On Pop

Be more Wham!

What men today can learn from the success of a 1980s pop duo.

It’s been a strange few months to be a man. The publication of Caitlin Moran’s book What About Men? kicked off a mass discourse about the ills of masculinity: even the reviewers who disagreed with her specific analysis of men’s troubles were largely in agreement that there’s something amiss in male lives.

More usually, it’s women who get the chin-scratching social issues treatment, so I sympathise with men who find it alienating to be the subjects of this kind of commentary. Especially because the consensus is so unflattering to men, who seem to appear in the popular imagination as emotionally stunted luddites railing against their own irrelevance.

as anyone who’s watched one of Jordan Peterson’s tear-streaked videos can tell you, men seem just fine expressing emotion

There is some truth here: the realignment of the economy towards service has devalued brawn, while the rise of women in the professions has undercut men’s traditional social privileges. Boys have fallen behind their female peers educationally, but men have surged ahead on “deaths of despair” (suicide, overdoses). In a YouGov poll, 18 per cent of men said they don’t have a close friend.

I suspect part of the reason for men’s loneliness, certainly heterosexual men, is that many of them are happy to outsource the management of their social lives to wives and girlfriends. Having no one to talk to sucks, but so does running the Christmas card list and arranging dinner parties.

Men, we’re told, are socialised into isolation. They learn to be “strong and silent” and keep their worries to themselves. Happiness, supposedly, will come when men learn a womanly openness about their feelings. I’m sceptical: as anyone who’s watched one of Jordan Peterson’s tear-streaked videos can tell you, men seem just fine expressing emotion.

But it’s also bizarre to suggest that there are no role models for close male friendships. Of course there are. The documentary Wham! on Netflix is lots of things — a time capsule to 1980s tastes, an insight into the snobbery and viciousness of the music press at the time — but most of all, it’s a platonic love story between two men: George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.

Michael and Ridgeley met at school in Hertfordshire. It’s hard to credit in retrospect, with Michael’s sex-symbol status and vast success, but Ridgeley was the cool one. Michael went by “Yog” at the time, short for his birth name Georgios (in honour of his father’s Greek background), and in pictures, he looks gawky and shy.

You could feel through the screen that these were two young men who were happy to be on stage together, and it was infectious

Ridgeley took Yog under his wing, and Yog modelled himself on Ridgeley. The two bonded over their musical taste. Ridgeley wanted to be in a band, so Yog wanted to be in a band, so it made sense for them to be in a band together.
At first, they tried forming a ska group: it didn’t last. They were a natural duo, and it made sense for them to perform as a duo. The name Wham! was their effort to capture their own club-going attitude: confident, carefree, fun. They were both 19 when their first single was released.

The music was good, but it was their charisma that made them stars. Their first single stalled in the charts and their second almost did too, until an act of fate put them on Top of the Pops. One of the scheduled acts cancelled so Wham! were drafted in to perform “Young Guns (Go For It)”.

Their performance was goofy — you could (and some people did) call it naff. But it was also exuberant and joyful. You could feel through the screen that these were two young men who were happy to be on stage together, and it was infectious. It didn’t hurt that they were both beautiful: Michael’s gawkiness seemed to melt away when he sang and danced.

The music press had initially pegged Wham! as a band with a political conscience, thanks to the lyrics of “Wham Rap!”, which rhymed “soul” with “dole”. But the social commentary stuff was inadvertent: they wrote about their life, and unemployment ceased to interest them when they ceased to be unemployed.

So they were lambasted, unfairly, for being shallow and thick. This left them trapped between critical contempt, and hysterical fandom — because the fans adored them. For tween and teenage girls, they made perfect imaginary boyfriends. Ridgeley was too happy being the playboy to settle down, and Michael never had a girlfriend because he was gay.

Not that the public, or even Michael’s family, knew this at the time. But he told Ridgeley. Ridgeley, now all adult perspective, talks ruefully in an interview about his juvenile advice: “Don’t tell your dad, Yog, he’ll kill you.” It was advice that caused Michael immense strain between his private life and public image. But it was advice given lovingly.

As the band flourished, it became obvious to both that the future was a Michael solo career. What’s striking is that Ridgeley didn’t resent this, though it did cause him sadness. He was happy to see his friend succeed. Wham! had been a celebration of being young men: when it ended in 1986, it was the right time.

Because Wham! had such a heavily female fanbase, they were mocked as girly. But what could be more masculine than their strut and confidence — and all that phallic business with the shuttlecocks? If men really are in trouble today, the answer probably isn’t in thinkpieces: it’s in Michael and Ridgeley’s gloriously silly music.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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