Believe In Joy: The Pleasure & Politics Of George Michael

A year after his death, Anna Wood takes a personal, political and adoring look at a few of George Michael’s finest songs.

George in 1987, wanting your sex

There are a million words we could write about Wham! and George Michael – the man, the music, the fun we’ve had, the dancing, the sighing, the singing along. Last new year’s eve, me and some friends had a brilliant house party which involved drunkenly singing Wham! songs in the garden and toasting the beloved memory of George, who had died a few days earlier, suddenly and far far too soon. What a rich joy to have a star who was there in your early dancing pop-loving days and whose music still gives pleasure and succour and love, decades later. There’s a million words, but for now let’s take a look at six songs that are especially dear to my heart. Here’s to George, and his big heart and his great great songwriting, and his beautiful smile and his lovely bum in those tight blue jeans.

‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’

The most elegant, enjoyable and to-the-point takedown ever of why ‘hard-working families’, ‘benefit scroungers’ and the protestant work ethic are all concepts to be heartily rejected, this is a song that inherently, weightlessly understands that any society which demonises the skint, the jobless and the disenfranchised is a terrible terrible bullshit society. It also has the most (and the most delightful) rhyming couplets ever packed into three-and-a-half minutes of pop glory. Disconnecting your worth from your salary, disconnecting your ‘manliness’ from your professional status, can still be a struggle; has anyone ever done it with such glee, such generosity, such pop genius? AND they’re chanting “DHSS” in the chorus: it is sardonic, audacious, hilarious magic. Take pleasure in leisure, baby. Believe in joy.

‘I Want Your Sex’

It’s still quite a tall order, right now in 2017, to find a great pop song driven by completely non-toxic masculinity, by the desire for sex that is safe, loving and actually FUN and just WHOARRGH. When this track came out 30 years ago, I’d just turned 13 and sex was, as far as I could tell, about whether or not you were a slag. It was also about whether or not you were going to die – this was, of course, the era of those DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE adverts on the telly and leaflets through the door, with their non-specific warnings and the vague but very real anxiety that created, and Section 28’s raging bigotry disguised as concern for schoolchildren. And around this era, Mandy Smith (aged 18) was marrying Bill Wyman (aged 52); it was a strange time to be a young woman in Bolton discovering intimacy, consent, desire and your clitoris. What we all really really needed was this song. Sex positive, honest, vulnerable, enthusiastic; a golden pop take on Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. (“Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime… Don’t you know I love you til it hurts me baby / Don’t you think it’s time you had sex with me.”) A reminder that sex is natural, sex is good, and it’s okay to expect to ENJOY it. Thank you, George.

‘Club Tropicana’

As ever, George understands the beautiful place where reality and fantasy mix together, all sticky with suntan lotion and bodily fluids. It’s 1983, package holidays are booming, and just about everyone can fly to Sunseasandsexsangrialand. (It fact, around this point, it becomes middle class to stay in the UK or drive to France for your holidays; we get the first glimpse of the idea that it’s posher not to fly off to Torremolinos when you could be going to Cornwall.) The ‘Club Tropicana’ promise is, essentially, one of fully automated luxury communism with better weather: money is irrelevant (“membership’s a smiling face”) and the vile tighten-your-belts idea of plenty for the few and austerity for the many has never darkened the beautiful blue skies of this song (“Fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone”). Extra points too for the diegetic sounds at the start; I hear the car door slam and the high heels click and immediately I am there – Andrew is mixing me a sweet boozy drink and lovely George offers to slather my back in Piz Buin.

‘Everything She Wants’

George was always chafing at those nine-to-five two-point-four-kids suburban-semi chains (or ‘late-capitalist heteronormative psychic death’, as we might call it now). A logical progression from ‘Young Guns’ (“Wise guys realise / there’s danger in emotional ties… death by matrimony”), ‘Everything She Wants’ is the tired, angry song of a young man who’s fallen for the girl and fallen for the ‘hard-working family’ schtick: “Somebody tell me / Why I work so hard for you”. And now she tells him that she’s having a baby, and he’s really stuck. Freedom is coming down the line, of course – “All the things we have and the things we buy ain’t gonna keep us together / It’s just a matter of time.” I would love to hear the woman’s point of view, but still this is a reminder that domestic bliss can be shit for blokes as well as women. Also: what a bassline; this song has started cropping up at ace parties over the past few years for very good reason.

‘Father Figure’

Like Madonna, George Michael felt the connection between holiness and love, between communion and sex. And he observed and expressed his feelings, creating beautiful honest open vulnerable songs that have that miraculous combination whereby the exquisitely personal is generous and universal. And so it is on this song: doesn’t everybody want to be needed and loved? And doesn’t everyone have needs and loves that don’t fit into the models we’re given? I’m trying to avoid saying heteronormative again, but you get the idea. In this song, there’s something wonderful and soulful beyond the lyrics – there’s honesty and experiment and uncertainty and kindness and, I suspect, a really good fuck.

‘Last Christmas’

There’s so much exuberance in George Michael’s songs, so much confidence (and a confidence that was open and fun and good – “If you’re gonna do it, do it right, right, do it with me”). But ‘Last Christmas’ is so simple and sad, almost a heartbreak nursery rhyme: “The very next day, you gave it away.” Except, it’s so complicated. There’s an exemplary piece of shade here – “This year… I’ll give it to someone special” – and there’s the easy-to-miss fact that he has a new partner now, yet if that bitch from last year kissed him now she’d fool him again. Oh, George! Ah, life. Time works in strange ways too, with this song – she wouldn’t recognise him, after only a year? The very next day she gave it away? It is moving perhaps at the hyperspeed of youth, when relationships can flash brief and bright, but also in the fogginess of love and nostalgia. A Christmas hit is always in at least two places – like in 1984, with that ski resort video, and right now, at Christmas. And this Christmas, even more so, because last Christmas we lost George Michael. But we got to keep his brilliant songs.

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