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And the Wounded Skies Above Say It’s Much Too Late
We live in strange times. We live under wounded skies. We live amongst our mistakes, and we count their bones.
Late night talk show host James Corden tweeted out on Christmas that the message in George Michael’s “Praying for Time” from his 1990 masterpiece Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 “means more now than ever.” It’s not difficult to see what Corden means when you listen to the lyrics: “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate / Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of / And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late / Well maybe we should all be praying for time.”
“The song,” according to its creator, “was just my idea of trying to figure out why it’s so hard for people to be good to each other.” Many of the songs on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 wrestle with these type of questions. They show Michael diving deeper than he had on his earlier material with Wham! and from his first solo album, Faith—exploring existential dreads, navigating the prickly problems of identity, love, and time, in the casing of what had long been thought of as the most disposable of art forms: pop music.
James Hunter wrote of “Praying for Time” in his Rolling Stone review of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, at the time of its release, “Michael offers the healing passage of time as the only balm for physical and emotional hunger, poverty, hypocrisy, and hatred.” He summed up the song as “a distraught look at the world’s astounding woundedness.”
The world’s astounding woundedness does seem, at least to me, more apparent now than ever. I can think of few people other than a real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-tv-star-turned-demagogue who would call 2016 a successful year. But even in what seems like end times, there are still some small pleasures to be had, some minor miracles in all of our lives that keep us “choosing life” (as we are implored to do by the Katharine Hamnett shirt that Michael famously wore in Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video). For example, five years ago I would have never dreamed I’d be texting with philosopher Simon Critchley about George Michael. In 2016, we have to take pleasure in whatever small victories we get.
Via text Critchley called Michael “one of my most intense private delights and dirty secret pleasures.” But need Michael be a dirty secret pleasure? Need any pleasure be dirty or secret? And aren’t these the questions Michael himself seemed to explore (and explode) in both his music and his life?
Heaven Knows He Was Just a Young Boy
There’s a video going around on social media in the wake of George Michael’s death on Christmas day of the singer rehearsing with the living members of Queen, beautifully belting their hit “Somebody to Love,” as David Bowie looks on, smiling, applauding. I don’t believe in Heaven, but if I did, that video gives a glimpse of what I’d imagine the pearly gates would have looked like this Christmas. David Bowie applauding the incoming angel.
Prince and David Bowie are my two favorite musicians, so by April, 2016 already seemed crueler than usual, even just in terms of rock star deaths. But all years are cruel. Death comes for all our archbishops. And then it comes for us. We can pray for time, but inevitably it runs out. There is only so much sand in an hourglass.
I remember, after Prince died, telling a friend that whatever musician death took next—if it dared to take another in 2016—couldn’t possibly be as personally devastating as the two it had already taken. But privately that didn’t stop me from wondering who else might be in death’s sights: Madonna? Morrissey? Stevie Wonder? Bob Dylan? Neil Young? As we all know, it ended up taking Leonard Cohen, and then, on Christmas morning, George Michael.
But, to be honest, George Michael never even came to mind in my thoughts of who might be next. Maybe this was because Michael was slightly younger than the rest, still in his early fifties? At 53, he was much too young to die.
Or more likely he never came to mind when thinking of who might be next because Michael was just too far off my radar these days? He hadn’t remained as present in my mind as other icons of the 1980s and 90s. I’ll admit I’d mostly forgotten him—and I’d forgotten how much I once loved him.
When I heard the news of his death, I suddenly remembered dancing alone in my room to his new single “Fastlove” in middle school—a dirty secret pleasure. Michael wasn’t out yet—he was 32, the age I would be when I came out—but by then there was a certain queerness that already stuck to him. Grunge had made pop music in the 90s seem silly to “the cool kids”—it was something stupid, vapid, and thus something queer. That queerness was a shadow Michael and his music acquired in the suburbs because maybe the sun was different there, where we played “Smear the Queer” and said of anything we disliked, “That’s so gay.” When everyone else was listening to Green Day’s Dookie, I was still gleefully dancing alone in my room to Prince, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and others, as though the 1980s had never ended. Even though, by the mid-90s, they all seemed less cool to the world at large than they had a decade earlier, they continued as a private pantheon for me (and many other young weirdos). They all had something in common, something they shared with their forefather David Bowie. I couldn’t yet put into words what it was, but it was there—a thread that connected them all.
I Do Believe That They Were Practising the Same Religion
Prince has a song titled “Gett Off.” Prince being Prince, few people question why the titular word “get” has two Ts. “Why would it not have two Ts? He’s Prince. He does weird shit.” But what most people don’t realize is there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the two Ts: Prince already had a song called “Get Off.” The first “Get Off” was a b-side on the maxi-single of “New Power Generation.” The second “Gett Off”—spelled with two Ts for purposes of differentiation—became one of Prince’s biggest hits of the 90s. What’s fascinating to me about the tale of two Ts is that when an artist has two songs with the same title, it often clues you into a thematic throughline in that artist’s work. Prince naming two songs “Get Off,” spells out, with one or two Ts, one of his great interests.
George Michael also has two songs that share a title. Unlike Prince, though, he didn’t add an extra T to his song title—or in this case an extra F or R or E or D or O or M. Instead, his second song called “Freedom” got the year of its creation added to the end of it and became “Freedom ’90.” Like Prince’s “Get Off,” George Michael’s double use of the song title “Freedom” tells you what one of his major thematic preoccupations was.
