Sunday 18 August 2019

Ian O' Doherty: Lamenting with prejudice: the hijacking of a pop star's death

Tributes to George Michael outside his London home. Photo: REUTERS/Neil Hall
Tributes to George Michael outside his London home. Photo: REUTERS/Neil Hall
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

So farewell George Michael, it feels like we hardly knew you at all.

The news of Michael's death, which arrived in the dwindling moments of Christmas night, seemed to be the rancid cherry on top of an already freakishly rotten year for celebrity deaths.

After 12 months when it sometimes felt as if it would be easier to name the stars who hadn't died, most of us thought we'd got through the worst of 2016. Surely the usual allocation for pop stars popping off had been exceeded around the middle of the summer?

And, surely, we'd be able to at least digest the Christmas dinner without another depressing news alert going off on everyone's phone at the same time?

Frankly, it feels as if the Grim Reaper has been malevolently scrolling down his Rolodex and compiling his own personalised version of 'Now That's What I Call Music 666'.

If his death was different from the others, most notably the demise of David Bowie and Prince, it was because everyone's memories are different. And also because, unlike the two aforementioned legends, Michael started his career as a widely mocked 1980s popinjay.

Wham! were all white trousers, highlights in the hair and good times in the emerging era of Thatcherite conspicuous consumption. 'Miami Vice' chic channelled through an East End market stall. A dime store Duran Duran, either treated with contempt or dismissed by the critics as another piece of frothy kiddy pop unworthy of scrutiny or respect.

Even the fact they became the first Western pop act to perform in the cloistered realm of Communist China in 1985 was held against them. After all, what repressive regime would allow a dangerous band with a dangerous brand to perform in front of their communist cubs?

No, Wham! were pure, harmless, studiedly safe, and their most offensive crime was the awful free-styling on Wham Rap! - one of the greatest atrocities of the 1980s, a decade which saw more crimes against music than most.

Yet George would go on to become one of the most important, influential and downright interesting performers of the last few decades; a man who had apparently hidden his remarkable talent under a frothy bushel.

His first solo album, 'Faith', featured a newer and darker, more interesting side to the singer - tracks like 'I Want Your Sex' and 'Father Figure' were a world apart from the tweeny, virginal fun of Wham! But it was really with the release of 'Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1' that even 'serious' music fans began to pay attention to him.

That album, which landed in 1990, saw the world look at him in a different way, and it remains a beautiful, melancholy piece of work and the high watermark of his catalogue.

The following years, however, saw some chaotic cracks from his private life appearing in public.

Busted for cottaging in a Beverly Hills public toilet, he still parlayed it into a great video for 'Outside'. When he officially came out, few people were surprised and even fewer cared. George Michael was on his way to becoming that most elusive of things, a national treasure, and every tabloid controversy just made people love him even more.

He had essentially burned his American bridges with the release of the anti-war song, and particularly the video which contained a rather less than flattering portrayal of Bush and Blair, in 'Shoot The Dog', but the real appeal of this latter-stage Michael was his utterly indifferent attitude towards fame.

His growing contempt for the established hierarchy of pop royalty left him cold, and he visibly bristled when fellow stars like Elton John and, weirdly, Bono, publicly expressed their concern.

He dismissed Elton John's remarks, saying, "He won't be happy until I bang on his door in the middle of the night saying I need to go to rehab,". He was also famously scathing about Bono, citing him, not unreasonably, as one of the reasons "I have no interest in being part of those social circles".

In recent years, most interest in him focused on his personal life, which many said was 'shambolic', but it was one with which he seemed comfortable.

The occasional spliff-related accident only increased the esteem in which he was held. After all, he joked himself that his traffic accident near his house wasn't much of an accident because he was stoned and going only four miles an hour.

He was a man who simply suited himself and held nothing but scorn for the usual dullards and worthies who counted among his peers.

But as we have learned in the last few days, George Michael was one of the good guys.

Prone to random acts of kindness, he was determined to keep his philanthropy quiet, another area where he and Bono have little in common. And the stories which have emerged of him tipping a struggling waitress five grand for her tuition fees, or anonymously donating £15,000 to a woman who needed IVF, speak of a man motivated by a sense of basic common decency rather than any desire for self-aggrandisement.

Given how much he despised the idea of being lumped in with pop stars he actually knew, it would be interesting to see how he'd feel about being appropriated by a bunch of political activists he had never met.

Within a few minutes of the announcement of his death, social media was ablaze with the usual praise and well-meaning, if cringeworthy, tributes. But it also contained a new element to this posthumous puffing-up of someone's reputation. He had somehow become an icon of resistance for people who would have spent the 1980s more inclined to go to a Red Wedge gig than a Wham! show.

His support for the miners in the mid-1980s was lauded, as if that was germane to his musical legacy, while perhaps the most idiotic tweet came from one Irish writer who opined that: "You know what Bowie, Prince and George Michael would have wanted? That we all go to the nearest American Embassy on January 20 and say 'hell, no'."

The fact both Bowie and Michael were British, while Prince followed a faith which precluded him from voting, seemed to be irrelevant.

As baffling as such nonsense was, it reminded us of one thing - everyone felt like they owned a bit of George Michael.

Which, when you think about it, makes his later years of relative seclusion all the more understandable.

Irish Independent

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