George Michael and the Role of Pop Culture

The best media we consume are the ones that change the way we see the world. The experience of human existence and popular art constantly feed one another, and it affects our individual realities. With the death of George Michael over Christmas, I began thinking about this. His music shaped how I think about love and sexuality. I don’t know if I would call that a form of mourning, but my reverence for his work has continued to expand.

In 2008, there was a short lived show called Eli Stone about a lawyer with a brain aneurism that caused him to have prophetic visions, usually in the form of a George Michael musical number. I began listening to his music religiously (Get it? Religious? Prophets?) and it introduced me to what love meant, being comfortable, even open with sexuality, and ultimately what it meant to be gay. I even used An Easier Affair as a roundabout way to come out to my best friend.

The more I thought about it, influence of an artist, in this case a musician, on our lives is astounding, increasingly so since we have so much being fed into the media. The effect of popular culture on the population comes down to “we are what we eat.” We have something loosely coined as “art pop.” I’ve seen multiple definitions of this but the best way I can describe it is using popular culture to create something that is grounded in the expressions of human experience.

Speaking specifically to music, many artists have described their work similarly to “art pop,” (see Lady Gaga’s album ARTPOP), though some can be considered more genuine than others depending on your taste. Some of the most notable to me would be Madonna, P!nk, Heart, Halestorm, and, obviously George Michael. He was unique in that he didn’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight especially later. In Freedom! ’90, he has the guitar, juke box, and leather jacket from the iconic Faith video burst into flames when he wanted to effectively change the way people viewed him.

The lyrics of his songs featured change and hinted to his sexuality until he came out. Because of the content of his music coming to me in years when I was facing massive changes, I believe I was able to navigate them a bit easier.  Outside was one of his most influential. This video and song were created in response to his arrest for sex in a public park. It features him dancing in a men’s restroom, wearing a police uniform, while the video features different types of couples engaging in erotic acts out in the open.

When I saw the video, I was coming to terms with what being gay was and how my life would develop upon accepting it. I watched couples who differed in age, same-sex couples – I even learned one of the men in the video used it as a means to come out to his family. This idea of openness, of harsh honesty was wildly appealing after growing up in a world where many of my questions were met with avoidance or flat-out dismissal. Obviously, getting arrested isn’t enviable, but the metaphor of “going outside” with everything you have on your sleeves – that was something I wanted to see for myself and in the rest of the world.

Other songs like his “coming out” anthem (An Easier Affair), a love song for his partner (Amazing), and confronting the fallacy of religion (Hand to Mouth) have helped me come to terms with my sexuality, create a comfort level with it, and even mesmerize about what I want from a relationship. His music inspired thousands of people in countless different ways, and many other artists have helped to inform our individual realities.

The products of these people create community and catharsis, even if it’s from an up-beat dance number like Too Funky or an emotional ballad like One More Try. George Michael’s particular influence was not enormous but fierce, and he joins the likes of Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher and David Bowie in those who have influenced our culture and the way we live our lives.