’Tis the season to be merry and to drink to the communist who made Christmas music more bearable, George Michael.
In the captured-by-capitalism nature of Christmas during peak festive season, claustrophobic shopping malls fill with spoilt kids demanding, sullen and overworked shop assistants ignoring, sloth-like queues swelling and crammed parking garages a hoot away from road-rage wars – end of the world kind of scenarios.
But in the midst of that glass and concrete torture, with soundracks of “festive” music dominated by Boney M’s dreadful Christmas album – piped into those malls and its shops, and from which there is no escape – Last Christmas makes this hell a little more bearable.
Michael’s 1984 hit song with his band Wham! wasn’t a perfect fit for Christmas. Not only was it a fine pop tune, but unlike most songs on festive playlists, Last Christmas didn’t get your bells jingling. It was sad, sweet and one could still listen to it on Boxing Day and beyond.
I’m not the only person who thinks so. It made it on to a recent seasonal list that is somewhat of a contradiction in terms, namely the best Christmas songs. Coming in at a respectable 11 on The Guardian newspaper’s Christmas Top 50, it is described by music writer Michael Hann as “a big Christmas hit that was unlike previous UK seasonal singles – it wasn’t wrapped in sleigh bells, there was nothing consciously novelty about it. Perhaps George Michael had been paying close attention to some of the great US Christmas soul singles, because this was a heartbreak song that just happened to be set in December.”
A pop philanthropist
Michael was known for his international success as a pop star, briefly eclipsing even superstars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna in the United States at the tail end of the 1980s. As a solo artist and with Wham!, he had 10 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while his album Faith spent 51 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. It won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1989.
But he was more than a vacuous, self-absorbed pop song generator. Michael donated the royalties he earned from Last Christmas to Ethiopian famine relief. But that was no one-off. After his death on Christmas Day in 2016 at the age of 53, it was revealed how he was, according to The Hornet website, a “covert philanthropist” who gave away millions to charity and mainly progressive causes.
UK-based charity Childline received millions in donations from Michael, though he declined any recognition. Its founder, Esther Rantzen, was quoted by The Hornet as saying: “For years now he has been the most extraordinarily generous philanthropist, giving money to Childline, but he was determined not to make his generosity public so no one outside the charity knew how much he gave to the nation’s most vulnerable children.”
A Twitter user mentioned after Michael’s death that he used to volunteer at the same homeless shelter as her.
In addition to performing at Band Aid and Live Aid, he did a number of benefit concerts for good causes. Michael performed a special benefit in support of the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. The mineworkers went on strike when then prime minister Margaret Thatcher closed down a number of mines and destroyed 20 000 jobs and many more lives as a result.
Michael staged a free concert for nurses from Britain’s National Health Service out of gratitude for those who cared for his mother when she was dying of cancer. He also donated the royalties received for the song Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me to Aids hospice London Lighthouse and the Rainbow Trust children’s charity.
This progressive side of Michael shouldn’t be a surprise because as Barry Walters wrote in a tribute on American public radio NPR’s website, he was “a political artist who jettisoned most of fame’s trappings soon after they shackled him. Like many teen idols, he rebelled against his bubblegum role.”
Michael’s left-wing politics go way back. Shortly after his death, the Communist Party in Britain revealed that Michael joined its Young Communist League at the age of 15 under his original name, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.
Michael’s progressive politics came more overtly to the fore in his songs after the turn of the century. In 2003, he covered Don McLean’s anti-war song The Grave to protest against the Iraq War. But it was the previous year’s satirical Shoot the Dog in which he went boots, lyrics, video and all against the Iraq invasion, berating the warmongers, then US president George W Bush and his “poodle”, UK prime minister at the time Tony Blair.
“I wrote the song in the year 2000 about the fact that I thought it was very uncomfortable that our leader [Blair] was so friendly with a born-again Christian [Bush] at a moment where fundamentalism was the most dangerous thing on the planet,” Michael said in a 2003 television interview. “And it really was that I had no idea what was gonna happen; I had no idea Tony Blair would make me look so astute, you know, over the next five years.”
But Shoot the Dog almost didn’t see the light of day. On the last day of the recording, which was 11 September 2001, planes hit the World Trade Centre in New York.
“I just thought then, suddenly thought, ‘My God! Well, obviously this can’t come out now, you know.’ It would be too offensive.
“But then a year later when there was still some question about whether or not Tony would go ahead [with the Iraq invasion], I thought I had to go for it. I had to do something because I was just eaten up with guilt that I had an opportunity to speak out and I wasn’t taking it, you know.”
In this musical weapon of mass destruction, Michael effectively used a hilarious animated video to lampoon Blair for supporting Bush’s bombing of Iraq. In the video, “Bush” tickles his poodle “Blair”, before a cartoon Michael arrives in the Blairs’ bed on a nuclear warhead. You have to watch it!
Michael released a statement about Shoot the Dog at the time, saying it was “intended as a piece of political satire, no more no less, and I hope that it will make people laugh and dance, and then think a little, that’s all”.
Michael did more than sing, dance and make Christmas more bearable. In his work and philanthropy, he made us think, showing the progressive potential of pop music when fused with a considered politics.