Songs From the Glass Closet: George Michael's Older at 25

Illustration for article titled Songs From the Glass Closet: George Michael's Older at 25
Screenshot: DreamWorks/YouTube

Though he wouldn’t publicly come out for another two years or so, on George Michael’s third solo album, Older, the pop star told us he was gay without telling us he was gay. In retrospect, it was all very obvious, as Michael would explain to MTV News in 2004: “By the time Older came out, my presentation of myself, the lyrics, the dedications, everything was there in [listeners’] consciousness other than me sitting with someone and going, ‘I’m gay. Yes, I am gay. It’s not terribly hard to work out, but yes I am gay.’”

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He’d explain to Oprah Winfrey in 2004 that he was “bursting to come out” by the time news circulated that he had been entrapped in April 1998 in a Beverley Hills public restroom by a handsome undercover cop with an exposed penis. But it was the “not telling” part of the equation that was so explicit for so long. “People have speculated about my sexuality for years and years,” he told Interview in 1988, in a piece pegged to his icon-making solo debut, Faith. “They are obviously interested in my sex life. Fine. Let them speculate. I’m not going to put them right one way or the other.”

“I will never talk publicly about things that are incredibly personal...in any other way than on record,” he vowed to MTV News in 1996. The very concept of coming out was something he purported to be against. “I don’t believe in people making public statements about their sexuality,” he told The Big Picture in 1996. “I’m so unattached to my public persona now, it would never even occur to me that I would want to clarify my sexuality.” Michael was still closeted on May 14, 1996, when Older landed in stores. It was never not a seminal gay text. Being firmly closeted is its own uniquely gay experience, one that Older conveys with the kind of paradoxical opaque clarity that comes with living a partially authentic life.

Behind the scenes, Michael had been aware that he was queer for years. In his Wham! groupmate Andrew Ridgeley’s 2019 memoir Wham! George Michael & Me, Ridgeley recalls Michael coming out to him as gay (while qualifying that he might actually be bisexual) prior to the release of the duo’s sophomore album, the global smash Make It Big. That would mean that Michael was actively closeted during his entire run as a pop fixture in the United States.

There was more than just sexual expression that had been itching to come out in the years before Older, which turns 25 years old today. Michael hadn’t released a full-length since 1990's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a conscious amputation of the bubblegum tendencies that had defined his artistic output up to that point. Along with the pop went the audience for it—worldwide, Prejudice sold an estimated 8 million, a fraction of the 20 million units of Michael’s preceding blockbuster Faith. Michael accused his label, Sony, of treating him as software and not promoting his less accessible project (along with some interstitial ones that followed, including Red, Hot, and Dance, the 1992 compilation to which he contributed three upbeat tracks that were supposedly intended for a more dance-oriented Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2). Michael sued Sony to get out of his contract and lost, only to be bought out later by Virgin in Europe and newly established megacorp DreamWorks (Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen’s joint venture). Older would turn out to be the first release on DreamWorks’ record label. In its booklet, Michael printed a message to his fans: “Thank you for waiting.”

Though Sony received a reported $30 to $40 million to let Michael go, his success was anything but a sure bet. “I haven’t met anyone in the industry who cares about George Michael anymore,” said Michael’s former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell ahead of the Older press cycle. Pop in the UK in particular had undergone a radical revision since Michael’s heyday, via the tightening grip of electronica and explosion of Britpop. As The Independent put it in an essay that ran in advance of the first Older single “Jesus to a Child”:

Compared to [Oasis’s] Noel Gallagher, [Blur’s] Damon Albarn or [Pulp’s] Jarvis Cocker, the big players of the mid-Nineties, George is too slick, too well-coiffured, too concerned with his looks. His style is all cappuccino, glossy magazines and well-tailored suits; theirs is all lager, fanzines and sports labels. He’s a soul boy; they’re scallies. He’s a gent; they’re lads.

