Monday, 26 December 2016

What George Michael Meant

2016 continues to exact a grim toll among the celebrity set, and the latest victim is George Michael. There are few things I can add to the stock obituaries proliferating across news sites, except for what he meant to me. Because, among all the other much loved celebrities who met their demise this year, George Michael was perhaps the one I felt closest to. This closeness, of course, is an illusion, an effect of how the celebrity system in the advanced industrial societies work. As we've discussed previously:
As celebrity has become even more ubiquitous, the option is there - and it's readily taken - for people to form simulated relationships with celebrities of their choice. Whether one is a self-described superfan or is moderately interested in the doings/work of a particular star there is a one-way, "inauthentic" relationship. Despite never meeting them, seeing them, or getting a reply on Twitter off them they can become as meaningful to someone as a real, flesh-and-blood friendship can be. Sometimes even more so. Zygmunt Bauman, the diagnostician of what he likes to call 'liquid modernity' nevertheless observes that for all their inauthenticity, relationships of this stripe can reproduce the agonies and ecstasies just as well. The relation one might have with a certain celebrity might be more real than real, more human than human. It's a strange coming together of supplicant and replicant, of a real person "meeting" a simulated person through the intermediaries of multiple media technologies.
Illusions can seem real. And if they present as real, they can have real effects. George Michael provided a soundtrack that was always playing in the background during the formative years of millions of people. His songs rotated heavily when I was a little kid glued to Top of the Pops. This continued at university with his songs getting regular spots on cheesy (boozy) nights out in local clubs and down the union. In other words, George Michael's work is bound up with some of the very happiest times of my life. But also, strangely, so is his person. Throughout the last 30-odd years, his celebrity has been a constant, a background presence that has helped anchor me and masses of other people in an otherwise turbulent period of accelerated social change. That, ultimately, is one of the social consequences of the celebrity system, and why I feel his passing so keenly.

George Michael was a big star with few peers in pop. But he was also culturally significant in a number of unstated ways. There were surprisingly few stars from the 1980s who actively collaborated with other big names, but he was one of them. Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Queen, Mary J Blige all teamed up with him and turned out superb pop moments. Today, collabs are so utterly frequent they barely merit mentioning. George Michael can arguably lay claim to inventing designer stubble. The manner of his forced outing by the LAPD in 1998 landmarked the strides taken towards gay acceptance as no one was really bothered, which in turn he sent up in Outside. In more recent years, he was fodder for the gossip sheets with his admissions of drug taking, self-deprecating confessions about a rustling in the bushes on Hampstead Heath, and the bizarre incidents of his crashing into a photography shop and subsequent falling out of his car on the motorway(!). Having reached such a level of fame, it's almost as if he took a delight in an eccentric subversion of it.

But nor should we forget that George was a frequent target for the tabloid press. As with any celebrity megastar, they reveled in his low moments. Gloating when his contract with Sony was upheld in the courts, prurient as they tried to break the studied silence about his sexuality and personal life, and hay making when he was done for cottaging. George Michael was - is - loved, but for the press that helped make him their attachment was purely cynical, their heartfelt headlines entirely hypocritical.

Despite their best efforts, he epitomised what it meant to be the 'good celebrity'. George Michael's working class background kept him grounded and socially conscious (Wham! played a Miners' benefit gig at the height of their success). Once forced out, he was utterly unapologetic about his sexuality and made a point of not caring what people thought about his cruising and drug taking. His intolerance was directed at the intolerant, an ethic everyone involved in progressive and socialist politics should seek to emulate. And he was a generous man, refusing to partake in celebrity charity fests and preferring to help people out quietly and anonymously. In all, he was a lovely bloke, and one of the reasons why he meant so much to so many.

53 these days is no age, and the world already feels the poorer for his passing. Goodbye George. We will miss you.


Anonymous said...

Well said Phil, one of my heroes.

Phil said...

Such a terrible shame. Perhaps next year the grim reaper can start making off with some bad 'uns.