‘90s Kids Tell Us How George Michael Shaped Indian Sexuality

‘90s Kids Tell Us How George Michael Shaped Indian Sexuality
Michael Putland/ZUMA via Rolling Stones

It’s natural

It’s chemical (let’s do it)

It’s logical

Habitual (can we do it?)

It’s sensual

But most of all

Sex is something that we should do

Sex is something for me and you

Like most 10-year-olds bred in ‘80s/ ‘90s India, George Michael’s somewhat taboo music made it to my walkman thanks to my elder sister. She and I didn’t exactly get along back then, but listening to music on our way to school was our one bonding ritual. The age hierarchy made her the decision-maker of what we were going to listen to, of course. After weeks of the Backstreet Boys and The Spice Girls, one morning she pulled out a different cassette from her backpack. “The Best of George Michael.” The cover was beautiful, a pristine white background, his perfectly-sculpted goatee still unaware of the iconic status it would one day achieve. His voice quickly became my favourite, though I was obviously still too young to understand what his songs meant. I did however notice, that there were a few songs we wouldn’t listen to only when our parents were in the car with us.

I think I’m done with the sofa

I think I’m done with the hall

I think I’m done with the kitchen table, baby

It was while listening to “Outside” one morning, that I asked my sister if George Michael had a girlfriend. She looked at me, and without a moment’s hesitation, said “no, he has a boyfriend”. As a 10- year- old, I was shocked, to say the least. A boyfriend? It was the first time I realized that men could be with men. Surprisingly, there was little judgment. Who cares as long as he’s happy, right? His music still made me want to jump around my room and sing along, and I still looked forward to my drives to school just as much as I did before.

Over the next few years, I began to develop my own taste in music, but I never quite let go of George Michael. My best friend and I giggled over the lyrics of Freeek, and listened to I Want Your Sex in my room at the lowest possible volume, while my parents were asleep. Apart from an awkward twenty minutes spent with my sister and an encyclopaedia (“This is how adults make babies”), I didn’t have much of a sex education. Nobody asked these questions in school, and in Biology class, sex was talked about as, well, a purely biological phenomenon.

It’s been exactly a year since he died, but I’ll always be grateful to him for being the only one who told me that sex could be fun, or being the only one who told me that there was nothing to be ashamed of, as long as the act was safe and consensual. For those of us who belonged to conservative, middle class India, he was the only one telling us that sex didn’t have to equal babies and STDS, and that being yourself, and exploring your sexuality was your right.

“I think he was one of the first musicians who made me realize that pop music can be both personal and political, often at the same time”, says Suprateek, 31, a writer based in Mumbai. “I first heard ‘Outside’ when I was 12 years old, I think it was his first new single after he publicly came out as gay...personally, it was the first time I was able to identify with someone who identified as queer. At the time, the concept of homosexuality was alien to me, I was just about coming to terms with heterosexual sex.” Rajat, 46, from Delhi, echoes a similar sentiment. “Homosexuality was a taboo topic in our times. His coming out surely made a lot of us more aware of this, and I think it made us more tolerant.”

“Outside” was released soon after Michael was arrested in 1998 by an undercover policeman for engaging in a “lewd act” in a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Refusing to be shamed for who he was, instead of issuing an apology, he released the single in which he poked fun at the incident, singing about how he was bored of having sex indoors. His ability to laugh at himself, to be proud of who he was, didn’t go unnoticed. “He was unique and honest in the kind of music he wrote,” Sujan, a Mumbai-based producer agrees. “I loved that he didn’t shy away from talking about sex...he knew that times were changing and people needed to embrace their sexuality. His upbeat, ‘be proud of who you are and how you are’ kind of style was so inspiring.”

In an interview to CNN after the Beverly Hills incident, where Michael spoke openly about his sexuality for the first time, he said “I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way, but I do not feel shame [about my sexuality], neither do I think I should.” Lavanya, 25, a Chennai based theatre artist and writer, who identifies as pansexual and gender fluid,, says “I think his coming out in ‘98 gave people more confidence. I can’t be sure about this but knowing the queer community, you find solace in your icons coming out, and it gives you the ability to embrace your own sexuality”.

“George Michael was particularly exciting growing up in India, where there always existed a double standard when it came to sex and sexuality...he gave us music that was at once scandalous and liberating. He pushed boundaries to a point where it became acceptable to publicly discuss desire,” says Sayantani, from Kolkata, now based in England.

At 25, I can only now begin to comprehend Michael’s profound courage. He may not have come out publicly till much later, but on revisiting his music, it’s quite clear that his transition to a solo artist with his album Faith, was a veiled attempt at revealing who he truly was. He left behind the bubblegum image of WHAM!, transforming himself into a leather clad symbol of heterosexual desire. Yet, in the title song of the 1987 album, he sings of lust, but never once mentions the gender of the person whose body he was craving for. In Father Figure (my personal favourite), he sings, “sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime”, perhaps hinting at his own sexuality. At a time when paranoia about AIDS, and in turn, homophobia, was at its peak, Michael also gave us the unabashedly sex positive “I Want Your Sex”, again steering clear of gender pronouns. In his later work, the music video for 1990’s Freedom!‘90 had supermodels mouthing the lines “There’s something deep inside of me/ there’s someone else I’ve got to be”- sometimes considered to be a song about the pressures of superstardom, the deeper message in these words was unmistakable.

Realizing your idols are only mere mortals who have had their share of struggles, is perhaps one of the hardest, yet most fulfilling parts of growing up. As a curious, giddy pre-teen, George Michael to me was the sexy, exciting, almost forbidden popstar who sang of those things that must not be named. He was the ultimate guilty pleasure. I now realize he was so much more.

He was someone who took the pain of some of the greatest losses in his life, and poured it into his music, writing one of his biggest hits, Jesus to a Child soon after losing the love of his life to AIDS related complications. He was a young man who struggled with his sexuality, and was forced to come out with one of the most personal aspects of his life rather unceremoniously. The details of his arrest were splashed across newspapers worldwide, often with crass, hurtful headlines. He became the object of the media’s homophobic ridicule, yet he made no attempt to play down his sexuality, or to portray himself in a way that wouldn’t ruffle the feathers of British society. He loved sex, and he wasn’t going to lie about it. In a 2005 interview, Michael said famously, “I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.”

So thank you, George Michael, for being an artist way ahead of your time, and for being wonderfully filthy long before it was fashionable to be risqué. You spoke to us about the birds and the bees in a way that no one else did. Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready.

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