Saturday, November 15, 2014

Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape

When I was a youth, I found it difficult to resist making fun of George Michael. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. My mother used to have a tape of Johnny Mathis in our car. I don't even remember what was on it; all I know is I used to make fun of it. One day in 1988, I was standing outside Denny's with my father, and we'd just heard "Faith" on the car radio. I exaggerated every one of the singer's vocal tics: "I got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-uhhhh." Then I added, to my father's amusement, "God, that guy is worse than Johnny Mathis."

But what does an eight-year-old know? Here's the cold, hard truth. Impulsive mockery of "Faith" aside, I've always, secretly, stealthily, loved George Michael. He just has that certain something. He's light, but not disposable, danceable, but not shapeless, outrageous, but not insincere. He is blatantly of his time, and yet still grounded in the spirit of the classics.

So, I like George Michael. You like George Michael. Who doesn't like George Michael? Find me someone who doesn't like George Michael, and I will personally frame him in a Beverly Hills public restroom gay sex sting. But while you may have spent your entire life enjoying the music of the former Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, you may have never considered it anything more than relatively well-crafted, if mostly frivolous, dance-pop. Nothing too insightful, nothing too groundbreaking - certainly nothing to give Morrissey any concern that his title of "most scathingly articulate British songwriter of the '80s" was somehow up for grabs. I can't say I blame you; I felt the same way too.

That is, until now. I have little patience for what passes in contemporary university departments as "Cultural Studies" or "Sociology" or "Socio-Cultural Studies" or whatever ungainly term that collection of insular snots happens to prefer to use. My tolerance for post-modern "analysis" of television programs, fan fiction, Hollywood blockbusters, music sub-genres and the like is fairly low. However, now and then, I am prompted to make an exception. Every so often, a study comes along that is so revealing, so edifying, so illuminating, that I must grant a reprieve in my disdain for the bastions of higher learning. Recently, I have come upon such a study.

The study goes by the intimidating name of Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape. The author, one Professor Horton J. Higglediggle of the University of New South-Southwest Wales, is not an author with whom I was familiar, but after reading his tome, I must confess that I put on a George Michael album and felt as though I was listening to a wholly unfamiliar creation. Lyrics that initially seemed trite or banal suddenly seemed quite venomous and controversial. Instead of being the Elton John of the '80s, it turns out George Michael was more like the George Orwell of the '80s, with Faith being his 1984 (and Make It Big his Animal Farm?). And just as a child may pick up Animal Farm and be entirely unaware of the Soviet subtext, so it is that we as a collective society have been listening to "Careless Whisper" and "One More Try" for decades now and never once managed to grasp the true message.

From the introduction:
Just as filmmaker and German emigre Douglas Sirk, dismissed in his day as a shameless generator of "women's pictures," is now seen as a cutting ironist who managed to critique the mid-20th century American dream from within the very omphalos of the Hollywood system, purportedly crafting "middlebrow fare" while quietly sneering at Eisenhowerian social mores, we now must acknowledge that the inimitable George Michael, at the height of his fame ridiculed as the essence of pop pin-up triviality, needs to be understood as a poison creampuff, an artist who quietly mocked the very Thatcherite hands that fed him while allegedly promoting its seductive ideology. Michael was the semiotic Trojan horse of British pop, the symbol of a culture's own imminent destruction, ostentatiously hiding in plain sight, seemingly innocuous and yet secretly ruinous.

As a masculine sex symbol, and yet as a closeted gay man, Michael simultaneously represented the "other" as well as the "other"s "other." Michael's "otherness" secretly lent his mainstream appeal an air of subversiveness, as if the "other" and the "anti-other" could relate to his persona in equal measure. Given that his creative dissonance acted as the summation of an interplay of "others," the performer who served as the cultural construction "George Michael" ultimately refused to serve as either an "other" or a "pseudo-other."
Makes sense to me. All I know is that the music of no "other" '80s performer has moved me in quite the manner that George Michael's has, but for years, I never knew why. Professor Higglediggle has, once and for all, lifted the veil.


Herr Zrbo said...

I take it this came from the same small Bulgarian publisher?

Little Earl said...

Hold on, let me check. Interesting. It's actually from a small Albanian publisher. Of course, Professor Higglediggle is based in Australia.