goodbye, george michael. thanks for the memory.

One of the earliest memories I have comes from when I was six years old. I was in the downstairs family room of the first home I can remember; a house in Newburgh, New York that acted as the background for all my earliest memories. In this particular recollection, I was watching MTV.

Yes, I was watching MTV alone when I was six, because the 80’s.

On the screen, the black and white shot of a jukebox appears. The automated arm presses a record up to the needle. Organ music starts playing as the shot changes and the camera scans up, revolving around torn, faded, bleach-stained jeans, followed by a leather jacket — I couldn’t read the word ‘Revenge’ printed at the bottom at the time. My young eyes barely registered the sexy female legs seen from the waist down, leaning against the jukebox, black and white but for the bright blue pumps. All my attention was on those bluejeans on the other side of the jukebox, one leg propped up in a pose that was mind-blowingly cool to my six-year-old self.

The music video that unfolded after that deeply imprinted itself on my brain. Perhaps because I had a gay father, I interpreted the whole video as hyper-masculine. The huge cross earring, the popped leather collar, the overlarge aviator sunglasses, the ass-shaking, the poofy bleached hair: all appeared to me as the epitome of what manly cool looked like. I had no idea how gay the video for “Faith” was, or how prominently it was showcasing the fact that George Michael had a great ass.

I would later realize that, while I totally missed the gay part — as did most of the viewing public, as it turned out — I was spot on with my estimation that it was wildly manly, just not in the mode most readily affirmed by small-minded idiots.

Anyway, before I was 8 years old I had gotten my hands on the cassette tape and played it over and over. Undoubtedly, I was too young for this album, full of sex and very adult relational themes. Even K104, the Hudson Valley’s go-to Top 40 station, made people request the song “I Want Your Sex,” as “I Want Your Hands” — they didn’t edit the lyrics, just the spoken song identification.

While the song titles were too spicy for radio, and the majority of the subject matter was way over my head [see: Father Figure], I’m so glad the 80’s were a decade of parental complacency when it comes to that sort of thing. My childhood would have been poorer without this album, the legacy of which is underrated by the larger public (although often celebrated critically, example: it is featured on Rolling Stones’ “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” both originally in 2003 and then again when they remade the list in 2012).

Faith is one of those albums that plays like a greatest hits track list. Even if you only get the four songs that make up the first side of the tape, it’s worth the price of purchase. It’s one great pop song after another.

As I got older, it became wildly uncool to like George Michael. With his arrests for sex acts in public and the general cultural desire to reject the reality of gay masculinity, George Michael became the butt of countless jokes. All those images in the “Faith” video that had endeared me to all things George Michael were now the object of derision. During high school, I wouldn’t have admitted my appreciation of his music to anyone, with the notable exception of the “Freedom ’90!” music video featuring a naked Cindy Crawford in a bathtub.

Fortunately, I grew up eventually and realized, “Fuck you, I like George Michael.” I still framed it as a guilty pleasure, still felt a mild embarrassment at the knock to my indie cred, but I no longer hid my affection, especially for that album in particular.

Up until his tragic death, 2016 was a good year in popular culture for people who appreciated George Michael. First, Wham! featured prominently in Deadpool. Then, more notably, Key and Peele went so far in Keanu as to include a drug trip sequence where a character finds himself inside the video for “Faith,” his “favorite fucking song.” There is no way I can describe the joy I felt when Keegan-Michael Key hallucinated his way into a moment so deeply connected to my childhood. It was like an inside joke that the rest of the theater got in part, while missing the deeper layers. When Key’s character found himself in that giant white space, with a lone jukebox in the distance, I immediately knew exactly where he was, and my delight knew no bounds. It is one of my favorite moments of the year in film.

George Michael led a life troubled by the problems that plague so many celebrity lives. It was a story that ended, as too many musician stories do, well before it should have. I can’t speak to what sort of person he was at all. What I can say, with certainty, is that I’m glad his music is the subject of one of the two or three first things I consciously remember.