Whenever I doubt myself, I call on George Michael. Not only has the pop-soul icon influenced my gender expression of “delicate man,” he also taught me to choose freedom over safety in art.
When we think of the denim, the black leather jacket, and stubble, we rarely picture Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou. As a boy, he was shy, pudgy, wore glasses, and pretended to like girls. Like me, he was a child of Greek immigrants. His father did not want him to be a musician; his mother did not want him to be gay. At age eight, after a head injury (another thing we have in common), music called to him. Through art he found himself—and let go of Georgios to become George.
Few people know how legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler gave George Michael an offer nobody would refuse, and how Michael, then just twenty-one years old, went ahead and turned him down anyway. The way the story goes: Wexler, who had worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, flew Michael out to Muscle Shoals to record the breakthrough solo hit “Careless Whisper.” But when Michael returned home to England, he realized it was all wrong. The sax was soft. The drums weren’t limber. He decided to release his own version, and it freed him from the nostalgia and sonic iconography of soul’s musical past, creating something new and truer to himself.
People laugh, picturing the feathered hair of Wham!, when I tell them that George Michael helps me trust myself more as an artist. But thanks to him and “Careless Whisper,” I’ve become more attuned to my own instincts and aesthetic principles—even when the publishing industry, however well-meaning, asks for compromise. Whether it’s a book cover, a title, or a central conceit in an essay, I convene first with myself, rather than letting others decide. Like George Michael says—croons—we should know better than to waste the chance we’ve been given.
—Annie Liontas, author of Sex With a Brain Injury (Scribner, 2024)