R.I.P. George Michael: For me and a generation, he was British pop music

Even when his supposedly "turbulent personal life" became a lazy tabloid staple, George Michael's fans remained incredibly loyal.

It’s hard to know where to start with George Michael. The stats are obviously ridiculously impressive: 100m albums sold, 11 UK Number One singles, Songwriter of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards three times. But facts and figures don’t really explain why so many people loved his music and stayed loyal when his supposedly “turbulent personal life” (eugh) became a lazy tabloid staple. He once suggested he’d have to “murder someone” for his latest album to flop, and he was probably right. Because for a generation, George Michael was British pop music.

In theory, I didn’t even experience his imperial phase: Wham!, ‘Faith’ and ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’ all came before my time. And yet, I always knew he was a top-tier pop star: MJ, Madonna, Prince, George. I guess I became a fan in the mid-’90s when he released his ‘Older’ album. I grew up just outside of London and though my mum used to moan about Capital FM all the time (“too many adverts” and “inane DJs”, apparently), she never bothered to switch over. Capital was a London station and George was a London boy who conquered the world, so they seemed to play his songs constantly. I knew all the words to ‘Fastlove’ years before I realised he’d taken a song about cruising to Number One. I didn’t know ‘As’ was an old Stevie Wonder tune, but I thought George and Mary J. Blige sounded like the greatest singers in the world when they sang it. And I understood ‘Outside’ was a clever comeback single long before I twigged the sly wit of the lyrics. “I’d service the community,” George sings with a wink. “But I already have, you see…” What a lad!

Around a decade later, I’d finished uni and hadn’t worked out what to do with my life. I was doing a kind of informal internship at a small music PR firm – £30 a day cash-in-hand, plus whatever I wanted from Starbucks when I fetched the boss’s soya latte. George announced his first tour in 15 years, ’25 Live’, and my boss used her industry connections to get me a pair of seriously great tickets. I went with my friend Hollie – who’d also grown up with George, and once sang ‘Spinning The Wheel’ down the phone for me on my birthday. We could hardly believe our luck when we arrived at the venue and saw our seats were in front of Toby Anstis. Toby Anstis from The O-Zone! George sounded incredible and the set list was basically perfect: when the couple next to us left early during ‘Careless Whisper’, I remember saying to Hollie, “What a couple of dickheads.” We also saw George live the following year when he played the first ever gig at the newly-renovated Wembley Stadium. Singing along to ‘Freedom ’90’ with 80,000 other fans was one of a handful of moments that made me realise I wanted to write about music for a living.

Obviously George hasn’t been as prominent in recent years, but in a way he always seemed to be around, making a joke about something silly he had or hadn’t done, and gently reminding us that after 100m album sales, he was definitely “still loaded”. I had a boyfriend who knew all the words to his underrated 2002 single ‘Freeek!’: maybe he was a keeper after all? And when I went to a drag king talent contest last year, there was a performer called ‘Georgeous Michael’ who lip-synced to ‘Faith’ in George’s iconic “fairy biker” outfit. It was fantastic. As an out gay man, I’ve also come to appreciate the brave and inspiring way that George handled his coming out in the late- ’90s. Here was a man who once sang about being “every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy” being completely honest about his homosexuality, refusing to apologise for it and – sorry, haters – not losing any of his fans. We’ll all be seeing a lot of this tweet over the next few days, and rightly so.

I realise I haven’t really discussed his music – the brilliant, sophisticated pop songs that he wrote, produced, arranged and sang beautifully. And obviously, my own personal recollections are no more poignant or revealing than anyone else’s, really. But like I said, it’s hard to know where to start with George Michael. Hollie’s on holiday but she just texted me to say she’s listening to his greatest hits album, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen’, in her hotel room in Oman. ‘Ladies And Gentlemen’, that was a lovely bit of knowing humour from George too. I think I might cry.

READ: George Michael Obituary: 1963-2016