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Thursday, 29 December 2016

** When George Michael Became a Rorschach Inkblot & Changed My Life **


Back to nature...

  I fell in love with George Michael when I was nine years old. Top of the Pops screened the Fastlove video in April 1996 and the experience of watching that film for the first time burned itself deep into my consciousness. Today, it persists as a corner-stone to a still-blossoming queer logic whereas in the mid-nineties it sprung up as the perfect antidote to Blind Date, Baywatch, Neighbours and all the other insidious mainstream-media detritus quietly informing my (largely unconscious) feelings and thoughts on sexuality and desire. Fastlove's song and accompanying video are more freaky than people gave George credit for. The song stands as a testament to what he truly was: a unique, irreverent and importantly complicated alien in a largely anodyne pop culture landscape. While his art may not have attracted the same kind of critical attention many of his peers enjoyed (this having much to do with how consciously unpretentious George was in his work - itself one of the reasons people loved him so much), Fastlove is nevertheless emblematic of a genius stretching way beyond a catchy melody, slick production and the outrageous beauty of the man. George knew he had depth, teasing us with a rhetorical question from the first verse of his seventh UK number one:

 "All that bullshit conversation, baby can't you read the signs?"


  The signs are aplenty in Fastlove. Clashing and rubbing up against one another across the space of five minutes, in conjunction they serve to crystallise the work as perhaps the masterpiece of 90's queer pop. It was overwhelming for me 21 years ago and feels just as alive and spiky today. George may be gone but his songs will continue to breathe, and Fastlove breathes heavily at that...

  Everything about this track was disorientating to a nine-year old living in Tunbridge Wells in 1996. First off; George's sexual tastes. The video opens with our hero (quite portentously) using a futuristic-looking hand-held device to browse potential sexual partners, calling their holographic avatars up from the comfort of his bedroom (did he foresee Tindr here?). The thing was, George's panel didn't look anything like Cilla's. Opening proceedings? A latex-clad man wearing a crown of thorns doing the robot dance. Next, a beautiful and topless transgendered person on the point of tears, then dancing women of black, white and asian ethnicity and perhaps most mysteriously, this scruffy-looking guy in an old jumper…

 
  So it was. My (very) limited conception of a 'desirable subject' had been dismantled. In Fastlove, desire was multitudinous, unpredictable, even precarious. George had shattered the first glass ceiling in my young mind.

  Another point of contention was George's age. Here was a 32 year-old man expressing his desire for open, noncommittal sexual relations (with all genders). Wasn't this the terrain of people in their late-teens and twenties? Added to this, the song was the second single to be released from an album titled 'Older'? What was going on here?

  But Fastlove goes further. Observe how we remain exclusively within the four walls of George's room (a chapel perhaps? or maybe a cell...) for the entire duration of the film. Is this total interiority reflecting the confinement of Fastlove's dissolving paradigms to the realm of the psyche? Does the enactment of fluid sexuality even have a stable place in external reality? It is poignant here to remember what George met two years later upon exercising his sexuality outside, in the real world - physical incarceration by the American government and a global media shame campaign...

  However, within the locked-in holding space of the piece, a kind of magic is surely taking place. Boundaries between 'desiring subjects' and their 'subjects of desire' are beautifully smeared whilst the concept of a reliably gendered and orientated subject is destabilized along the way. Take for example the shot at one minute fifteen seconds. As the camera lens pans up (at an intoxicatingly tilted angle), a man is seen lying in dream-state, presumably summoning up a woman who then appears beside him. But in an instant, 'he' transforms into a 'she', just as the female partner herself switches ethnicity. Then, within the space of a few seconds, the dreamer transforms again, back into a male form. It's clear at this point that we've arrived in a zone of profound slippage, a space where sex, desire and gender are holographic concepts, constantly flickering between (and beyond) binary poles...

  It's equally interesting to note Fastlove's refusal to depict LGBT sexuality and desire in simplified, liberated terms. George made sure to enfold guilt (spot the two devil cameos), melancholia and other emotional and psychological traumas into the mix. To begin with, loneliness is offered as a possible motive for George's polyamorous sexual appetite:

"I miss my baby tonight...so why don't we make a little room in my BMW babe, searching for some peace of mind, i'll help you find that…"

  Symptoms of psychic distress mark the desiring subjects as they shape-shift through their enclosed landscape. Throughout Fastlove, figures can be seen crying as much as laughing, while George's throne comes to resemble a psychiatrist's chair as much as a Buddha's pedestal. The key question to ask here might be: is George playing the role of patient or doctor? In part at least, he is clearly the patient. The repeated lyrical refrain: "Looking for some affirmation" takes the form of a confessional and the evocation of a Rorschach inkblot, appearing towards the end of Fastlove (and beautifully evoked by moving body parts behind a latex screen), serves to both reinforce his role-as-patient whilst referencing the painful history of medical attempts to define and 'cure' 'transgressive sexualities' by such techniques throughout the course of the 20th century.

  And just as the concept of George-as-patient seems inevitable, something very strange happens. In the final moments of Fastlove, a visual mirroring technique is employed to transform George into the living embodiment of a Rorschach inkblot. With this one shot, we as viewer are catapulted into the patient's chair. Incredibly, the scruffy man returns to address us with a direct gaze just before George Rorschach-izes. The revelation is now manifest: this man is a reflection of us, the purportedly non-queer majority and George, in the form of a Rorschach inkblot, is asking us a critical question: "Can we relate?..."


  As much as pop, George Michael and Fastlove will forever be punk. A Vivienne Westwood crown-insignia belt buckle adorning a black, gyrating crotch provides a direct visual link to the British punk tradition and serves to anoint George and co. as a new punk royalty for the 90s - hot-blooded, wilfully irresolute and blurred in ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. George is an heir to the throne once uncomfortably occupied by Johnny Rotten and Fastlove brilliantly refracts Rotton's punk ethos to strike out at heteronormative sexuality and all of its discriminations, hypocrisies and supporting apparatus.

  The saying goes that Rock and Roll (and i'll stretch this definition to punk), can be defined by whether it scares your parents. With this in mind, I happily remember one of the earliest arguments I had with my dad at Our Price back in 1996… Not having much money, I really needed him to buy me George's new single on cassette. Having seen the video with me at home, dad thought Fastlove might be inappropriate for a nine year old. It took a lengthy discussion/argument before I left the shop with the cassette tucked inside the red plastic bag. I'll finish by thanking you for caving in dad, because that tape changed my life.