was the last number-one single on that chart (now named Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) by a white male artist until Robin Thicke’s 2007 “Lost Without U.”
For black communities in the 1980s, George Michael was their soundtrack as much as Prince or Janet Jackson. Moreover, he was a self-contained artist, singer, songwriter and producer, who didn’t perform blackness – that is the difference between inspiration and appropriation.
George Michael’s rise to fame also came during one of the most horrific times for the LGBT community: the AIDS crisis. Famously, Ronald Reagan refused to address the AIDS crisis until near the end of his second term, despite the hundreds of thousands of people who were living and dying with the disease.
Sadly, being gay or queer was equated with AIDS. Therefore, there was no space for a pop star like George Michael to be “out and proud.” He was locked in the music industry’s closet.
However, in “Freedom! ’90,” he set fire to his former image of the ass-shaking singer in a leather jacket. Without being explicit, George Michael liberated himself within the lyrics of the hit song: “Think I’m gonna get myself happy/I think there’s something you should know/I think it’s time I told you so/There’s something deep inside of me/There’s someone else I’ve got to be.” George Michael decided to be himself, regardless of the risk.
In 1998, Michael was officially outed when he was arrested at a Beverly Hills Park for a “lewd” act with an undercover cop, but the singer was unapologetic. He laughed at the incident in the 1998 video “Outside.”
After it was crystal clear he wasn’t heterosexual, George was mocked with people asking questions like how couldn’t we have known? An odd blow. There isn’t always a reward in living your truth. Over the next few years, he would be dragged in the press with reports of drugs, arrests and health issues.
George Michael was ostracized for his sexuality and gave the middle finger to the media, who mercilessly stalked him. In 2005, the singer had a message for gay and straight people: “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 f****r and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.”
Make no mistake, without George Michael there would be no Sam Smith, Adam Lambert, or many of the openly queer artists of today. Sam Smith once said about Michael: “I have a weird and undying love for George Michael. He’s the reason why I want to do what I do.”
I hope people will remember George Michael’s nuanced legacy. He wasn’t just a pop star. He was soulful and innovative, with intersecting identities that paved a way for artists to live as their authentic self in a manufactured music industry.