Because we live in the age of the Internet, I find a news article about the bans by radio stations throughout the UK and US of George Michael’s first single, “I Want Your Sex,” from his first album, Faith, with relative ease. I also find a video of George Michael reacting to these bans in an interview. All of this delights me. If George Michael’s single were being released today, a ban wouldn’t be such a big deal. What would he have thought if someone had told him that less than twenty years down the road, anyone anywhere could type his name into a magic machine and see his videos, hear his music, learn about his life?
When I first heard about the reaction to the single, I thought it sounded kind of silly, but, reading the article, I start to understand the rationale of the bans, in a way. In the late 1980s, everyone was worried about AIDS in a way that’s almost difficult for me to comprehend. By the time I was a fully cognizant being, the epidemic had passed—the disease was still a thing to fear, sure, but it wasn’t something that was going to take down civilization as we know it. It certainly wasn’t a reason to ban a perfectly good pop song. The cultural context makes an extreme reaction and a decent amount of hubbub seem a little more understandable. But I wonder, too, how much of the reasoning behind the ban was a genuine fear of the medical consequences of promiscuity and how much of it was using the rhetoric of AIDS to justify a ban that was rooted, instead, in prudishness.
At any rate, the lyrics of “I Want Your Sex” are inane—it’s hard to imagine anyone turning to that song for any sort of guidance or taking whatever message it portrays to heart, which is why it’s strange to read about the reaction at the time it came out. Whoever would take a silly pop song so seriously?
In the article, George Michael says, “The media has divided love and sex incredibly.” He says, “‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”
A BBC spokesperson says, “At a time when we are trying to help fight AIDS, this single goes against the grain. It tries to encourage sex.”
The article describes “I Want Your Sex” as a “Latin-flavored funk song,” which, to me, doesn’t seem particularly apt as a description. It says it is “the first record to run into censorship problems because of fears that it might be too sexually explicit for the age of AIDS.” I find something about that funny—not in the strange/questionable sense, but actually ha-ha funny—but I can’t quite pin down what it is.
In the video, George Michael writes EXPLORE on the thigh of a woman he’s in bed with, and the camera pans slowly over it. Then he writes MONOGAMY on her back—a continuation that is an appeal toward morality so overt as to be comical, something that might read as ironic today. But that’s the remarkable thing about artifacts of 1980s culture—they’re always so earnest.
It seems bizarre, to me, to write a song that so overtly pushes boundaries but at the same time to insist so stridently that it exists within the very boundaries that are being pushed. Part of me wants to shake him, to say: If you’re going to write a song about sex, just own it! Let the song be about sex! You talk about love like someone who doesn’t know what it is, like someone who’s never been in love with anyone (which, let’s be honest, at that point, he hadn’t). In 1987, George Michael was 24 years old. He still considered himself bisexual. That woman in the music video? He was in a real-life relationship with her.
Sexual and romantic relationships are deeply bewildering things to any 24-year-old, I’d say, but I’d imagine it’s especially difficult for those who question (or are trying not to question) their sexual identities. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze George Michael here, I just mean, it’s not much of a surprise that his album, his art, was so much about sex. It must have been the conflict at the core of his life. And I guess it’s not surprising, then, too, that as he developed as a heteronormative sex symbol, he’d want to insist upon his own kind of purity within that context. Yes, yes, I will put sex out there, he might have said, but only good, clean sex. The kind of sex you should approve of. The kind of sex everyone likes.
When George Michael’s music was on the radio, I was very young. Cognizant enough to enjoy music but not to comprehend lyrics. Songs were noise made by instruments mashed together with noise made by people, and sounds didn’t have to mean. Listening to the album as an adult, then, I was struck by how many songs I remembered that I didn’t realize I remembered (I would’ve told you, when signing on to write this essay, that “Faith” was the only single by George Michael I knew. Not so. Not so at all.), and by how sexual they were. As a child, I’m sure I bopped around to “I Want Your Sex,” without once wondering what “sex” was. I was a toddler. Toddlers speak in a combination of real words and nonsense language. For them, the voice is not an instrument to be used solely for communication. And so, sometimes lyrics were words I recognized and sometimes they were nonsense sounds. There was nothing about that to question.
His songs are souvenirs from an age when I expected, most of the time, not to understand.
And when I listen to them today, still, there is a lot about them I don’t understand. I’m okay with this, I think. I’m not sure what the monkey is a metaphor for, or what it would mean to set it free. I don’t know if satin sheets figure so much in videos from that time because people actually slept in them, or if they were just an aesthetic early music video trend—a stand-in for sex, in a way, a wink to the audience, you know what happens beneath that kind of sheet. I’m pretty deeply troubled by the assemblage of female body parts paraded through most of the videos of the hits from this album, all disembodied in a completely unnerving way, and it’s strange that I was alive in a time when that level of objectification was the cultural norm. I mean, it’s not like we live in objectification-free times, so for it to be so stark and noticeable in his videos—videos that were made not that long ago—is disconcerting. It makes me wonder about people, I guess. It makes me wonder about life.
And still, I find myself loving him. How his dancing is mostly shoulder sways and jerky claps or snaps, giving way to graceful twirls or slides. How his hips never move at all. His ridiculous earring and his highlighted hair and how, listening to his songs, I find myself dancing a little in my chair. He reminds me of a made-for-TV movie, really, how seriously he takes himself when all signs suggest he shouldn’t, and how that can’t help but garner a certain level of affection. It’s worth noting that this isn’t about him, personally, or even his particular music career, so much as it’s about him as an artifact of a time.
I never thought of George Michael as a person (again, I was so young when I first knew his music—songs existed independently of the musicians who made them, I didn’t care who they were) until the television show Eli Stone premiered on ABC in 2008. I don’t know if anyone else has heard of this show; it aired for only two seasons. I watched it on ABC’s website when online streaming was new, sitting at my desk in a room I shared with a girl who would prove herself to be the world’s most awful roommate. Back then, something being available online was reason enough to watch it.
Eli Stone is a lawyer who makes big money advocating for big business against the little guys, until he starts experiencing hallucinations—one of the main, recurring ones being George Michael performing his hit single “Faith” in various inconvenient places: the lobby at work, say, or the bedroom. In the pilot, Eli learns these hallucinations are the product of a rare and inoperable brain aneurysm—but he also suspects they might mean he’s a prophet, and interprets the hallucinations as signs that he needs to change his materialistic ways and dedicate his life, instead, to serving the greater good.
The show sounds preachy when I summarize it like that, but I don’t remember it as such. I remember it as light and funny, entertaining in an easy way, with clear demarcations between good and bad, and a safe kind of zaniness. It is the kind of show where God sends you a message in the form of George Michael, with his dark glasses and stubble, singing a song you haven’t thought of in years, but, hearing it, you want to move with it, because it’s still catchy after all this time, that fricative faith-a as fun to sing along with as ever. And George (you come to think of him as George) claps along with his lip-sync of “Faith” in a way that’s not offbeat, exactly, but just the tiniest bit not right, in an almost imperceptible way. It feels like a secret he’s shared with you, the way you can just barely tell that when the scene was filmed, he was lip-syncing without music, the quiet broken only by the rhythm of his hands.