George Michael (and His Neon T-Shirts) Was a Pop Music Pioneer

When George Michael's band, Wham!, exploded in the United States, it was 1984 and I was in high school. I hated Wham! and everything they seemed to stand for, although there was no denying the talent Michael possessed. He was highly annoying (at least to me), from the frosted tips of his perfectly coiffed hair to the silly Reebok shoes he cavorted around in, but man — could he sing and dance.

"Wake me up, before you go go..."

You know, if I never hear that phrase again, it will be okay, because it is literally seared on the brain of anyone who was alive and listening (even begrudgingly) to popular music in 1984. There are probably people out there who think Michael invented the term "jitterbug" as well. I couldn't stand listening to the song "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" back then, but today, it doesn't seem so bad. We all need a giggle from time to time, and if you watch the video for the song from 1984, you just can't help but smile.

Seemingly more style than substance at first, Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley created a look and vibe that carried them to somewhere around 40 million record sales worldwide during their five-year career. After the band's break up in 1986 (and the end of the big neon shirts with "Go Go" or "Choose Life" on them), Michael went on to a hugely successful solo career, which included the release of his first and most successful solo record, Faith (1987), and enjoyed the spotlight for another two decades before his star began to fade.

Faith hit number one on the U.S. charts and also took home a Grammy award for album of the year while selling upward of 25 million copies worldwide. At the time, Michael (whose real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) was still living the life of somewhat veiled homosexuality and did not reveal his actual sexual preference until a few years later when his former lover, Anselmo Feleppa, died of an HIV-related brain aneurysm in 1993. It was after this tragic event that Michael decided to tell his family he was gay.

In retrospect, this information seems trivial and a little silly because in the grand scheme of things, no one probably cared about Michael's sexual preference outside of his family and close circle of friends, but in the early '90s, it certainly stirred the proverbial pot. Gay, straight, or bisexual, Michael was a talented musician. He was also a son, partner, friend, and inspiration to countless people around the world who found some solace in his voice or escape in his songs.

This year has been tough on music fans with the loss of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and now Michael, who died in his sleep of suspected heart failure. Both as a member of Wham! and during his incredibly successful solo career, Michael formed a deep bond with fans around the world who were often willing to overlook some rather questionable judgment calls in the singer's personal life, including brushes with the law in relation to drugs and seemingly promiscuous sexcapades in public restrooms. Michael liked to have smoke pot and have sex, not unlike quite a few people out there. He just happened to get caught in and around bathrooms trying to do both.

Michael's death leaves behind a void in the British and worldwide pop world. He will not be forgotten.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon