In our collective mind’s eye, we all see George Michael in one of two ways.
First: in the sharp flashes of MTV-grade video. His mesmerizing eyes staring into the camera, his face perfectly stubbled with a shadow perpetually asymptotically approaching 5 p.m. His mouth, lip-syncing the need for faith or a father figure or freedom. If you remember him in the “Freedom! ’90” video, your memory is lying to you, as it was a fashion-week’s-worth of supermodels lip-syncing in that David Fincher-directed clip, Michael’s absence emphasizing the song’s message: he was his own man, one to be reckoned with on his terms, by critics and by a label with whom he had an increasingly fractious relationship.
The other way we remember Michael is grainier, in the not-even-quite-standard-def quality of 1980s and ’90s BBC film.
This is Michael on stage. There he is at Live Aid in 1985, still paired with Andrew Ridgeley in Wham!, though it’s apparent, as it was for almost all of Wham!’s run, that Michael was the supernova and Ridgeley was destined for pub trivia answer sheets.
There’s Michael dueting with Elton John on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” in front of 72,000 at Wembley Stadium. The two would reprise it in 1991. A live version recorded at Wembley Arena was released as a single, accompanied by a video of the duet performed for 70,000-plus at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
You may see him in a peach suit, sunglasses just-so, hair just-so, belting out Queen songs at the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992, where he sang favorites from his vocal inspiration, songs he sang as a busker in the Tube, the talented son of a Greek-Cypriot father who came to the UK to open a restaurant and his English dancer wife. Michael (born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) discovered he loved music and loved to sing — and had a gift for it — when he was 8 and convalescing from an injury. Unable to play outside for a time, he sang and never stopped singing until his death on Christmas Day 2016. Four years earlier, he played his last live shows, a run at London’s Earls Court with grosses nearing $2 million.
In between, he was a teen idol who wanted to be more and then a sex symbol who wanted to be taken seriously. He knew he could write songs as well as he could sing them. Eventually, he was not so easily dismissed by critics who saw just a pretty face. His vocal ability was never in doubt, not even the rockiest rock critics could deny that, but was he an artist? His late ’80s and early ’90s albums were just hit after hit after hit and smart, well-crafted hits at that. With his bouncy, youthful early ’80s long hair shorn, he similarly shed the youthful bounce of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” This was a man who understood how to cannily use music videos, who understood the immense power of live music and who understood his own talent before anyone else.