24 June 2013 by Pete Silverton

Happy 50th! We love you, George Michael

The singer is 50 this week (25 June) and, despite screwing up in public the way we all do in private, has become a national treasure. Long may his japes continue, says Pete Silverton
George_Michael_1984_and_2010 Corbis

Left: George in 1984, hot and at the height of his fame. Right: in 2010, still hot, and arriving at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court. Photos: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis and Reuters/Corbis

Amazingly, considering his motoring record, he’s still with us. And being alive, as he sang at last year’s Olympics closing ceremony, he has so much more that he wants to do. So welcome, George Michael, to Generation high50.

It’s unlikely, though, that the singer will ever really leave behind him the confusions of being a teenager. Which is a really, really fabulous – and useful – state of mind in a pop star reaching the big five-oh.

George gives voice to the stuff that actually goes on inside the heads of over-50s – as opposed to the adult, grown-up face they turn to the world (to their children in particular).

Driving under the influence, smoking too much spliff, falling out of a moving car, having wrong sex in the wrong place: who hasn’t? But we didn’t get caught doing it, did we? George did, though. (OK, maybe we didn’t do the falling out of a car bit. Not since junior school, anyway.)

George is all of us – only with more money, a house in Hampstead and better looking. And a wonderful voice. He has written and sung some of the best grown-up pop records of all time.

Careless Whisper, of course, but also ‘Last Christmas – like White Christmas itself, a seasonal song of loss. Then there’s ‘I Want Your Sex’ – see video below – its directness a cover for its anxieties. Not to mention Wham!’s first single, Young Guns; and Wake Me Up’, a song that may have had (some of) us cringing at its inane catchiness when it was released but had us smiling – perhaps ironically, but with real affection – by the time George broke up the band.

And what a break-up: happy and glorious, perfectly timed, with no apparent acrimony and Wham! fans rewarded with one of the best farewell concerts in pop history.

Video: I Want Your Sex, 1987

George has also always been – to borrow a word from outside his ethnicity – a mensch. Both despite and because of his foibles and weaknesses, he has (nearly) always been solid, honest and constant.

He’s even stuck with the same motormouth publicist, Connie Filippello, since the Wham! times, and that is no mean act of saintliness. (She puts a star above the ‘i’ in her first name.)

Other reasons to celebrate George Michael’s arrival in the second half of his century:

  • Along with Duran Duran and Boy George, he pretty much invented 1980s culture.
  • In 1984, he was the first popster to tour China, an epochal soft-power moment that was quite possibly – probably, even – a prime cultural catalyst in that country’s revolutionary resurgence.
  • He has made it OK to be a public gay without being some kind of saint or martyr figure. He struggled to come out of the closet but did it anyway. He falls out of moving cars, too. Heroic, both acts, in their own way.
  • He made an album which had a record six top three singles on it. And it was called Older.
  • He went through a protracted legal case to extricate himself from his first record label; then, a decade later, re-signed to the label.

    Life_George_Michael_Sun headline_Vogue cover

    Front page news: sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes not – but hey, who’s perfect?

  • He has always had great hair, from his big blonde Wham! mop to his more recent all-over number one and devilish grey beard.
  • He went to jail and survived. OK, it was only four weeks in an  open prison but it’s still jail and, as anyone who has even visited a prison will tell you, that’s still a real shaker.
  • He survived near-death from pneumonia and, on the way to recovery, had the grace and thoughtfulness to give public thanks to the Vienna hospital team.
  • He stayed with a young partner dying from AIDS, at a time when the disease could have meant a death sentence for him, too. He suffered and grieved in private, then – still in the closet – made a winsomely touching tribute, ‘Jesus To A Child.
  • He mast be growing up a bit. After all, when he had that latest  car-related incident, he wasn’t driving…

George was born, as everyone knows, in Hertfordshire, as Georgious Kyriacos Panayiotou. That doesn’t describe what matters, though. You can’t understand George unless you know that:

One: his Greek father – who also anglicised his name, to Jack Panos – was a restaurateur, whose working hours meant he was a distant figure in the young George’s life.

Two: his earliest years were spent in Kingsbury, a north London suburb and Mod-era epicentre in his childhood.

Three: when he was a teenager, his family moved to Bushey, a small community in the affluent sub-Chiltern hillsides just south of Watford.

Bushey is a land of plenty and ponies, of boys given new Minis on their 17th birthday and princesses of every given ethnicity but similar tastes in gold, hair products and skirt length.

If you’ve ever been there on a Saturday night around seven, you know everything there is to understand about George Michael.

London is just over the hill but might as well be in Patagonia. Like Moses and his antsy lot, young Busheyites are condemned to gather in sight of – but never enter – the promised land.

They mingle, they procreate, both playfully and productively. But for some of them –  George, for example – there is a particular kind of lostness. The party is always just over there. That ache is still there in everything George does and sings.

He has always been the outsider, the wallflower at the party, even when he found himself not just at the heart of the party but the man whose music was kicking it off. Even when he moved to that most elevated London suburb, Hampstead. He has never, ever, felt like he is at the party.

Just like – narcissists excepted – all of us. If not always, then sometimes at least. We travel but we never arrive. And now, at 50, George joins us on that endless journey. Good to have him along.

Video: George Michael performs ‘Freedom! ’90′ at the Olympics 2012 closing ceremony
Video: George Michael live performance, 1999
Peter Silverton was a music writer in the time of punk. He wrote for Smash Hits, You Magazine, the Observer and the Sunday Times. He was a consultant at The Guardian and deputy editor of the Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day supplement. He is the co-author of I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol and the author of Filthy English: The How, Why, When & What of Everyday Swearing (2008). He is the strategy director of a small chain of pre-schools. He lives in north London and far-west Cornwall and has three children, all earning their own living.

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