With so many high-profile celebrity deaths in 2016, it became something of a meme that this year represents one of the worst on record for tragic losses. However, it is no laughing matter when one takes into consideration the magnitude of losing beloved icons who touched and changed the world with their gifts and talents. In a twist of irony, on Christmas Day, the world lost George Michael, the man who gave us the hit single “Last Christmas”.
Officers from Thames Valley Police were called to the home of Michael in Oxfordshire, England, and confirmed his death at the age of 53, citing no suspicious circumstances. Michael’s publicist issued a statement, saying, “It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother, and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period.” At present, the cause of death is thought to be heart failure.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, Michael was raised in East Finchley, London, by his Greek father and English mother. It was later – in the town of Bushey – that Michael was fated to meet Andrew Ridgeley, who later became his partner in the famed pop duo Wham!. However, prior to stardom, Michael worked his way up through the local music scene slowly, first as a busker and later as a DJ.
Although Michael formed Wham! with Ridgeley in 1981, their big break came in 1983 when the duo released their first album, Fantastic, which shot to the top of the UK charts and included no less than ten singles. Their sophomore release, Make It Big, was an even bigger hit, charting at No. 1 in the United States. The album included numerous singles like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Freedom”, and “Careless Whisper”. What is most notable about Michael’s musical legacy, particularly after he embarked on a solo career in 1987 with the album Faith, was his ability to cross-pollinate genres. He was an effortless R&B singer, but preferred upbeat pop tempos and catchy hooks that ensured his popularity among a broad demographic of listeners.
“I hope people will remember George Michael’s nuanced legacy. He wasn’t just a pop star. He was soulful and innovative, with intersecting identities that paved a way for artists to live as their authentic self in a manufactured music industry,” writes Clay Cane on CNN.com. Over the course of four decades working as an entertainer, Michael sold over 100 million records, garnered two Grammy awards, and won dozens of other accolades and awards.
One of Michael’s most iconic contributions to music involved the intersection of glam fashion models and his pop hit “Freedom! ‘90”, with a memorable music video starring Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Tatjana Patitz. This masterpiece was called “nothing short of revolutionary” by Entertainment Weekly because of the sheer audacity it took to not cast Michael in his own music video, but instead rely on a cadre of models to carry his new “sex symbol” image forward. Furthermore, it made fashion history when Gianni Versace closed his 1991 catwalk with Evangelista, Turlington, and Campbell lip syncing to “Freedom! ‘90”. At that moment, supermodel-dom was born.
In addition to his major contributions to pop music, Michael was also a devoted philanthropist. He not only conducted large-scale events like Band Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia, but also took personal concern with people he met in his life, donating individually to those who were struggling. For example, Michael once saw a woman on the TV game show Deal or No Deal who could not afford IVF. He covered the cost, giving her £15,000 for the treatment. He left £5,000 tips for barmaids, gifted NHS nurses with free tickets to his concert, worked anonymously at homeless shelters, and performed dozens of other charitable acts for which he never asked any recognition.
His kindness and genuine desire to help others spoke to the kind of person he was, as did his struggle to accept his level of fame. Michael, reportedly, was never really comfortable in the role of a music icon, and was conflicted about his celebrity status. In a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times, Michael confessed, “I decided that the thing I really enjoy… the thing I really needed was my songwriting. I didn’t need the celebrity.”
He went on in the same interview to say, “But I’m also sure that most people find it hard to believe that stardom can make you miserable. After all, everybody wants to be a star. I certainly did, and I worked hard to get it. But I was miserable, and I don’t want to feel that way again.” Although he was in the spotlight reluctantly, Michael often used his fame for good, but chose to keep most of his charitable activities to himself. As 2016 comes to a close, the world – yet again – mourns the loss of an enormous talent and, with that, we say goodbye to the man that The Guardian once referred to as “the last transcendent world pop star”.