Christmas Eve 2016. I was enjoying my family’s tradition of a pre-Christmas evening meal and, as always happens when we gather, conversations about music were inevitable. My 29-year-old son, a gifted, knowledgeable and dedicated choral singer, startled his two sisters, both also experienced, talented and committed choristers, by stating that George Michael was the best interpreter of rock and pop songs of his and any generation. His elder sister, never short of an opinion and never one to shirk a good-natured argument, was surprised that her brother, a rational scientist with a professed love of some of the great choral works should heap such an accolade on a rather unlikely idol. However, a brief discussion of the merits and scope of George’s work and technique led quickly to appropriately harmonious agreement. We listened to Last Christmas, reminiscing as so often before about that iconic video of the snowy Alpine holiday.
Just 24 hours later, George Michael was dead, the latest of the so-called curse of 2016, triggering an outpouring of sadness and an unprecedented spike in downloads. Quite a 2016 bookend to the January demise of David Bowie. The media have, of course, had a field day, with his musical legacy and personal demons analysed to the Nth degree and celebrities and pundits all chipping in with words of tribute. It has become an all-too-familiar routine.
So just how good is George Michael? Is my son right? Or are we all getting carried away with the prevailing media-led sentiment? For me, the answer is that he is entirely deserving of the praise, regardless of the untimely death. And of course I now have the memory of that Christmas Eve conversation as proof that we are being led by genuine musical discernment, shared across two generations.
Perhaps that’s a good starting point. Any artist whose appeal can transcend different audiences and different eras is worthy of special attention, and of course Bowie passes that test as well. George Michael bestrides the turn of the millennium with almost perfect symmetry, from bursting on to the scene in the 80’s, all gleaming teeth, rolled up sleeves and highlighted hair, through the social activism and remarkable generosity to good causes of a mature rock star to a prolonged and troubled mid-life crisis with an all-too familiar end on Christmas Day 2016. Along the way, he has earned the admiration, either unbridled or at least grudging, of everyone from impressionable teenage girls to earnest gay activists to staid schoolteachers like me – and indeed my son, thirty years my junior.
George Michael was multi-talented: a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and charismatic stage presence. But I think it is indeed, as my son suggests, as a vocalist, as an interpreter of his own and others’ songs, that he deserves the strongest praise. He could do joyful exuberance or profound melancholy with equal alacrity, and is one of the few singers who could take a song strongly identified with another artist and come up with a cover which improves on it.
Let’s take the joyful exuberance first: the Wham songs being endlessly replayed in recent days are so palpably full of life that it is unbearable to imagine their singer taken from us so relatively young and from such a manifestly unhappy life. Listen to Bad Boys, Wake Me Up before you Go-Go, Club Tropicana and Freedom and you hear fresh-faced youth singing for fresh-faced youth about fresh-faced youth. George’s voice smiles and sparkles like his teeth and the highlights in his hair, in a manner which is at once effortless yet crafted. Listen to any of the repeated lines (like “but you know that I’ll forgive you” in Freedom) and it comes out slightly differently each time it occurs, with delicate vocal twirls like the flourish of a master pâtissier icing a cake. Whether improvised or planned, I neither know no care; imagine those same lines sung with just the straight melody line and the song is immensely diminished in impact. The same remarkable vocal twirls are there before the lyric even starts in Last Christmas in that improvised “Oooh”. A superb example of the human voice as a musical instrument. You may not have noticed that vocal, but take it out and the song has lost something small but hugely significant.
Then there’s the profound melancholy. It’s there in Last Christmas, of course, but is all over his work, and of course a glaring sign of a deeply unhappy private life. Careless Whisper is the enduring favourite, loved by all generations with its recounting of the timeless and familiar theme of guilt after temptation. Everybody knows and loves that soaring saxophone riff and the chorus hook “I’m never gonna dance again” that could be the title but isn’t. But therein lies, in my view, a little touch of genius: the title is only heard once in the whole song, at the start of verse 2. Written by 17-year-old George, it is a hugely emotive yet restrained song, which tugs at the heartstrings as well as any lost love song ever written. Yet for me, the less often heard A Different Corner, from 1986, is an even better song. For a start, it repeats that subtle trick of the title being heard only once – such a clever and seldom used device in songwriting. But whereas Careless Whisper sounds like a tale of youthful indiscretion (cheating on your girlfriend at the School Disco?) and what might have been, A Different Corner sounds more like a divorcee’s lament for what very much was, with a more profound sense of loss. The aching sadness is again in the vocal: “Little By little, You brought me to my knees”, and the emotion that George conveys in his voice is simply awesome.
There are numerous other sad songs, of course, perhaps most famously Jesus to a Child, written following the tragic death of his partner. Lots of great songs have been written about loss, but George Michael’s striking and daring choice of simile, unusual yet totally apt, is what makes the song so memorable. You have been Loved was not written as a tribute to Princess Diana, but became one, whilst Don’t Let the Sun go down on me seems like a plea for a break from life’s woes.
That song, in which its author Elton John, who had a big hit with the original recording, appears as a guest vocal, stands as an example of one of many where George takes an already well-loved standard and performs it with such respect and sensitivity that it arguably betters the original. He recorded a whole album of them in 1999 when he released Songs From the Last Century, and his rendition of great songs like Stevie Wonder’s As and Queen’s Somebody to Love shows his remarkable talent for interpreting the emotions of others. The former was a duet with Mary J Blige, one of several such collaborations which perhaps say something of his humility and generosity of spirit: in 1987, for example, he proved to be more than the equal of the legendary Aretha Franklin with the powerful Knew You were Waiting. And of course he had one of the key lines in the original and best version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which in just a few words exemplifies not only his gift for conveying emotion but also his ability to collaborate so effectively with others.
Much has been made since his death of George Michael’s extraordinary, and often secretive, generosity. That facet of his personality surely indicates, above all else, humanity and generosity of spirit, and that, together with the most beautiful of singing voices, has left us with a legacy which will long outlive him. Truly, George Michael, You Have Been Loved.