In remembering George Michael, don't forget the decades we spent shaming him
Genre snobbery and homophobia made his eulogy a careless whisper instead of a cultural reckoning.
Prince and Bowie were queer icons, but they were allowed to be queer icons with plausible deniability precisely because their music crossed over into more universal forms of rock. As long as they could perform on stages alongside more traditional rockers, they could code themselves as queer without ever having to defend or justify their sexuality.
But Michael started out as a pop idol whose music was dismissed as frivolous by critics for decades. He was rarely taken seriously as a musician, so his queerness was never allowed to have plausible deniability. He was robbed of that deniability through his arrest and forced outing, but well before that, his attempts at coding — the longstanding Hollywood practice of identifying as queer subtextually, not publicly — were called out and dismissed.
Michael himself fed into this idea; almost as a kind of metaphor for the self-hating gay man, he denigrated his Wham! years, telling Rolling Stone in 1986, “I totally threw away my personal credibility,” by writing cheesy pop songs. He would continue to be dismissive about how he had to write bland pop music in order to get ahead, inadvertently feeding into the media’s narrative about him as a blandly pretty pop idol who wasn’t a “real” musician — a narrative that went hand in hand with the insinuations that neither was he a “real” man.
And so Michael — until now — never got the same cultural reappraisal that Prince and Bowie got. He never received that moment of vindication for what the culture did to him while he was alive. The media hounded him for proof of his straightness, ridiculed his meteoric rise to fame, questioned his commitment to gender roles, and mocked him for the frank themes of his music — then excoriated him after his arrest and ignored him when he responded by embracing his sexuality and becoming an outspoken gay man.
It just isn’t fair. The mourning period for Michael has amounted to a careless whisper; his death already feels like it’s barely made a blip on the cultural radar in comparison to the others. And that’s the crowning shame on top of the litany of shameful ways in which we treated this cocky youngster from East Finchley like a peach ripe for bruising — a heart thrown back on the floor. That he continued to be an incredible, positive force for change is down to his resilience, not us.