I used to listen to Wham! in secret. It was 1984 and I was nine. My school was in a white and mostly working-class village in Lancashire. I knew only one other Wham! fan and, though it’s been thirty years since we last met, he was the first person I contacted after I heard George Michael had died. He once claimed to have reached the singer on a secret number he found in a magazine and had a hilarious conversation with him. I still wonder if this might have been true. We used to listen to the albums over and over at one another’s houses, but at school we kept our adoration to ourselves. It was normal for boys to like Duran Duran. They said Wham! were ‘poofs’. George Michael was loved by older girls, teenagers, but in my class the girls hated him too (they liked Madonna). ‘He loves himself,’ they said. ‘He looks at himself in shiny floors when he’s dancing.’
I didn’t understand the appeal of Duran Duran, with their pale, sullen look, the sallow, understated maleness of English post punk. It felt so far away from the black American singers I also used to listen to in secret – Michael Jackson, Prince – and so far away from Wham! In contrast to the dull, rainy, post-industrial landscape around me, they always looked as if they were having the time of their lives. They were young, beautiful, tanned, and made spectacular pop music. Their first two albums were called Fantastic and Make It Big. After their first number one single, George Michael performed on Top of the Pops in a T-shirt with ‘Number 1’ embroidered in gold on it; in the video, he wore one with ‘Choose Life’ printed on it in bold black letters. In gloomy, northern, cold, racist England, this was what I wanted to hear. I wanted hope. I wanted fun.
One of the songs on Fantastic, ‘Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)’, was a two-fingered repudiation to the seriousness of both right-wing and left-wing politics. ‘Do you enjoy what you do?’ it asked. “If not, just stop – don’t stay there and rot.’ ‘Hey, jerk, you work,’ Michael repeated. ‘I ain’t never gonna work, get down in the dirt. I’m a soul boy, I’m dole boy.’
When I was nine I didn’t know that the British left was insisting on the right to work; the song probably enraged them as a celebration of Thatcherite individualism and hedonism at a time when, particularly in the north, a lot of people were poor, disgruntled and angry, hating the yuppies – that new missile of a word – and the fat cats who were taking their world away. But the lyrics weren’t saying: ‘Get rich’. ‘I am a man,’ Michael sang, ‘job or no job, you can’t tell me that I’m not.’ I was too young to relate to this, but could understand the song’s anti-authoritarian mood. This was the 1980s; with Scargill’s exhortations coming from one side, Thatcher’s from the other, and upwardly mobile parents in the middle, it felt like everyone was telling you what to do. Wham! told us the one thing nobody seemed to be saying: ‘Take pleasure in leisure I believe in joy.’
George Michael and Andrew Ridgley were young, talented, rich, famous heart-throbs who didn’t want to be taken seriously. They were about freedom and fun, which seemed in short supply in Northern England back then. They were about slipping out of the myriad straight-jackets we all found ourselves in, including ideas of masculinity; heteronormativity (slipping out, not coming out; that moment was still a decade and a half away); the oppressiveness of Thatcherism, and the left’s furious response to it; and Englishness, all that repression and studied depressiveness, the anti-Americanism that was so often anti-black too, the refusal to embrace the positive, the magnificent, the fantastic, which was what Wham! seemed to do every day.