Who Let George R.R. Martin Write 2016?

George Michael! Jesus. Another legend gone. 2016 is like the Red Wedding of the millennium — unrelenting in its scope and brutality.

While any celebrity death is going to inspire legions of clumsily-insincere social media lamentation and cheap jokes, I’m fascinated by the artists who step forth to share how the recently-deceased has inspired or shaped their journey. George Michael’s passing was hardly two hours old before tributes from the metal community started pouring in. That’s the stuff that gets my attention- people unafraid to sidestep molds and cliches and to instead speak from an open heart. It wasn’t that long ago when you’d never read about metal artists praising George Michael. When Michael was well into his mainstream ascent – a ride that permeated more than just music, but all of Western culture – it was incredibly unfashionable for white heterosexual dudes to align themselves with his music, even though half of them were likely cranking Wham! in the shower every morning. That was a time when AIDS hysteria throttled our national discourse about health care and forced us into talking not just about sex, but about sexuality and gender identity. But it was a stifled discussion, full of labels, skewed morality and some weird national consensus that gay people were a problem to be addressed, not wounded family members badly needing healing and inclusion.

I was in high school in 1984 when Wham! hit it big in the States with Wake Me Up Before You Go Go – smack dab in the middle of the Reagan administration and its culture of “Just Say No,” the PRMC and the puritanical paranoia of the mid-80s. If you were a teenage dude trying to get through high school, gay jokes about George Michael and Wham! were par for the course and I’m certain that I issued and laughed at my fair share. What the hell did I know? I had ultra-Catholic parents, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school and I worked in a clothing store where we got high and listened to classic rock all afternoon. It would be a long time before I started connecting with real diversity – men and women from different races, religions, sexualities, etc. and until I forged those connections, I withered in the paralysis of fear-based ignorance. My motto was, “Say or do nothing that will draw attention to you – good or bad.” I shudder when I think of the stupid things I said in crowds, not to fit in so much as not to be cast out.

One of the great things about writing for Metal Hammer was the staff- a ragtag horde of fiendishly clever scribes whose devotion to heavy metal knew few peers. But these men and women were equally unafraid to proclaim their love for other flavors of music, particularly pop. That’s how you know a true music lover – they’re married to good songs, not genres. People who only like metal are boring as shit, and that’s true for anybody who only listens to any one genre. How utterly safe and stifling. Give me pop, give me hip hop, give me Hank Williams and the Clancy Brothers. Crank some Pogues and then blast Kasabian until the speakers blow. Let’s listen to Taylor Swift, Wu Tang and Oasis until the sun rises. Let’s love great music and noisily praise the artists who make it. Buy the t-shirts, read the books and support the scenes. That’s how we keep music alive.

All this to say that I’m sad that we’ve lost another icon. I’m sad that today we say goodbye to somebody whose courage and authenticity shattered barriers and paved the way for not just a new sound, but for an army of vibrant, talented artists who might not have had a voice without the likes of George Michael, Elton John or Boy George. Thanks for the great music, George, and for showing the world how a real man walks the earth.