It’s been a year tomorrow since David Bowie left the planet, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his phenomenal and difficult final album. His death began a year of shocking losses, ending with two in quick succession that grieved not only their lifelong fans, but also people who knew their work primarily from samples, remixes, and reboots: the immortally funny Carrie Fisher and, of course, on Christmas Day, the uncanny pop music force-of-nature, George Michael. As cosmic justice would have it, these were two of the most outspoken characters in popular culture—two people who refused to be shamed into silence or apologize for their lives.
George Michael weathered what is hard to believe was a genuine scandal at the time: his 1998 Beverly Hills arrest, subsequent vicious outing by the press, and the sordid poring over of his private life. He responded to every provocation with defiance and, writes Christo Foufas, “went on the offensive.”
In his controversial video for the single “Outside,” for example, his turn as a wickedly satirical disco cop so effectively piqued the police that his arresting officer sued him for slander, and lost. The publicity surrounding Michael at the height of his post-Wham! fame seemed to liberate him to become more and more himself in the public eye, but it never obscured what made him a star in the first place—his soaring, confident voice and impeccable musical instincts.
It is these qualities—Michael’s bravado and true skill as a vocalist and performer—that also made him an absolute perfect choice to cover an earlier gay icon gone before his time, Freddie Mercury. In his rendition of “Somebody to Love” with Queen at Mercury’s 1992 tribute concert Michael delivered a stunning performance; while he lacked Mercury’s range, he nearly matched the former Queen singer in power and charisma. And while we see can this feat on display in the official concert video, above, it’s just as evident in rehearsal footage, which you can see at the top of the post.
Immediately after Michael’s death, this rehearsal video began making the rounds on social media, and people highlighted not only his mastery of a very challenging vocal melody, but the appreciation of fellow Mercury tribute performer David Bowie, whom we see nodding along in the wings at around 3:00. It’s a very poignant moment, in hindsight, that underlines some of the significant similarities between the two stars. Not only were they both sexually adventurous chameleons and riveting performers, but—as we learned in story after story shared in their many posthumous tributes—both men used their status to help others, often anonymously.
The Mercury tribute concert, an AIDS benefit, took place five years before Michael’s arrest and public full disclosure of his sexuality. But even before he felt comfortable discussing his personal life, he involved himself in the lives of others who struggled with similar issues, including depression. From the earliest Wham! days of “Choose Life” t-shirts and “cheeky critiques of heteronormative life” to Michael’s barnburning performance with Elton John at Live Aid in 1985 and beyond, he was “a father figure for political pop,” writes Barry Walters at NPR, and a role model for a generation of young gay men and women. And “it didn’t hurt that he could write and sing soul music with effortless power and grace,” even recording a duet “with Aretha Franklin without making a fool of himself,” and filling the shoes, for one night at least, of the legendary Freddie Mercury.