It seems, while some pundits never let go of the idea of Michael as a hip-shaking pop lightweight, a succeeding generation of musicians were paying close attention. “He was [a teenager] when he wrote ‘Careless Whisper,’” Thomas adds. “That’s insane.”
Michael was also, of course, a formidable vocalist—a singer who could hold his own with heroes like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, who helped Aretha Franklin get her first number one in 20 years and traded riffs with everyone from Whitney Houston to Beyoncé.
“He could do bigger, really soulful, gospel-leaning things with his voice but he could also do this very contemporary pop vocal style with a little bit of breath in it,” the rock singer Adam Lambert tells GQ. “It’s really its own sound. I think he has influenced a lot of people [with that style], including myself.”
Since Michael’s passing, vocalists from different genres—from country diva Carrie Underwood to R&B superstar Usher to the Tiktok-savvy hitmaker Charlie Puth—have confessed to that influence. “George was rock and roll, he was pop, he was crooning, he was all of those things,” Thomas says. “I think some of them don’t have any idea they’re even influenced by him.”
In 1998, a few months after the arrest that forced him to come out, Michael explained in an interview with David Letterman: “I was followed into the toilet by a man, well over six foot, fairly attractive… not Columbo,” he said with a grin, describing the undercover police officer who arrested him. “It’s called entrapment… He played a game called ‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours—and then I’ll take you down to the police station.’”
The impact on his career was immediate. British tabloid The Sun had a field day, releasing a “Zip Me Up Before You Go Go” edition with nine pages on “the fatal flaw in the man who wanted to be Mr Perfect.”
The songwriter and producer Babyface was in the studio with Michael a few days before the arrest, recording his duet with Mary J. Blige on the Stevie Wonder song “As.” “He had a heavy cross to bear in a world that was not as accepting of people who were gay,” Babyface tells GQ. “I was nothing but a fan of him, not only as an artist, musician, producer, writer, but as a person that was living his life the best way that he knew how… You can only imagine all the things that he had on his shoulders at the time.” Following the scandal, “As” was never released as a single in America.
Lambert was just 16 when he heard news about Michael’s arrest. “I was not out of the closet yet—it was the ‘90s and it was a different time,” he tells GQ. “But I knew I was gay.”
He remembers how his own peers talked about the incident. “All of a sudden, especially around a high school environment, what happened to him became this joke to people,” he says. “And it made my stomach drop because I just thought, ‘God, is that what it is to people? Is it a joke?’”