In the Wham! single “Freedom,” it’s interesting to note that Michael croons, “I don’t want your freedom.” The context is that the singer doesn’t want the freedom of an open relationship, but prefers fidelity. The second song with that title, “Freedom ’90,” goes in the opposite direction: it is a call for freedom. He sings, “I’ll hold on to my freedom / May not be what you want from me / Just the way it’s got to be.”
Joshua Clover, in his book 1989, connected the song to the fall of the Berlin Wall: “George Michael’s ‘Freedom ’90’ does not, of course, concern world events . . . It nonetheless manages to crystallize the feeling of the post-Wall moment without taking a stance regarding it, through its sense of unbounded duration as liberation, its formal evocation of the sudden absence of barriers—and its sense of this as something potentially intrinsic to the music, to the truth of pop.”
“The song,” he explained, “finally proposes not freedom from, but freedom though. If it is transcendent—and it certainly feels that way—it does not seek to transcend pop but simply to explode bounded pop for the unbounded, without prohibition or border.” He described it as “exploding its category without exiting it.”
In 2004 Michael told GQ: “I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.”
Like Prince—and David Bowie, and Madonna, and Michael Jackson—his pop music pulled at the connective tissue between sex and religion, embracing and confusing the sacred and the profane; it not only pushed boundaries but exploded them; it yearned for freedom. In thinking about these five icons, to paraphase the lyrics of “Fastlove”: I do believe that they were practising the same religion.
There’s Someone Else We’ve Got To Be
Simon Critchley wrote of David Bowie: “If Bowie’s music begins from loneliness, it is not at all an affirmation of solitude. It is a desperate attempt to overcome solitude and find some kind of connection. In other words, what defines so much of Bowie’s music is an experience of yearning.”
Yearning is a great way to think about George Michael as well. Not only was he always yearning for love, for connection, for understanding, for freedom—he also, like Bowie and like Prince, in a perhaps less overt way, yearned for unending reinvention. He wasn’t constantly inventing new personas like Bowie, but he did continually recalibrate himself, shuffling through new slightly askew selves. Remember that the music video for “Freedom ’90” not only features the famous five supermodels but also the burning of the synecdoches of his earlier Faith persona, just as Faith had attempted to be a destruction of the public’s constructed idea of the Wham! frontman.
Michael always seemed to be searching for some other way of being—“There’s someone else I’ve got to be” he sings in “Freedom ’90”—which, as I wrote when discussing Prince’s death earlier this year, is perhaps the best way to live, to constantly be falling into the new you-performance. As Critchley says of Bowie, “Through the fakery and because of it, we feel a truth that leads beyond ourselves, toward the imagination of some other way of being.” Another “Freedom ’90” lyric goes: “All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow.” Like Bowie and like Prince, Michael was eternally seeking new lies that we could make true, somehow.
Our Memory Serves Us Far Too Well
In “Praying for Time,” George Michael looked to the healing passage of time, but elsewhere on that same album, in the song “Waiting for That Day,” he admits that “My memory serves me far too well.” He remembers his mistakes.
We remember his “mistakes” too—his foibles, his public transgressions. Whereas the media seemed to take every scandal as a career death knell, those of us who loved him only ended up loving him even more for each of his “mistakes.”
When he was outed in 1998, at the age of 35, because he was arrested in Beverly Hills for showing his penis to an undercover cop in a public restroom, he didn’t cower or complain, he embraced it. A few months later he released his single “Outside,” which mocked himself, public sex, and the whole ordeal, with lyrics like: “I think I’m done with the sofa / I think I’m done with the hall / I think I’m done with the kitchen table, baby / Let’s go outside / In the sunshine / I know you want to, but you can’t say yes.”
“Freedom,” as a concept, in the abstract, is something that few people would be against. But one of the things that George Michael seemed to personify was that true freedom must always be the freedom to make mistakes, to be messy, to transgress.
We live in an era where people on both sides of the political spectrum are quick to pile on to someone who has made a “mistake” or done something “wrong.” Reputations are ruined and lives are destroyed by tweeting the “wrong” thing or making the “wrong” joke or being on the “wrong” side of an issue. But we all have monkeys, at one point or another, that we can’t set free. I’m not saying we should never hold people’s feet to the fire, but I am saying that I truly believe the most important freedom is the freedom to make mistakes. Sure, we all should’ve known better than to cheat a friend, we all shouldn’t have wasted the chances we’ve been given, but even guilty feet must dance again, rhythm or not.
If, as Michael sings in “Freedom ’90,” “some mistakes were built to last,” then maybe freedom from mistakes was never the goal, maybe it’s freedom through mistakes. James Joyce once opined, “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Maybe we are meant to explode that category without exiting it. Mistakes might be built to last, especially in today’s culture with today’s technology, but they needn’t pin us down. If our mistakes must define us—which I am not entirely certain they must—they should, as portals of discovery, define who they allow us to become. What I learned from George Michael was the simplest of lessons: that we’re all messy, that we’re all just working it out, that there’s no right way to do any of this. That’s freedom: borderless, boundless, messy life.