Above: George Michael comes out on CNN, 1997
By Robin Carmody
What we have found out about George Michael since his death – which, out of sheer modesty and desire to avoid publicity as much as he could, he largely kept quiet when alive – confirms that, certainly by comparison to everyone else who achieved exceptional wealth by those means at that time, he lived his life by redistributive socialist principles. It confirms his essential decency and separation from the world in which he found himself, hailed by some for the wrong reasons, dismissed by others (his most natural allies) for the same, equally wrong reasons.
And this is part of the reason why he seemed such a tragic figure, caught and trapped between two worlds, the world he might theoretically have wanted to live in (but which he knew would never have accepted him, not least because – Roy Jenkins and Leo Abse’s great work notwithstanding – of his sexuality which had to remain hidden for so long) and the world in which he made his fortune but which he knew instinctively to be empty, hollow, lacking in unifying soul. But he also knew – as I do – that he was an inherent outsider who could find no place within any notional unifying soul. So he had no option but to take himself out of things, out of the world entirely; he spoke of, and for, a moment at which and a people for whom neither the past nor the future seemed particularly promising or enticing. How could a gay man, successful in global pop in the age of AIDS and the simultaneous waves of deregulated capitalism and reignited fear and puritanism, with an atavistic feeling for socialist community have felt otherwise?
(It would be interesting, by the way, to find any latterday quotes from him about the effect of pop on non-Western cultures and societies, considering his central role just as it was beginning when Wham! broke new ground by performing in China in 1985; it would seem likely that his view would have been similar to his view of his own country, doubtful and unsure of the full implications of that uncontrollable wave but simultaneously aware that there had been a lot of narrowness and insularity before that deserved to be swept away; very similar, in fact, to the view the 1986 NME – to which he spoke, sensitively and thoughtfully, on related matters, in an interview available on Rock’s Backpages – largely took of nascent deregulated broadcasting, namely a plague on both Reithian and Murdochian houses.)
By the time of his initial success, those who would not accept him as a socialist had embraced the Beatles as heroes and icons of a socialist idyll and golden age. They did not know, yet, that the later revisiting of that era during the Blair ascendancy (during which George Michael actually reached his commercial pinnacle in his home country, which many had seen as impossible for him, again no doubt because his image had blinded them to his true politics, as if the Gallagher brothers – and yes, I know and understand and respect what Alex Niven thinks they could have been – ever really gave back) would be a smokescreen for the institutionalisation, without any real public call for it in the immediately preceding period, of Thatcherism. But even before that, they gave the public impression that they had always been pro-Beatles, and that certain inconvenient truths – that the colonel who returned twelve medals in protest at their MBEs in 1965 supported Labour, for a start, and let’s not even mention the Marine Offences Act – had never applied.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who disputed George Michael’s socialism in his heyday, as they dispute the even putative or potential socialism of even some of the music generally associated with the BBC’s 1Xtra station today, had been equally dismissive of the Beatles’ claim to represent any kind of socialism, saw them simply as capitalist useful idiots, false consciousness, a betrayal of the noble struggle to inauthentic candyfloss culture. I do, in fact, think that those people were right to dismiss the Rolling Stones. But pop has never begun and ended at Home Counties grammar schools and the LSE. And if you put Flambards and Upstairs, Downstairs – which were seen as on the right of British TV drama at the time of their production – next to their notional equivalents today, they seem like a Trevor Griffiths Play for Today. The same applies to Follyfoot and to the historical adventure series that Richard Carpenter, Paul Knight & Sidney Cole made. And it applies even more so to George Michael when set alongside, say, the Middle England credentials of Clean Bandit, the umpteenth-week chart-toppers at the moment his heart gave out (this does not, of course, mean that the working class are always right or always trustworthy – if High Wycombe & Guildford were more progressive, even if by mistake and by default, than Sheffield & Bradford over the EU so it must be, and it certainly doesn’t make Brexit progressive or the EU “a capitalist club” – but through his long slow fade and internal exile, George Michael’s position certainly came to seem more progressive when the openly and actively Cameronite likes of Keane & James Blunt appeared).
If they could get two generations of pop, and much else, so wrong, how can or should we trust anything these people – still lingering on, indeed enjoying something of a (chiefly Scottish-inspired; it is true that the Scottish equivalents of Paul Johnson & Keith Waterhouse did stay on the Left, but in a country many times the size and with far more diversity that would always have been harder) revival – say, any judgements or assumptions they make?
Or did it in fact come from something much deeper and more fearful? Was it, in George Michael’s case, an expression of plain racism – in the sense that anti-black racism is also directed at white people, often the very same ones attacked by black cultural purists – and homophobia? They have shown themselves guilty on those fronts on many other occasions, after all.
At any rate, we have lost someone whose personal tragedy and eclipse very well represents what has tended to happen to socialism when it has played the pop game, as it did in his case every bit as much as it did with any “approved” NME crossover acts, and certainly far more so than it did with any of those around 2006, the last time there were a lot of them. The question is: does it have to be that way?
I hope not. But to invoke 1996 again, who will be next to spin that wheel for us?
After all, to take us back to 1983, nothing looks the same in the light.