George Michael was only 53 years old when he left us, but for Generation X, his music recalls the Cold War-era sounds of our youth. The soulful Wham singer hit the top of the charts in the mid-1980s by singing about the jitterbug and filming a video at the Great Wall of China. Yet, in the latter part of his career he became a nuanced and complex, if sometimes misunderstood, writer and interpreter of songs. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Careless Whisper,” and “Last Christmas” gave way to the more direct “I Want Your Sex” and later “Jesus to a Child.” As he advanced to more mature subjects, so did his audience. George Michael dominated the pop charts when Baby Boomers controlled the record labels and the rest of us were coming of age. His “Freedom 90” video captured the zeitgeist of the supermodel phenomenon with the lyric, “sometimes the clothes do not make the man.” The line was tongue-in-cheek but also begged for us to take him seriously. What an incredible voice he possessed; his 2012 performance of Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town” at the Palais Garnier Paris was one of the best (and simultaneously most bittersweet and sad) performances he ever gave. However, his 1985 Live Aid duet with Elton John on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” will likely stand as his vocal pièce de résistance. Nearly 32 years later, I cannot hear it without crying.
The songs we love when we’re teens stay with us forever. That’s why 2016 has been one of the toughest years ever for music fans. The past twelve months have claimed the lives of dozens of beloved musicians – including David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, Glen Frey, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones and others. When they go, they take a part of us with them. Sadly, George Michael’s Christmas Day death in 2016 won’t be the end of this trend of musicians dying. In fact, it may be the beginning of a long stretch of time in which our favorite rockers disappear one by one, month after month. Why? Because many of the songwriters and performers who have brought hit songs to our car radios, living room stereos and bedroom record players over the past five decades are getting older. Our golden age of music is fading.
The music of our youth never goes out of style in our minds. Even with the passing of so many great voices in 2016, the music of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s continued to be a relevant part of my daily life and helped me cope with personal loss and physical health challenges throughout 2016. When David Bowie died on January 10th, it felt a bit like the passing of a relative. I sat on my porch with headphones on and listened to “This is Not America” over and over for hours. A few days later, I walked in a Bowie tribute parade in Atlanta. When Prince played his final shows in Atlanta two days before his April death, I was recovering from a surgery. His solo piano set, including all the hits he’d written for other performers, was worth every ounce of energy it took to climb to the very top row of the Fox Theatre. That same week, my high school friends came from all over the country to join me at a Duran Duran show, where I experienced the joy of dancing for the first time in a long time. At the end of the month, my spirits were lifted even higher when Chic and Nile Rodgers honored Bono and Jimmy Carter at a NYC charity event. Who would’ve imagined that U2 songs could be performed so coolly in 2016 with Chic, the band whose sound I first fell in love with at the roller skating rink in 1978?
Much of 2016 was filled with the throwback songs of our teens and twenties. Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – and their fantastic soundtracks – played in revival screenings at movie theaters across the US; our 1990s heroes toured frequently (a friend FaceTimed me from a Ben Watt show 800 miles away); and singalongs became louder at concerts: This past spring and summer, Cyndi Lauper led a crowd through a weepy, yet majestic “Time After Time” in Atlanta Symphony Hall; Howard Jones got the entire crowd on its feet for “Things Can Only Get Better” at Verizon Amphitheater; and we all sang every word to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” with Noel Gallagher at the Tabernacle. For me, all of the above moments were therapeutic and cathartic after the recent death of a family member.
Those 1980s lyrics still matter. At a performance by The Fixx, The Church and the Psychedelic Furs at the Orange County Fair (CA) in July, I was amazed at how well the words to the 1980s songs “Deeper and Deeper,” “Reptile,” and “President Gas” fit with today’s political landscape. At the Hollywood Bowl that same week, Sting and Peter Gabriel turned The Police’s 1981 hit “Invisible Sun” into a statement about the global refugee crisis. Ted Yoder got 85 million views for his dulcimer cover of the 1985 Tears for Fears song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in August and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (with Coldplay’s Chris Martin) sang the 1986 Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” in front of a worldwide audience at the Global Citizen Festival in September. Crowded House’s own November concerts in front of the Sydney Opera House in Australia also evidenced the staying power of their music.
Never underestimate the ability of a song from your youth to resurface in your life to lift and surprise you. Will future generations of music lovers rely on music as a source of comfort and strength, too? Or will music be replaced by a pastime which requires less emotional investment? Only time will tell.
For now, we gotta have faith.
R.I.P. George Michael.