At a point when marriage and other rights for sexual minorities finally seem inevitable in America (though still far out of reach in many parts of the world), there’s a mix of warmth and piquancy to getting two new albums this week from survivors of a period when such loves spoke their names only in long, painful stammers.
In the 1980s Boy George and George Michael represented two sides of the second wave of post-Stonewall pop—one the heir to David Bowie’s subculture-surfacing theatricality, the other the successor to Elton John’s more-than-mainstream appeal: queer vs. gay, if you will.
As Bowie did before him, Boy George, as the lead singer of Culture Club, presented a primal scene of sexual-identity confusion, with his flouncy robes and twine braids. It was the first time many kids my age saw gender fluidity in undeniable action, even if he played coy on the question for years.
Meanwhile, as half of the dance-pop duo Wham!, George Michael, like Elton John in the 1970s, was an idol whose allure to hetero teen girls was integral to his marketing. He fended off any other suggestions with vague disclaimers and threats of lawsuits, until the closet door collapsed with his 1998 arrest in an L.A. police sting for soliciting anonymous sex in a park restroom. Still, again like John, he went on to be an active, philanthropic player in the community.
All four were Englishmen singing soulfully under stage pseudonyms, who morphed through phases of fashion and musical style, and one more thing: Each careened into drug-fogged destructiveness (Boy George most of all). Mightn’t they have been spared some of it if they could have been born into the more embracing times they helped, in small ways, to bring about?
Instead, the two Georges have been trapped in-between—neither iconic pioneers nor liberated children of the revolution, but awkwardly secondary, transitional figures, always in peril of being laughed off as dated. George Michael’s very name has been rendered a punch line, swiped whole for Michael Cera’s sexually immature character on Arrested Development. Their hard-core fans justifiably will love these new records, but for the rest of us, I think, it’s a bit of a puzzle how and why to listen to new music from either George in 2014.
Both know this, and make game tries at solutions. Neither Michael’s Symphonica, his first new album in a decade, nor George’s This Is What I Do, arriving after nearly twice that long, is demure about hanging its hat on the back-from-jail-and-rehab narrative hook. The first words out of George’s mouth on his record are, “Put down the booze/ Let the demons win the fight.” And from Michael: “Is that enough? I think it’s over/ See, everything has changed.” Such moments of reckoning seem peppered deliberately through each album.
But their recovery tales come in very different strategic packages that combine “fan service” with a pitch to a broader audience. This Is What I Do is a collection of freshly penned songs that harks back to the genre-blurring sound of the Culture Club days, with elements of rock, country, dance, and especially reggae, albeit in a less breezy, more husky-voiced and earnest register than in George’s youth.
The second half in particular gets quite deep into George’s dancehall and dub influences, with guests Unknown MC and MC Spee, among others, occasionally to the verge of tedium but often with surprising credibility. The only cover is of Yoko Ono’s 1973 “Death of Samantha,” a dramatic monologue (the melody is little more than magnified spoken cadences) about the psychic cost of being a “cool chick, baby.” On one level, George delivers the song straight-up, as a confession that his scenester partying days betrayed his better self. But on another level, its very presence here—a song by Ono the scorned avant-gardist, a song from which an ’80s post-punk band took its name—is an assertion that George's true, better self is still artistically hip, rejecting cool but having it too.