By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the death of George Michael. This one hit me hard, y’all. He was one of the first celebrities who intrigued me as a kid. I liked his music and the glamorous aesthetic of the Wham! years.
Michael’s aesthetic underwent several evolutions over the years, but it always retained a polished quality. Polish can sometimes be used to mask a lack of substance or to serve a faceless corporate agenda, so some people equate polish with a lack of authenticity. But if you followed Michael’s career at all, you know he wasn’t there to serve any corporation’s agenda. Even during the Wham! days of the rah-rah 1980s, the band performed in support of a miners’ strike.
He was in control of his message, and on the rare occasions he wasn’t, he’d change the situation so that he was. He’d fight anyone, including his record label, who got in the way of him presenting his work the way he wanted to present it.
Michael was fond of pushing boundaries, whether those boundaries were his own or those of society. When he could have capitalized on his image as a handsome pop star, he made a somber, thoughtful album and refused to appear in any of the videos for its singles. In a time when advances in LGBTQ equality have often been correlated to how closely queer culture can mimic mainstream straight culture, Michael was an unrepentant fan of anonymous hookups and casual drug use. In both his interviews and his songs, he was always honest about his interests. This personal honesty gave him a level of artistic integrity.
Now I’m not saying that indulging in those activities made him a better artist. But I also don’t think it serves anyone to sweep those things under the carpet and pretend they’re the sole province of horrible people. An honest, open conversation can help us evolve as a society on such issues. Also, other people in similar situations can feel less alone when a celebrity speaks honestly on a topic that mainstream society considers shameful. So while the acts themselves didn’t make Michael a better artist, the willingness to be honest about them probably did.
But often the taboo is so strong that when anyone speaks honestly about such a topic, they become the poster child for it whether they want to or not. Understandably, many people don’t want to take that risk.
So if there’s a downside to personal honesty, it’s that you risk being misunderstood by a lot of people. And when you do make a misguided choice, a lot of people will be there to say, “I told you so.” But for the people who get you, it’s ride or die. No amount of marketing can buy that kind of loyalty.
You gotta do you. George Michael did it until the end. Rest in peace, George.