Remembering George Michael's Radical Impact On Pop Music
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
George Michael's songs are often so catchy and upbeat it's easy to miss the radical impact they had on pop music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO")
WHAM!: (Singing) You put the boom-boom into my heart. You send my soul sky high when your loving starts.
SHAPIRO: George Michael died over Christmas at his home in Oxfordshire, England. He was 53. He started making music as part of the duo Wham! in the 1980s. They were the first western band to play China in 1985 when that country started opening up. Two years later, George Michael broke out on his own with the megahit "Faith."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITH")
GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) Well, I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body. I know not everybody has got a body like you.
SHAPIRO: The song sold sex without shame. And the album sold more than 25 million copies. To understand more about George Michael's appeal and his artistry, we're joined by NPR music critic Ann Powers. Hi, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari, how are you?
SHAPIRO: I'm good. You actually interviewed George Michael back in 2008. Describe what he was like in person.
POWERS: Oh, he was such a wonderful interview, very erudite, an all-around music man who knew every aspect of what he did. He was not an empty vessel or simply a mere teen idol. He was a true pop auteur.
SHAPIRO: Let's dive deep into one song in particular, one of his biggest hits that I think tells us a lot about who he was as a star, as an artist, as a human being. That song is "Freedom! '90."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM! '90")
MICHAEL: (Singing) There's something deep inside of me. There's someone else I've got to be. Take back your picture in a frame. Take back your singing in the rain. I just hope you understand sometimes the clothes do not make the man.
SHAPIRO: So, Ann, I think lyrically one of the most noticeable things right off the bat is he's basically giving an up yours to the music industry with a song that MTV is going to be forced to play again and again and again because it's so popular, even though he's explicitly calling out MTV in the lyrics of the song.
POWERS: Absolutely. Our friend and colleague Jason King said that George Michael was transgressive from the center, you know? He challenged everything from right in the middle of the mainstream. And I think that was a lot of the brilliance of his music and of this song. As someone who felt manipulated by the pop machine, in some ways, and as a gay man who early on in his career and life felt he needed to be in the closet, George Michael really struggled with fame.
And this song articulated his desire to continue to connect with his fans while saying, no, I am not an object. I am not going to be the victim of the pop industry.
SHAPIRO: And that level of being gay and closeted, as one person I saw on social media put it, being straight for pay.
POWERS: (Laughter) Well, he's hardly the first, I have to say.
SHAPIRO: Well, that became very apparent when he was outed in 1998 and suddenly the lyrics to the song "Freedom! '90" took on a whole new meaning.
POWERS: You know, George Michael really embodied the historic changes that the LGBTQI community has gone through since basically the 1980s. He lost a lover to AIDS, you know, he came out, he challenged the status quo. He was very outspoken. And people embraced him as an icon of liberation. I think this song really changed after he came out and became that anthem.
It's really an anthem that anyone can become a part of because its message is I may love you, I may give to you, but I belong to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM! '90")
MICHAEL: (Singing) Is that I don't belong to you. And you don't belong to me. Yeah, yeah, freedom. I won't let you down. Freedom. I will not give you up. Freedom. Have to have some faith in the sound, it's the one good thing left.
SHAPIRO: We don't know the specifics of his death. His manager said he died peacefully at home of heart failure. But given that he was only 53, it's hard not to wonder what chapters of his life he would have had left that we will never see.
POWERS: Ari, I've heard rumors that there were unreleased tracks. I really hope we get to hear that music. And, yes, I would have imagined George Michael making a great album at age 60. I'm devastated we won't have that. But what we do have is his rich archive, and there's so much to explore. So I hope people will go beyond the hits and really appreciate all the different facets of this true music man.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR music critic Ann Powers talking about George Michael. The pop singer's death was announced yesterday. He was 53 years old, and his manager said the cause of death was heart failure. Thanks, Ann.
POWERS: Thank you so much, Ari.
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