Growing up in 1990s India, George Michael became the sex-ed teacher who told you what sex felt like, beyond the flying saucer clip-art uterus and the AV about menstruation writes Pooja Pande.
In the spectrum of “things that you guess and things that you know”, there was a whole lotta erring on the unfortunate side of that equation if you, like me, grew up through the 80s and 90s.
And so popped up a question in English class one not so fine day – sweaty is how we were all feeling back in the days when that word did not stretch to include anything remotely sexy. You did not sweat from anything more amazing than the lack of a cool breeze in a cramped classroom.
I raised my hand and asked Madhulika Ma’am, “Ma’am, I want to know the meaning of a word.” Now Madhulika Ma’am was one of those cool English teachers – only English teachers were cool like that, no? – and she had recently been encouraging us to read and explore beyond the syllabus and to not fear if we didn’t understand something, because she’d be right there to help us. So, explore I did. I’d just turned 10 and had had a special “double digits” celebration and had encountered something I did not understand, but I knew I wanted to go forth boldly. Badly.
This something was George Michael. The man, the music. I’d had a taste and I wanted more.
Madhulika Ma’am lost some of that joie de vivre when I asked her I wanted to know what “father figure” meant. “Stay back after class”, was the response I got, an admonishment I knew. “I found it in a book,” I dissembled immediately, knowing even then this was maybe a little too much beyond syllabus. In the video, see, the man did not seem to be conducting a paternal relationship towards the woman and that had me honestly perplexed. But uff, when he crooned, “If you ever hunger, hunger for me”, you somehow knew what he was talking about. You wanted to hunger too. Hunger for him too, yes sure.
We are all creatures of instinct, after all – born of what we do not comprehend at the age of 10, but we grow into it. We are meant to.
But Madhulika Ma’am’s reaction came back to me a couple of years later when I listened to I Want Your Sex endlessly. There really were more “things that you hide” than “things that you show” in India of the 90s. It was a song that predated Father Figure, as I found out later, but it had missed my eight-year-old radar and joyfully so, because then it landed splonk in the middle of a hurried F.L.A.M.E.S. game in-between classes. Just as teenage lurked around the corner, smirking at a bunch of 12-year-olds desperately scribbling off the rest so as to view ‘S’ in all its glory, the last letter standing–signifying “Sex” with the Special Someone. So everyone could burst into the refrain, ‘Sex is best when it’s one on one’. Best rendered with knowing glances all around, like we all knew what he was talking about.
I mean, we did – just not very precisely.
But it sure helped years later.
But first we had to wade through all those inane Biology lessons through high school and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge sessions of “learning about your body” in diagrams that looked nothing like anything I had on my own body. That uterus clipart-ish thingie still reminds me of UFO’s and alien movies! And there was that one bizarre AV we were all subjected to so we could be prepared for the onset of our periods. Which we never were because it never played out like that damn AV: It just seemed like a wise decision to lock oneself up in the bathroom until Maa arrived.
And all this while dear George, hot-sexy-smooth George Michael in his snug denims kept telling us, ‘Sex is natural, sex is good, sex is fun, sex is chemical’, much like the commercial that stays stuck in your head, sending out subliminal messages to your limbs that can hey, only follow orders.
Even before it all began, George stopped being all that: In a quickfire move that was Freedom, a song that was nothing short of a coming out anthem. ‘The horror the horror’ everyone shrieked, all the “hungry schoolgirls” whose “pride and joy” he had betrayed. But really, to me, it didn’t matter. F.L.A.M.E.S. and related shenanigans that included proposals at the water cooler, manipulating Chem Lab viva groups et al, had already taught me everything I ever needed to know about ek tarfa love and how it was perfectly alright to simmer with burning passion like a biryani on a low-flame kadhai “until the end of time”. We understood serious heat like that, us kids of the 90s, and how it fired up and consumed you, just like a George Michael song.
Besides, I had my own personal takeaway from that anthem that still speaks to so many even today, so much so that 2012 Olympics closed with it. George might have meant it for the tabloids and the stalkers making it famous in a video he remained deliberately unseen in, but for me it was something that smelt of the ultimate truth, as far as relationships were concerned. I could say it to imaginary boyfriends, parents, teachers, anyone who was listening, “All we have to see is that I don’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to me. Yeah, yeah.” In. Your. Face.
Cut to Fast Love colliding with that first year of college that brings with it all those notions of the only kind of Freedom that matters to an 18-year-old. We were now firmly set on the path of “some education”, “some affirmation”. Hell, we were even scouting for it.
Narratives change as you grow up and garner experience, even as the love-lust for a singer, his music, his songwriting, his demeanour, his accent, his voice, crystallizes into an iconic shape seared onto your soul. Making out in a hazy parking lot with George urgently crooning “I do believe that we are practicing the same religion” on the soundsystem might all be very well, and boy does it make for great locker-room talk after! I still remember a friend telling me how the Fast Love video scandalized her and she would watch it, lights dimmed, when everyone else in the house was fast asleep. “Obviously”, I replied in my best that’s-no-big-deal voice, “Dirty Dancing bhi to aise hi dekhi thi, na?” But ever since she said that, it became like a bucket-list item on my personal definition of dirty. Make out with Fast Love playing in the background. Check!
But then here he was, the very embodiment of tender passion, in Jesus to a Child. This one promised goosebumps in other ways, and came laced with an overpowering sense of déjà vu. Where had I felt this kind of yearning before?
I got my answer on another chance encounter, several years later – In 2004, having figured out some of life, or so I thought, I read about Patti Smith covering a song that she said she simply couldn’t get out of her head. I had to go back and play it on loop then. It was George Michael’s Father Figure.
All of George Michael’s diktats came true one way or the other, because he was the sex ed teacher we never had. “Just keep on fucking” sounds every bit like the order it is – Oh yes, we all better follow it. In memoriam. “C-c-c-c-come-on!” – but it also manages to embrace the humour somehow. Sex is funny too, after all.
George Michael was the one who made a case to “explore monogamy”, he suggested we “go outside”, he patted me on the shoulder to “keep the faith”, and he told us that there’s always somebody “too funky” for you. Way too funky, maybe, and perhaps I should just stay away. There’s wisdom too in sex, after all.
In an era not overwhelmed by choices – choices in porn, choices on Tinder, choices on beer barrels for god’s sake! – George was our very own ‘Future Sex/Love Sounds’. And while I dig Justin Timberlake as much as one can, there are simply no pedestals lying around anymore.
‘Cuz George Michael, he just stepped off that last one.
Pooja Pande, writer-editor, not-so wild-child of the 90s, has been waking up to angsty mornings of late. She genuinely hopes 2017 will be a kinder year for music, lovers, and music lovers. Read more of her writing here.