This year, the happiness of the holiday season was pierced with sadness when the death of George Michael was announced on Christmas Day. As Michael was only 53 years old, this news came as a shock to all those who enjoyed his music career, which took off in the 1980s and spanned several decades. According to Michael’s manager, Michael Lippman, the singer passed away peacefully in his home due to heart failure. His death is one of several notable celebrity deaths that occurred in 2016, which many have characterized as a merciless year due to the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Gene Wilder and numerous other people of great talent.
Undeniably, George Michael left a bold stamp on the pop music of the 1980s. He first entered the scene as one half of Wham!, a British act that also comprised Andrew Ridgeley. As the duo’s chief lyricist, vocalist, and producer, Michael injected Wham! songs with energy and creativity, which ultimately led to their success on both sides of the Atlantic.
Wham!’s first album, Fantastic, featured entertaining horn sections, soaring vocals, and clever lyrics about living a carefree, rebellious life; yet it only received mild success in the UK. Its successor, the appropriately named Make It Big, was the record that truly skyrocketed the band to stardom. The album’s first single, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” was a huge hit due to its lighthearted, ’60s-inspired sound and catchy chorus. The song has been featured in countless films and still holds up as an immensely enjoyable pop song years later. “Careless Whisper,” another single from the album, is just as iconic. Advertised as a George Michael solo piece (he wrote it on his way to work when he was just seventeen), the ballad made the singer’s name known internationally. Its saxophone riff is instantly recognizable to people the world over, especially those who listened to pop radio in the 1980s.
In 1986, Wham! split up and George Michael began his solo career. His first record as a solo artist was Faith, released in 1987. Lyrically, the album showcased a more mature side of Michael; musically, it revealed Michael’s talent as a multi-instrumentalist. It spawned four back-to-back #1 hits with the title track, “Father Figure”, “One More Try” and “Monkey” – and has been named one of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. Following Faith was 1990’s Listen without Prejudice vol. 1. This album contained “Freedom ’90,” a top ten hit in the US.
After the release of Listen without Prejudice, Michael’s music became significantly less prominent on the charts, despite the fact that he continued to write insightful songs that touched on politics as well as human relations. Regardless, Michael is still seen as a legend who helped define the music of the 1980s—especially in his native England. Although some critics initially dismissed his work with Wham! as teenybopper music, it is clear that Michael did not simply make bland, mindless singles—he was a gifted musician who brought originality and dedication to every composition he produced.
In addition to his success in the music industry, Michael is notable for his philanthropy. In 1984, he was one of many famous musicians who joined Band Aid, a supergroup that released the holiday single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in order to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Michael also donated the royalties from his song “Last Christmas” to charity and performed at Live Aid, one of the most successful charity concerts ever held. Furthermore, after the announcement of his death, many individuals and nonprofits have spoken of receiving generous donations from Michael. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that he died during a season of kindness and celebration.