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Listening to late greats without prejudice can be good for the soul

george-michaelPop culture has had quite a somber year, with era-defining athletes, beloved film legends and honored TV staples passing away over the past 12 months. But the music world may have been hit the hardest in terms of losing impact players, starting with the Jan. 10 death of David Bowie. The most recent was the Christmas Day loss of George Michael at age 53, and while it’s certainly sad news for his fans and peers alike, maybe the outpouring of wonderful memories and touching tributes can enrich our understanding of ourselves and the world.

Michael’s career spanned more than 30 years, both as a solo artist and as part of the pop duo Wham! For most of the 1980s, he was a fixture on MTV and pop radio. Like the aforementioned Bowie, Michael went through a number of image changes during his career, making him a true style icon and trendsetter.

Of course with the fame came some backlash. Michael was tabloid fodder throughout the ’90s, mostly due to various arrests and his sexual orientation. He battled addiction up until the end of his life — nothing new for a pop star — and that shouldn’t tarnish his creative output.

In the days since Michael’s death, there have been numerous social media postings from his contemporaries and those who were clearly influenced by his music and style, as well as others who saw him as a role model for how he handled his sexual orientation in the public eye:

Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog. Me, his loved ones, his friends, the world of music, the world at large. 4ever loved. — Andrew Ridgeley (Michael’s former Wham! partner)

RIP George Michael. I can’t believe it. Such an incredible singer and a lovely human being, far too young to leave us — Bryan Adams

George Michael, you were the smartest Pop Star I ever met, RIP now fella — Paul Young

Other than a global pop phenom, George Michael was one of the true British soul greats. alot of us owe him an unpayable debt. bye George xx — Producer Mark Ronson

Doesn’t matter what kind of music you are into, 2016 has taken its toll on all genres. @GeorgeMichael the latest. 53, crazy. Bring on 2017. — Radio personality Eddie Trunk

All this online mourning of Michael has been in line with the typical reaction to the deaths of celebrity musicians this year: lots of #RIP tributes, the obligatory video clips shared from YouTube and some good use of the deceased’s lyrics (my favorite of Michael’s being #NeverGonnaDanceAgain from the Wham! hit “Careless Whisper”). Short of a trip to England for a Michael memorial or attending some sort of all-star tribute concert, this now-common behavior is an acceptable way these days to celebrate the life and career of a man who touched so many lives through his songs (as well as through his charitable work, most of which he purposely kept quiet).

Personally, I can’t lay claim to being a big George Michael fan. I was in my early teens when he was at the height of popularity — therefore, I was “too cool” to like his stuff. I’ve never had a desire to see him in concert or collect his albums. But I can honestly say that within the past few years, in large part through hearing such acts as My Morning Jacket and Iron & Wine cover Michael’s songs, I have a greater appreciation of his material.

I was reminded this week how poignant “Praying for Time” is. The lyrics ring true as a cautionary tale of how losing sight of what we have in our lives can cause us to miss it when it’s taken from us. I really love “Careless Whisper” because I do have ears and a heart, after all. But “One More Try” is the song that made me rethink Michael’s career. Lyrically, it’s filled with emotional struggle, with themes of self worth and defiance at its crux. Musically it’s fairly sparse — some haunting synth with basic drums and bass — but the vocals are the focal point. Michael goes from a hushed, whispery tone to the high-note peaks of the chorus, then comes back down with a softer touch. It’s not only one of the triumphs of his career but of 1980s pop music in general. It’s a very sad song that makes me feel better after hearing it. I can relate to the spirit of wanting to learn from prior mistakes but in the end giving in because it’s just easier to give the low road one more try.

So even if it takes you until after an artist dies to dig into his or her body of work, don’t resist it. Read up on what made them special to fans. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re too cool for their catalog or have reservations about their lifestyle: Music is history, so celebrate it that way. We are in very uncertain times today — and bonding and uniting through a shared appreciation of a musician’s work is one way to break through any planned or existing walls (both literal and figurative).

— By Mike Madden

Sounding Off is a music opinion column on

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