Idealism was as crucial to Michael’s brand as opportunism, and though he was 32 when Older was released, he sounded defiantly middle-aged. The album was a restrained affair that had more in common with Sade than Suede. The seven-minute “Jesus to a Child” oozed with such precious self-possession, it was easy to miss its bossa nova influence if your ear wasn’t immediately tuned to it. Even when singing with restraint, Michael’s breathy voice conjured drama of telenovela proportions. He sounded preternaturally anguished. Audacious for its solemnity and languor, “Jesus” hardly seemed like a proper heralding back into the public square of pop’s golden boy. Nonetheless, it promptly flew to No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 7 in the U.S.

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If “Jesus” didn’t scream “EVENT SINGLE,” it was at least a straightforward preview of the album to come, which was characterized by the kind of conscious maturation laid bare in its title and vocalized by Michael in its lounge-lizard highlight “Move On”: “You put your fears behind you/Better get yourself where you wanna be/I think of all the days and night that I spent crying/And I move on.” Older was home to several extremely slow, not particularly earwormy songs in the vein of “Jesus.” Michael revealed he wrote the album during a period when he was smoking 25 joints a day—must have been that Indica. Older was a vibe—a sleepy vibe but a vibe all the same. The dreariness at times made for a little too much cohesion so that quirkier tracks that would have popped in another context (like the ambient house of “The Strangest Thing,” which sounds like a precursor to Britney Spears’s “Breathe on Me” or the lo-fi bedroom synth charm of “It Doesn’t Really Matter”) kind of blended into the whole, it nonetheless was and would remain Michael’s most sonically assured album, a full long-form rumination on the state of his world.

What had Michael so plaintive was the death of Anselmo Feleppa, a Brazilian man whom Michael met at the 1991 Rock in Rio concert. Shortly after, they were inseparable until Feleppa died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993. He was 33. Older was dedicated to Brazilian musician Antônio Carlos Jobim (perhaps best known for writing “The Girl from Ipanema”) “who changed the way I listened to music,” and Feleppa, “who changed the way that I look at my life.” Michael and Feleppa’s bond had been a matter of public record—after Feleppa died, Mail on Sunday on October 24, 1993, ran a large article about the death and life of “one of Michael’s closest confidants” with whom he traveled the world and from whom he was lavished in expensive gifts. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit, the Mail carefully pointed out: “Although striking up a friendship with Anselmo, Michael, of course, is not gay and has always denied he was such.” Of course.

At the time, Michael openly discussed Feleppa as the inspiration of “Jesus to a Child,” whose lyrics betrayed whatever ambiguity he was trying to preserve in interviews: “Well I’ve been loved so I know just what love is/And the lover that I kissed is always by my side.” When MTV’s John Norris asked Michael point-blank about the Feleppa dedication, the wall that he seemed to dismantle in the creation of that and many of Older’s other offerings went right back up. Michael replied:

I think people realize that I’m intelligent enough to know that by writing the way that I do and by making dedications such as that, I have no problem with speculation. And if I really didn’t want people to speculate about my sexuality, I wouldn’t do it, would I? I mean, I have no problem with people speculating about my sexuality. “Is he gay? Is he straight? Is he whatever?” I have a real problem with people who think that somehow it’s strange that they’re not given the answer. I don’t understand that I mean, we’re becoming more and more and more voyeuristic to the point where people are angry that the questions aren’t answered. And it’s like piss off, this is my life. This isn’t a little aside to the album or an extra promotional little tidbit. This is my life.

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About 20 years later, in an interview that would turn out to be the last he sat for before his December 25, 2016, death, Michael cried when discussing Feleppa’s impact on his life. “Fame, money, everything else paled by comparison to find[ing] love. A 27-year-old waking up in bed with someone who loves you—Anselmo was absolutely that,” he said. “You can’t rival a ghost. But he still 23 years later still brings a tear to my eye. He was my savior.”

