Ex-Wham singer and solo artist George Michael has died at the age of 53. His publicist said today that Michael passed away peacefully at home in the UK, a fact confirmed by his family, who asked for privacy at the time.
Michael may be remembered best — at this time of year, particularly — as the singer of one of the most iconic and best-loved Christmas songs: Wham's "Last Christmas." But he also had a long solo career after Wham split in 1986, attempting to recast himself as a more serious musician after a start singing poppier fodder, scoring several number one singles and albums around the world in the process.
That career was also dogged with controversy, however, with Michael arrested for drug possession, and sent to prison for 10 months after crashing his car into a store while apparently under the influence of narcotics. Famously the singer was also charged with "engaging in a lewd act" by a police officer in a Beverly Hills public bathroom, an event that led to 80 hours of community service, as well as public shaming.
But rather than accept the tabloid ridicule and fade into obscurity, Michael's next album — Outside — addressed the controversy head-on. The singer came out as gay after alluding to his sexuality in previous releases, and based the video for comeback single "Outside" on his Beverly Hills arrest, singing that his behavior was simply "human nature" as male police officers kissed and dancers cavorted in a disco-fied bathroom.
As a loved public figure, and as a pop star heartthrob, Michael's public acknowledgement of his sexuality and his unapologetic Outside album came at the same time as a shift in public attitudes toward homosexuality. Five years after Outside was released, the controversial Section 28 — legislation banning the "intentional promotion of homosexuality" in Michael's native UK — was finally repealed, after being introduced in the same year that Wham broke up. Just over a decade later, gay marriage became legal in the country.
Michael's transition from manicured pop moppet to more serious singer also benefited modern musicians, who have more license in today's world to explore sexual fluidity, as well as being able to produce slick, hook-filled pop music for adults. That means that while you might hear George Michael singing "Last Christmas" a few more times this year, you'll probably see his influence on pop culture last a lot longer.