Critic’s Notebook: In George Michael's Music Videos, the Blossoming of a Gay Icon

George Michael - Photofest - H 2016

The late British singer's music videos traced his evolution from sexy but coyly closeted pop star to defiantly out-and-proud gay icon.

Like Madonna, Michael Jackson or Prince, George Michael was one of the first superstars of the music video age. The London-born singer-songwriter who died of heart failure on Dec. 25 at the age of 53 had an uneasy relationship with his visual image, even refusing to appear on camera at times. But his iconic clips proved crucial to his phenomenal success, and will remain a key part of his legacy. Viewed with hindsight, these short films also offer a fascinating LGBT history lesson, tracing Michael’s troubled evolution from closeted, confused young man to defiant gay icon.

Brits of my generation grew up with Michael as part of the furniture. As principal songwriter of the big-haired, perma-tanned, early 1980s pop duo Wham!, the artist formerly known as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was a fixture on the U.K. charts long before global superstardom beckoned. In videos for songs like "Young Guns," "Club Tropicana" or "Last Christmas," he cultivated a sanitized and mostly sexless image with his beige suburban soul-pop voice and Lady Diana bouffant. These clips always had a faintly homoerotic subtext in their frequent focus on bronzed male flesh and guys-together horseplay, but no more than with most boy bands. At the time, Michael considered himself bisexual, but kept his encounters with men secret, partly for fear of shocking his mother.

With his 1987 debut solo album Faith, Michael took a giant leap both musically and visually. Underscoring his more overtly sexualized sound with a retro-chic image of vintage leather biker jacket, artfully ripped jeans, designer stubble and crucifix earring, his apparent aspirations to become a British version of Prince paid off handsomely. With its string of monster singles and striking videos, Faith sold more than 25 million copies.

Director Andy Morahan’s MTV-friendly, hip-shaking jukebox promo for the album’s title track helped Michael score a chart-topping hit, but any borrowings from the codified uniforms of the largely gay BDSM leather-bar subculture were more covert than overt. His luscious, sensual clips for "I Want Your Sex" and "Father Figure," which riffed on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, both showed the singer in emphatically heterosexual clinches with sexy female models. This conservative caution was perhaps understandable at a time when homophobia and moral panic over AIDS were still rife. Indeed, Michael was even forced to amend the steamy video for "I Want Your Sex," adding a preachy pro-monogamy message.

One of Michael’s most flashy and expensive promo films did not even include the singer at all. All the same, "Freedom 90" remains a high watermark of a short-lived, pre-internet golden age when music videos could attract A-list directors and blockbuster budgets. With future Fight Club and Gone Girl director David Fincher behind the camera, it features a stellar cast of supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. Shot in a grand mansion in South London, this glossy mini-movie helped ease Fincher’s entry to Hollywood.

"Freedom 90" became a Top 10 hit in the U.S. and inspired a semi-sequel two years later in "Too Funky," a lavish collaboration with fashion designer Thierry Mugler. The video again featured Evangelista alongside a fresh crop of supermodels, though this time Michael himself appears fleetingly. While his sexuality was still a matter of public speculation, this video nudged open the closet door a little. A supporting cast of drag artists, plus cameos by cult actress Julie Newmar and Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma, certainly hinted at an increasingly queer sensibility.

Returning in 1996 with a sculpted beard and tightly cropped hair, Michael landed another transatlantic chart-topper with "Jesus to a Child." This starkly beautiful, mournful ballad was an elegy to his Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa, who had died from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993. The song's parent album, Older, was also dedicated to Feleppa, though the singer would remain vague about their relationship until several years later. Taken from the same album, the more upbeat single "Fastlove" dropped the most obvious hints yet about Michael’s sexuality with its futuristic video full of lithe, gorgeous, polymorphously perverse bodies, both male and female.

In April 1998, Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet at Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. Fined $810 and sentenced to 80 hours of community service, the singer had finally been forcibly outed after years of evasion. But he turned this potential career setback to his advantage with his next single, the infectious disco-flavored anthem "Outside." The high-camp video opens with a spoof of a Scandinavian porno movie before Michael appears in a Village People-style police uniform, twirling gleefully around a public bathroom re-imagined as a glittery nightclub dancefloor. Success is the best revenge.

Michael later called his 1998 arrest “a subconsciously deliberate act” after decades of keeping his sexuality private. The crisis humanized him and reminded fans of his cheeky, irreverent, very British sense of humor. He began to speak openly about his male partners, his unapologetic taste for anonymous sex, and his long-term relationship with Kenny Goss, a Texan sportswear executive. More importantly, despite further prurient tabloid probes into his personal life, he refused to be shamed and slandered over his sexuality. He was finally out and proud.

During a final decade dogged by health problems and brushes with the law, mostly over minor drugs offenses, Michael’s commercial profile declined. But he continued to fill large arenas and release excellent music, most recently the 2014 live album Symphonica. In 2011, he almost died from a severe bout of pneumonia, which perhaps explains the dark tone of his 2012 single "White Light," a sleek blast of moody trance-pop full of pointed reflections on his own mortality. The video is a somber, gothic, haunted affair featuring Kate Moss.

With cruel irony, Michael’s untimely death falls just as he was planning a comeback next year with a new album and documentary. Having lived the first half of his career with his sexuality in the shadows, he spent the latter half as an almost accidental gay icon. His too-short life was touched by tragedy, of course, but also a kind of triumph. Persecution becomes liberation.