Thembisa Mshaka On Her First Swirl Crush: George Michael
We fall in love, break up and make up to the music of artists, whose lyrics and performances give voice to the emotions we carry.
Some, we fall head over heels for. I did this over Michael Jackson as a young girl. And it was understood. My mother had done the same. I was a young black girl, born to parents who grew up listening to doo-wop and Motown. Michael was the obvious heartthrob. (Prince was off and running in the late ‘70s too, but he was strictly forbidden in my Muslim household—which is how I became a rabid Prince fan in college).
Then came junior high school. 1982. For me, it was summer between seventh and eighth grade. Growing up in Los Angeles, I watched Video One with Richard Blade religiously, and was exposed to all the Euro-pop and rock that would serve as my counterpoint to all the black music I had been raised on. A lot of that music echoed blues and soul, but the fashion, make-up and energy of these groups was so different. Richard Blade was a British transplant who had traded London for L.A. and become a top rated DJ on the prominent rock station, KROQ. His video show was appointment TV for me after school.
In the summer of 1982, Richard Blade opened my eyes to my first white boy crush: a duo called Wham!, made up of teenage dreamboats George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Now, they were both adorable. But Andrew was on guitar and looking off somewhere else half the time. But George? He would lock eyes with me (well, the camera) and not let go. “Wham! Rap” and “Young Guns” were the pair’s first singles off their indie debut album, Fantastic. Because I already loved hip-hop, their bubble gum attempts at rapping just made me love them more. Running through the streets of London, wind in hair, all carefree exuberance, free of the over-the-top presentation of our ruling stateside R&B and pop singers like Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, Jeffrey Osborne… all of whom felt way too old to crush on.
And so, I became smitten with that other Michael.
To the point where he occupied space in my locker at the predominantly white, all-girls school I attended until I graduated in 1988. George Michael had prime real estate in a collage with Michael and Janet Jackson, Dorothy Dandridge and Malcolm X. And while I came to love the music and videos of David Bowie, Duran Duran, Robert Palmer, Culture Club, English Beat, Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode and Thomas Dolby over the course of the decade, this black girl was sprung on George Michael. Wham! could do no wrong. They paid homage to Motown with “Freedom,” where you can hear The Supremes “I Hear A Symphony” and The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself” all up and through the track. The horn arrangements on “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go) and “Club Tropicana” recalled those of Earth, Wind & Fire and The Ohio Players—just more glossy than funky. No comparison obviously, but Wham! had been doing their musical homework, and carved out a sound that became necessary listening for me. “Everything She Wants,” Careless Whisper,” and the aforementioned “Freedom” were all anthems for surviving the angst and longing that came with adolescence. And then, in 1987, seeming to know that I needed him all to myself, George went solo.
No hard feelings, Andrew. It was just time.
He crossed the bridge from playful bandmate to serious solo star with 1986’s Grammy-winning hit, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” sung with The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. In a sense, this would become George’s guest pass into black music spaces, allowing folks my parents’ age to learn what I already knew. This was one bad white boy. Like, Michael McDonald, Elton John levels of bad. But younger. Smoother. More sublime. He took the stage with Stevie Wonder at The Apollo. He straight up stole a few bars of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” on the Band Aid charity single. And his lead single from the 1987 debut Faith got him censored from American radio, replacing “love” where the word “sex” was sung on the insistent and undeniably funky smash, “I Want Your Sex”.