We were thinking a lot about George Michael this past week.
“Last Christmas,” a holiday hit from his first band, Wham!, is ubiquitous on every Christmas playlist — a testament to the song’s staying power. Outside of Run-DMC and Mariah Carey, it’s hard to think of an original Christmas song from the last 40 years that deserves repeated listens.
Michael, who passed away on Dec. 25 from what his publicist says was heart failure, was the rare pop star who crafted timeless songs and whose work transcended decades. At the height of his career, he was a superstar on par with Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson; as for his legacy, he paved the way for everyone from Justin Timberlake to Lady Gaga. He tackled taboo subjects (sex, his own sexuality, war) and fought a very public war over his public persona — one he ultimately won.
Michael's early work, with Wham!, was forgettable, save for the aforementioned “Last Christmas” and the saxophone-fueled “Careless Whisper.” (Along with "Wham Rap," a super early attempt at combining rap with pop ... which wins points purely on effort and not on execution.)
His solo career, however, was a masterclass on both crafting identity and pushing boundaries. He wrote a song about the joys of monogamy that, ironically, faced major radio censorship (“I Want Your Sex”). Shedding his teen-idol image, he refused to appear in a music video for his second album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, which, in turn, led to the supermodel-laden clip for “Freedom ‘90,” which remains one of the greatest (and sexiest) music videos ever made. And “Jesus to a Child” was a true pop anomaly: a complex, seven-minute ode to his deceased lover Anselmo Feleppa, released several years before Michael publicly came out. The song topped the charts in dozens of countries.
Michael had his transgressions: an arrest for solicitation (that he later spoofed in a music video for “Outside”). Another one for driving under the influence of pot. Legal battles with his record company. He spoke out against the Iraq war years before it became a cause celebre.
In the end, Michael proved that a pop star could be taken seriously. And the ultimate testament to this talent: he remains the only singer to walk in Freddie Mercury’s shoes with aplomb. Below, rehearsal footage of Michael singing “Somebody to Love” with Queen for a Mercury tribute concert in 1992 (notice David Bowie in the background).
RIP to a true legend.