First with Andrew Ridgeley in the band Wham! and then as a solo artist, George Michael made joyful music—for instance, “Enjoy What You Do,” expressing a playful romp, a bolt from responsibility, and a zest for life. Except when he did not. The singer also captured the “Careless Whisper” by which we hurt someone and careless acts from “Last Christmas” by which we got hurt.
Two recent documentaries, Wham! (2023) and The Real George Michael: Portrait of an Artist (2023), reveal that as a boy, he yearned for fame and was convinced that he would make it big. He was right. While he was still a teenager, Wham! appeared on the British television show Top of the Pops in 1983. Soon, he and Ridgeley had multiple number one hits, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Everything She Wants.”
These documentaries reveal that Michael had a vulnerability and insecurity not evident in his image as a performer. The singer recognized the vast gap between the star “George Michael” and the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, known to his friends as “Yog.”
Whatever we call him, he was much more than a pretty voice and a brand-new face for MTV. He was a gifted lyricist and musical producer. He gave away millions of dollars, most of it anonymously. Along with Boy George, Simon Le Bon, David Bowie, and Paul McCartney, he sang on the 1984 Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” At the same time, Michael had released a single of his own (proceeds also donated to famine relief in Ethiopia), which ended up at number two on the charts. He was beaten in his quest for another number one hit by the Band Aid single. George Michael was honest enough to admit his mixed feelings.
He was also a loyal friend and family member. Unlike some band breakups that end in legal battles and bitter silences, his friendship with Ridgeley did not end with the breakup of Wham! As John Donne might have said, their friendship endured “not yet a breach, but an expansion / Like gold to airy thinness beat.” His family, especially his mother, was a steady rock outside the fast lane of fame.
A highly intelligent and complex man, George gave joy to millions, but Yog suffered in doing so. He produced much music celebrating joy, fun, and freedom, but he often lived in sorrow, workaholism, and addiction.
One of his most famous songs, “Freedom 90,” speaks of how his youthful dreams of success, achieved as a teenager, quickly changed to something sinister:
Well it looks like the road to heaven
But it feels like the road to hell
When I knew which
Side my bread was buttered
I took the knife as well.
He discovered from experience what happiness is not. In The Real George Michael: Portrait of an Artist, he revealed, “I haven’t been happy with fame since I was 22. I wished I was someone else since I was 22. I hate the effect it has on friendships, on relationships, on your privacy. I hate it, all of it.” In 1988, he had the biggest tour in the musical world. Fans screamed his name at more than one hundred shows around the world, but he felt overwhelmed, lonely, and exhausted. Like a character from Dante’s Inferno, he got what he wanted. But then he didn’t want what he got. As Oscar Wilde suggested, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
How about musical success? Did this deliver lasting happiness? Between Wham! and his solo career, his album sales are estimated between 100 and 125 million copies, including thirteen number one songs. He won numerous prestigious awards for his music, including two Grammys.
But as successful as George Michael was, he wasn’t as successful as Michael Jackson or Prince. In an interview, George Michael said, “I absolutely wanted to be in the same stratosphere as [Michael Jackson and Prince], definitely. I’d gone from, a couple of years before, being perfectly happy with being on Top of the Pops, to thinking, ‘I can do what Michael Jackson can do.’” Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, and philosophers have spoken of this as “upping the stakes.” The more success Michael got, the more he wanted. That all three of these top stars are no longer with us, that all three suffered from drug addiction, says something about the true cost of achieving such success.
George Michael’s best-selling single, as well as his best selling album, is entitled Faith. The lyrics of the song are about not settling for a tempting but deceptive lover. George Michael sings of his faith that he’ll find his true love and lasting happiness in the future, “I’ll wait for somethin’ more.” Yog did not find what he was looking for in fame, money, success, awards, sex, drugs, or rock and roll. I hope he has now.