George Michael Put Our Faith in Pop

The music great, who died at age 53, leaves a legacy of infectious hits.

In the 2016 Key & Peele comedy film "Keanu," Keegan-Michael Key's character ­– a straitlaced corporate type masquerading as a criminal mastermind – turns on some hardened gangbangers to George Michael.

He gets them grooving to "Faith" and weeping to "Father Figure." One of the bad guys later proudly shows off his George Michael tattoo.

The running bit, which straddled the respectful side of the line between homage and mockery, underscored the enduring appeal of George Michael, a pop star who, despite some rough patches, never lost the faith of his fans.

The Christmas news of the British singer-songwriter's premature death at age 53 seemed terribly at odds with his splashy introduction to the entertainment world: the preternaturally bouncy Wham! hit "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," whose upbeat eye-confection video turned "Choose Life" T-shirts into the teenage fashion statement of 1984.

The unabashed cheery call to the dance floor kicked off a remarkable run for Michael, who, with and without Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley, staked his spot on the pop soundtrack to the 1980s, amid titans like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. 

Michael’s versatile voice, by turns buoyant ("Freedom"), breathy ("Careless Whisper") and sultry ("I Want Your Sex"), helped propel his rise. He never met a hook he couldn't give an extra twist to or a groove he couldn't infuse with his infectious brand of British soul. Whatever sub-genre his tunes hit, from ballads to expertly executed pop fluff to light funk, they all were crafted with the feet in mind as much as the ears.

The man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou recorded the majority of his 100 million-plus album sales before his 30th birthday, as he quickly went from a teenybopper idol to a sex symbol, with his increasingly serious music morphing along with his persona. Michael’s 1987 “Faith” album marked his pinnacle.

His off-stage image, though, later hit some low points. Michael’s 1998 arrest for public lewdness and subsequent woes threatened at times to overshadow his legacy. His very name became a series-long punch line on "Arrested Development." 

Now sadly, hopes for a career renaissance raised by exposure in "Keanu" and the use of "Careless Whisper" in "Deadpool" were dashed Sunday as Michael joined the too-long list of music greats taken during this cruel year.

Not every fan is devoted enough to get a George Michael tattoo. But the pop star had a way of getting under the skin and into hearts that still pound to the pop beat he created.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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