George Michael was 18 when he first appeared on the Top of the Pops as part of Wham! Wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and an open leather vest, he exuded a raucus sex appeal telling his conservative friend not to get married. The track they sang on the show, Young Guns, told a story about a guy chastising his friend for getting engaged at such a young age. As the chorus ends, George squeals “Death by matrimony!” while encouraging men to play the field rather than getting shackled to a family. In the body language of the show, George practically looks like he’s going to take young man home to his bed, even though its ostensibly about heterosexuality.
When George Michael was in Wham! and embarked the first part of his solo career, he was playing the part of a heterosexual sex object. By the late 80s, his baby-faced youthfulness had matured into a smoldering look complete with a permanent five o’clock shadow and hairy chest. I Want Your Sex was a hypersexualized video emphasizing George Michael’s “monogamous” relationship with then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung, as he writes “Explore Monogamy” in lipstick on her back (sample lyrics: “Sex is best when it’s one on one”). His video for Faith exploited his butt in a pair of tight jeans as he played footsy against a nice pair of female legs against a jukebox. At the time, a hunk expressing monogamy seemed like he was settling down for women. In retrospect, he may have been trying a little too hard to be straight.
Video 1: Freedom ’90
By 1990, George Michael was tired of the limelight, and he was starting to get tired of the closet. He noticably didn’t appear in the video for Freedom ’90, perhaps the most iconic of his career. Directed by David Fincher, Freedom ’90 featured a bunch of male and female supermodels isolated in a grungy apartment as the icons from George Michael’s Faith burn or explode. 1990s George Michael was not going to be the same as 1980s George Michael.
Most people remember Freedom ’90 for its focus on female supermodels, all lip syncing George Michael’s vocals. But, in reality, it was a grab bag of steamy sexuality in a destructed grungy atmosphere. It always seems that people forget the video had male supermodels, including a guy in his boxers hanging inverted in a door frame. Perhaps most noticeably, Michael wasn’t lusting over women like he did in the previous videos.
Video #2: Too Funky
A mere two years later, George Michael had started dating fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa who, six months into the relationship, discovered he had HIV. George’s intended follow-up to Listen Without Prejudice, vol. 1 turned into a handful of singles donated to the charity album Red Hot + Dance, including the only single from the album Too Funky. Although George Michael wasn’t ready to come out of the closet, this video was a huge signal that he was getting ready to do so.
Directed by fashion designer Thierry Mugler, the director’s cut video for Too Funky is an exercise in high camp. The concept is to show the chaos that happens behind the scenes of a high-end fashion show. Oversaturated in dense dank color, Mugler pushed drag concepts as high fashion, from a Harley Davidson bustier to a headdress covered in feathers so over the top it belonged in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In the director’s cut, Mugler pushed female supermodels, but also featured drag artist Joey Arias as a hybrid of Klaus Nomi and Edith Head, male supermodels in various states of nudity, and Julie Newmar in a latex catsuit. He references heightened modes of style, including a cowboy outfit, pin-up dominatrices, and a Marilyn Monroe haircut so complicated it could do algebra. At the end, a muscular guy has “We Need To Protect Ourselves” tattooed across his naked back. It’s a big gay video for an HIV charity…
But, George Michael wasn’t ready to come out that blatantly. The released version of Too Funky removes all of the male models, and severely tones down all the behind-the-scenes madness to put the fashion show and the female supermodels up front. To fill in the blanks, George Michael inserts himself watching the whole affair through a film camera in a voyeuristic fashion, leering over the women.
This version, while still campy and coated in bright pastels, is more a coded wink to the drag shows that inspire it. Though I’d struggle to call it “better,” the final product is more modern, especially since it replaced the lurid dimestore-influenced visuals for a more fluffy retro-60s vibe, complete with a florid font.
Video #3: Fastlove
By the time Older came out, when George Michael was the ripe old daddy age of 33. Wait, he was 33 when he adopted the gay daddy look and released an album titled OLDER?! Seriously, dude…
Though, George Michael still hadn’t officially come out, he totally adopted an updated version of the look made popular by Freddie Mercury and The Village People: a short almost buzzcut with a crisp moustache that plunged on the sides and a crisp chinstrip. And, all of this is iconography developed by Tom of Finland, king of gay fetish pencil sketches.
The video for Fastlove, the disco single from Older, is blue-tinged high-tech sexuality with people choosing virtual sex partners. Men and women paw at each other, and are flipped around at random, creating a chaos of modern sexuality. It was another baby step out of the closet and into his own, more like George Michael is peeking out to see if the coast is clear.
Video #4: Outside
In 1998, George Michael was arrested for cruising in a public restroom. He said that they followed each other into the restroom and then showed off to each other before he was arrested. To many, it was a proper echo to Pee Wee Herman’s 1991 arrest for jerking off in an adult theater. For those keeping up, that arrest was mere months after George Michael released the video for Freedom ’90. After the arrest, Pee Wee went on the MTV VMAs, knowing he was still the butt of jokes, and made his own joke about it. Now that George Michael could no longer be in the closet, he was ready to explode out.
Outside, the song, is an ode to having sex in unusual places. Released as an original track on his Greatest Hits compilation, the song was a direct reference to Michael’s earlier bathroom arrest. But, then the video came out. In full on camp video, it turns the bathroom into a disco, and concludes with two male cops making out. George Michael finally ran out of closet, and was more than happy to come out. Later he would say that the arrest was a subconscious scream to come out. And, even later, he would say that he enjoyed cruising for anonymous sex while he had an open relationship with then-partner Kyle Goss.