Bowie, Prince & George Michael: We've lost the icons who dared to do manhood differently
At the risk of restating what your social media feeds have made downright tiresome, 2016 has really created one hell of a supergroup of the dead. Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Glenn Frey, Jon English, Rick Parfitt, Vanity, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Phife Dawg…
And, of course, three men who were as well known for their very individual takes on masculinity as they were for the music they made: David Bowie in January, Prince in April, and George Michael on Christmas Day.
All three were basically gods to me when I was growing up. All three lived on my bedroom wall at one time or another during the 80s. And all three taught me that being a bloke wasn't as straightforward - or as stifling - as most of popular culture would have had me believe.
I was born in the year that David Bowie unleashed his Ziggy Stardust persona, so he was always the ultimate rock star as far as I was concerned.
He seemed like something otherworldy and majestic, and had also been one of the first popular artists to declare that he was homosexual, then clarifying he was bisexual; but in the early-to-mid eighties, Bowie was in his post-Let's Dance mainstream superstardom, gently chuckling that oh no, he was always straight as a die and that stuff about chaps was just a publicity stunt to get column inches.
Yet I know several people, male and female, who can pinpoint the moment they realised their sexuality, thanks to Bowie's gloriously campy turn and impossibly eye-catching tights as the Goblin King Jareth in 1986's Labyrinth. Even during his most commercially-focussed era, Bowie - appropriately - had it both ways.
At around the same time that Bowie was rewriting his history, George Michael was emerging as half of Wham! and making signing on the dole sound weirdly cool to 11-year-old Andrew who had no clear idea what 'Wham Rap!' was about, because he lacked the gift of prophesy for the fate awaiting those who graduated with a BA (Philosophy Hons).
Although he had privately come out as bisexual to a few people close to him, he presented himself to the world as a two-fisted heterosexual pop star, although one whose video and photo shoots just happened to be throbbing with homoerotic undertones: watch the 'Club Tropicana' video clip for starters.
And you can hear that struggle in his music: Wham! dissolved in part because of Michael's depression over his increasing realisation that he was gay. Once he went solo that discomfort was evident even in bold songs like 'I Want Your Sex', his first post-Wham! single which was released complete with a steamy video in which he memorably wrote "Explore Monogamy" on Kathy Jeung's body in lipstick, in a masterpiece of cognitive dissonance.
When Michael was publicly outed in 1998 after being arrested for propositioning an undercover police officer in a public toilet in California, he decided enough was enough. He reacted with 'Outside', the video for which featured sexy cops making out, and a greatest hits album pointedly given the convenience-themed title Ladies And Gentlemen. Both were huge hits.
And his star didn't diminish afterwards either, even as he gleefully talked about the sensual joys of casual anonymous hook ups, just as other proudly out artists like Elton John were settling into civil partnership respectability. Michael wasn't pretending for anyone any more.
I HAVE NEVER AND WILL NEVER APOLOGISE FOR MY SEX LIFE ! GAY SEX IS NATURAL, GAY SEX IS GOOD! NOT EVERYBODY DOES IT, BUT.....HA HA!— George Michael (@GeorgeMichael) May 13, 2011
While Bowie and Michael were busily presenting themselves as being squeaky-clean stars in the 80s, there was Prince doing the absolute opposite. And it's incredibly easy to forget that when he first appeared, a good slab of America genuinely thought he was the Devil.
Here was an artist who dressed flamboyantly in lace and lingerie, singing songs that were unambiguously about sex, in all its multi-positional glory. There he was, shirtless in a jacket and bikini thong on the cover of 1980's Dirty Mind, before going full nude for the cover of 1988's Lovesexy. He even mocked those confused by him in song: "Am I black or white?" he teased in 'Controversy'. "Am I straight or gay?"
And yet he was unambiguously heterosexual, known for his revolving door of high profile celebrity girlfriends and collaborators. Nervous late night chat hosts could mock Prince for his dandy outfits lacy cuffs, if they liked - but clearly, women dug him in no uncertain terms.
For a kid in suburbia, this was eye-opening, unsettling, alluring stuff.
Suddenly it was possible - indeed, sexy as hell - for straight men to acknowledge their femininity.
And you can see the way that the influence of these three unique men percolated through popular culture and music, especially but by no means exclusively with LGBTIQ artists.
You see it in Troye Sivan master-of-factly coming out in his teens. Sam Smith making clear that his love songs are about men. Frank Ocean declaring that if hip hop has a problem with his bisexuality, that's nothing to do with him.
If there are few figures that shine out as bright as Bowie, Prince and George Michael did, it's at least partially because the background of pop culture is so much more colourful now.
That we lost them in 2016 was a coincidence. That we had them at all was a godsend.