In 1998, I sat in a middle school art class in a town in the south of France, idly painting abstract water colors while talking to my best friend about the only thing that truly mattered to our 13-year-old lives: MTV. We were positively addicted to music videos. On a regular day, we would rush home from school, call each other on the phone, and provide a running commentary on whichever videos were in rotation that afternoon, excitedly discussing Janet Jackson's new choreography, or the validity of Madonna's latent religious leanings. Unsurprisingly, we were both gay, although, like most children marooned in early adolescence, we lacked the emotional maturity to quite realize it ourselves. That day, I clearly remember us talking about Marilyn Manson's video for "The Dope Show," a major touchstone in our never-ending quest to differentiate ourselves from our uber-preppy surroundings. One of our classmates overheard us pouring over the details of Marilyn's alien breastplate and blood-red contacts, and with a flip of her paintbrush, commented: "Sure, that sounds crazy, but it's nothing compared to George Michael."
This was shortly after the release of "Outside," George Michael's musical commentary on his infamous arrest earlier that year for cruising a public restroom in Beverly Hills. I've never forgotten what that girl said to us, because it taught me a valuable lesson: that to most straight people, simply being gay in the real world is way stranger than pretending to be a gothic sex alien from outer space. I don't need to try and make myself different, nature and society have done that work for me, and my new reality will be navigating through a world where my innate way of being will be, at best, a source of curiosity. At least that's what it felt like at the time, when sexuality was like the corner of a treasure chest, peeking out from under the dirt of puberty.
Shortly thereafter, "Outside" became something of an anthem for me. I can still remember almost every frame of the video, and I developed a sort of Pavlovian response to the song's pulsing beat. Palms sweating, heart racing, I'd sit in front of the TV and devour the dirty glimpse into gay life that George was providing, exaggerated and candy-colored, and beamed straight into my living room. Dingy urinals transformed into glittery chalices of desire. Two inconceivably beefy bodybuilders embraced in a locker room. Gay and straight couples intertwined in the streets, both jubilant and secretive in their assorted kinks. And presiding over it all, decked out in a skintight police officer uniform, George Michael thrust his hips and licked his lips in what might as well been the very bathroom that he was arrested in only months earlier. It was revolutionary, and I was enthralled.
Only a pop star with George Michael's immense talent and charisma would have been able to not only bounce back from such a scandal, but turn the aftermath into a chart-topping disco pastiche. It seems absolutely unbelievable now that he wasn't publicly out until that bathroom bust in '98, after well over 15 years as one of the most famous singers in the world. Of course, there had indelible rumors since the heyday of Wham!, and like many celebrities at the time, his sexuality was relegated in the public eye to the status of "open secret"—or maybe it was just easier to coast by in the feather-haired 1980s, when male androgyny was de rigeur and the airwaves were bursting with fabulous men in make-up. Whether side-stepping in a Katharine Hamnett T-shirt to "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," or tanned and lithe in a white speedo in "Club Tropicana," George Michael brought a touch of practical queer sexuality to the mainstream, more down-to-earth and accessible than some of the more theatrical (though no less valid) displays of the era—whether he even realized it at the time or not.
"Outside" was the lead single from George's greatest hits compilation Ladies and Gentlemen, which I dove into with relish as soon as it was released. I had been a little to young to fully appreciate the George Michael phenomenon the first time around, and I was taken with his fearlessness as a performer and a pop star. "Faith" remains one of the greatest reinventions in popular music history, and his complete commitment to his uniqueness was what separated him from all others, at all levels of his career. Was he outrageous? Absolutely. But, much like everything from his soulful voice to his tabloid shenanigans, he was real.
If I'm to be completely honest, once I grew up a little and was somewhat more anchored in my own understanding of sexuality, there was a period where George Michael's ubiquity in the gossip press made me think he was tarnishing his legacy. His behavior took a hard left into self-destruction, and I think it pained the little gay tween inside me to see one of my idols so close to the brink, and not seem to want to pull back (this thinking, of course, also predated my adult understanding of addiction and mental health). I wanted to preserve my love for George in the pastel and neon shades of Wham!, or the tongue-in-cheek sensuality of "Outside," or "I Want Your Sex." Having gone through my own experiences now, I realize the debt I owe to his complete and utter rejection of acceptability, his unabashed, radical queerness, and his refusal to temper his sexuality in the face of insane levels of public scrutiny. In a tweet from 2011, he shared, boldly and in all-caps: "I HAVE NEVER AND WILL NEVER APOLOGISE FOR MY SEX LIFE ! GAY SEX IS NATURAL, GAY SEX IS GOOD! NOT EVERYBODY DOES IT, BUT.....HA HA!" Now, I revel in those words, thinking of that kid in that art class, using George Michael's music as a shield, a sanctuary, and a road map. George wasn't always the gay icon we wanted, but by God, he was the gay icon we deserved.
Lead image by Kypros via Getty Images.
Cameron Cook is a writer based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.