Michael’s first love and its loss are woven throughout Older, particularly on “Jesus” and “You Have Been Loved” (which he told PEOPLE in 2010 were the two songs of his solo career he was most proud of). In pop marketed to the masses, Michael conveyed a specifically gay narrative: Queer people fought for the ability to exist in a hostile world, found love, and then had it taken from them by an epidemic that fomented even more hostility in the form of ostracism and victim-blaming. Michael found hope between layers of tragedy (“When you find love/When you know that it exists/Then the lover that you miss/Will come to you on those cold, cold nights”), suggesting that he was not just marketing himself as mature, but living that life. Older was a state of mind and, given the circumstances, a minor miracle achieved.

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There was more gay life coursing through the album’s veins if one read between the lines. Second single (and second U.K. No. 1/U.S. Top 10) “Fastlove” was about anonymous sex. Over a gritty swing beat that bridged the gap between new jack and boy band appropriation, Michael propositioned some street meat, “So why don’t we make a little room in my BMW, babe?” It’s probably the biggest hit about cruising since the Village People’s “YMCA” and second to it only in chipperness. So much of the music about sex (and/or the soundtrack to it) tends to be performatively dark and dour, but here Michael was sonically signaling that sex was fun. The interpolation of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” was a reminder of Michael’s fetish for club classics (he invoked Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy” in “Too Funky” and used portions of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” in a resung “Freedom ‘90" remix).

Elsewhere, “Spinning the Wheel” found Michael working out his feelings about monogamy. After coming out he espoused the virtues of ethical nonmonogamy without shame or qualification, but here he was still figuring it out (“You’ve got a thing about strangers/Baby that’s what we used to be”). The shadow of AIDS, which would only begin to budge in 1996 thanks to advances made via highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), looms over “Spinning” when Michael tells his suspicious lover, “One of these days you gonna bring some home to me.” The trip-hop-lite track was given a housey makeover on its single, the perfect soundtrack to not come home to.

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Against the odds, Older became one of pop’s great comeback stories—at least in the U.K., where it spawned six Top 3 singles, a record that has yet to be broken. Many of them, like the fame-ambivalent “Star People,” were released in the form of beefed-up remixes, giving the album legs and more oomph than it initially let on. In the U.S., Older died after the success of “Fastlove” and before that was met with scathing reviews. They look callous in retrospect. “Liberation never sounded so burdensome,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. A few generations of screaming, dying queer people would like to have a word with you. “No one in the world could ever take George Michael quite as seriously as George Michael. So why bother trying?,” wondered Newsweek. Well, maybe because after a decade and a half in the spotlight not feeling like he could truly be himself, he met a man with whom he fell in love, and in two years’ time that man was taken from him at the age of 33. Maybe the human toll of a tragic disease was worth taking seriously.

Of course, these writers could be forgiven for their cynicism. The ’90s were full of it, and Michael’s public narrative was incomplete by design. He told Winfrey in 2004 that he had been incredibly angry with the media at the time of Older, insinuating that Feleppa refused medical care in Los Angeles and the U.K., for fear of being outed by the insatiable press. Michael was still on his path to learning that to be honest about one’s life without shame or reservation was a liberation beyond getting out of a shitty record deal. Coming out, he told Winfrey, “improved things with my relationship with my audience because I became more generous in the way I spoke. Without having to hide anything, you actually can talk more freely in general.”

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That honesty would prove transformative to his art. To listen to Older today is to hear a human story whose holes have been patched. Though Older is a portrait of life from the closet, it is ultimately an argument for coming out. Deeper context has rendered a solid album staggering. In the past 25 years, Older has aged well, indeed.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

trlrgrl2
trlrgrl (2)

Freedom 90 is one of the best videos in the history of videos, not just because of the style, but the absolutely bomb of an impact it had on pop culture in general. And he’s not even in it lol

Too Funky is such a great song, so underrated.

Praying for Time is gorgeous and should be played more.

I saw him in concert a couple years before his death. He performed just about every single he every put out, some Wham songs, and then some covers. He had no backup dancers (other than Fastlove, he had some amazing looking men dressed as police officers dance around with him, which if you know how brilliant that was, then you know lol). Just him on the stage and his band in the way back in back of a big curtain. He sang and danced for over two hours and was absolutely phenomenal.