Not on the official tour of Highgate Cemetery in respect to the family’s wishes, there is no ‘here lies George Michael’ at his gravesite. All there is is his real name (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) and the epitaph ‘beloved son, brother, friend’.
George was a man who had a huge influence on me coming to terms with my own sexuality. His openness and honesty when it came to his relationships, experiences and treatment at the hands of the media had me fascinated.
He was one of the most visible gay presences I was aware of in the media as a child and young teenager. I knew of him as a solo artist before I knew of his career with Wham!: when Outside was rhythmically trolling the charts and culture in a way I was far too young to understand, but yet I still felt drawn to it. His later songs, including Shoot the Dog, may not be the finest in his repertoire but were linked to my own awakening both politically and sexually.
Born in 1963 in East Finchley to Leslie (who is buried beside him), a dancer and Kyriacos “Jack” Panayiotou, a restaurateur who emigrated to London from Cyprus in the 1950s.
I could go on and elaborate about his early life, befriending Andrew Ridgeley, how their duo name got the exclamation mark from a British design agency, to working as a labourer to supplement his income and selling twenty eight million records and fifteen million singles before amicably splitting from his musical partner in 1986 – but that’s what his Wiki page is for.
No, instead I’m going to talk about one of his lesser known hits, and one of my favourite songs, which you likely aren’t that familar with. But first, some background.
George had included sex as a theme in mnay of his songs, from I Want Your Sex, Fast Love and of course, Outside, which was when he commited Violation 647A by engaging in a lewd act in a restroom in Beverley Hills Park, near the hotel he was staying in.
Police had been cracking down on cruising that was happening in the area: it was not the objective to ensnare a musical A-Lister to control same-sex desire in a public space. George was enticed into activity by being signalled by a masquerading officer who appeared to be a willing partner. He was arrested and any uncertainty to his orientation was immediately clarified.
In A BBC interview conducted a few years afterwards, he mused that on a subconcious level that he must have had a driving force to do something risky at a time when being openly gay still had an incredible stigma in the public eye, especially being caught doing something seen as peverse or dirty. He wasn’t publicly out, despite being with his then-partner Kenny Goss for nearly two years.
He released Outside six months later to critical acclaim.
“I felt that lightening the stigma around cruising was the most immediately beneficial thing I could do. I know for a fact that when I was 16, 17, when I started cruising…that watching the Outside video would have taken some of the weight off my shoulders’” he said in 2004 to Attitude magazine.
He took a light-hearted approach to the incident and by a larger degree his own brushes with the law, even lampooning it in a sketch with Ricky Gervais by eating a kebab and smoking a spliff, whilst making reference to his community service after being arrested for fly-tipping Annie Lennox’s fridge.
A few years later, the cat being very much out of the bag, he released a song that struck me like a thunderbolt. I was likely watching Top of the Pops and suddenly the visual of an immaculate coiffered George, dressed as a superhero/supervillain with a precision-trimmed beard in a body-hugging red leather outfit with whips, chains and dobermen being girated around a Blade Runner-esque setting had my jaw drop.
You got yourself a big bedFreeek, George Michael, 2002
You shoot off, take your time
In the house with a bitch and a mouse
And your daddy’s plastic, how fantastic, yeah!
The song, released in 2002 and would later be part of his 2004 album Patience, was about the weird sexual dystopia that we live in. It showed his versatility as a writer and producer – stylistically acknowledging the urban hip hop sound of the era which at that time was being led by Timbaland. The song features samples of Try Again by Aaliyah, Breathe and Stop by Q-Tip and N.T by Kool and the Gang.
It was a continuation of the themes explored in his earlier releases such as Fast Love. George felt sex was a part of life – so why shy away from it?
Packaged up in the sci-fi/superhero renaissance that was in its early stages at the time of the song’s release, whilst also highlighting the fact that sex is something we’re told to be ashamed of and be punished for (as he was), the song is tongue-in-cheek, playful, but deeply meaningful.
The video was directed by Joseph Kahn, who was also responsible for Britney Spears’ Toxic, Hero by Enrigue Inglesias and Bad Blood for Taylor Swift. The cityscape matte paintings in the background were designed by Deak Ferrand, who did a lot of the work in the Robin Williams film cocnerning the afterlife, What Dreams May Come.
Kahn and George oversaw the creation of two versions of the video: the X-rated version and the one that was hopefully appeasing to the censors, but its content was so controversial that many channels simply didn’t play it – certainly not in its entirety.
That certainly didn’t dissaude a sixteen year old Sheldon from going into Virgin Megastore in Bromley and buying his second-ever single. Something clicked inside me when I saw that video: a lot of feelings and impulses I’d had for years beforehand and it took George’s blunt but honest commentary to make me realise that yes, I was in fact gay.
Despite reaching number seven in the charts, it remains one of his lesser known hits.
So as we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month at a time when many in the community are being made to feel demonised, let us remind ourselves the good we can do by taking a leaf out of his examples.
So every time I go to Highgate, I always stop by his grave. The one song that goes through my head isn’t Careless Whisper, or Jesus To A Child. It’s Freeek!
Follow me on Instagram
Buy me a coffee/make a one-time donation!
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated and helps towards online subscriptions and hosting.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly