Earlier this month, I offered some musical stocking stuffers: a set of piano miniatures that seemed to me particularly suited to this holiday season, eschewing compulsory merriment and ho-ho-ho's in favor of the silvery stillness and somber notes I think this winter truly warrants.
With those out of the way, I can now return to my blanket, my headphones and my actual-factual favorite Christmas carol: the only Christmas song, in fact, that I actively seek and listen to each year — over and over and over again — out of sheer, genuine, festive volition.
You might know it as "Last Christmas" by Wham!
But I know it as "Last Christmas" by Wham! slowed down by about 800% and run through several effects processors until the song is stretched almost beyond recognition into a 35-minute slow-motion avalanche of white noise, whirling reverb and spectral holiday spirit.
It even has a name, as I'm reminded each December when it reappears and circulates like those boxes of Thin Mints: "PHON.O's "Calm Down Edit."
I do not know much about Mr. PHON.O — a prolific-seeming Berlin-based techno producer whose Bandcamp reflects an occasional penchant for "Slow as Fog" ambient explorations in the same sonically misty vein as his perennially viral Wham! edit, first posted online six years ago.
What I do know is that by simply spiking the cloyingly sweet nog of "Last Christmas" with a generous ladleful of virtual codeine, PHON.O has given me a gift that, year after year, just keeps on giving.
Yes, his evisceration of "Last Christmas" is a time-sucking void of irony, what one YouTube commenter called "pure Whambience," certain to delight long-jaded Gen-Xers who outgrew their flannels, but not their shoegaze phase. (Hi!) But to me, it's also a powerful work of art.
As with any gift, this one requires some unwrapping.
"Last Christmas" is one of the most treasured and maligned Christmas songs that still registers as "contemporary" (despite first coming down the chimney in 1984 as a double A-side with "Everything She Wants"). And it's easy to understand why. It's got more hooks than a box of cheap ornaments and is absolutely festooned with all of the sugary synths and unmitigated optimism that characterized Wham!'s formative mid-'80s boom.
But since its release, coping with the reliable yuletide ubiquity of "Last Christmas" has evolved into a tradition all its own.
The internet challenge known as Whamageddon operates by one simple rule: From Dec. 1 to 24, players must avoid all exposure to "Last Christmas" or be eliminated from the game. (I checked the rules, and remixes of "Last Christmas" pose no disqualification threat.) Suffice to say, the game was a lot harder to win when leaving the house, going places and doing things was the norm.
Personally, I've never had a problem with "Last Christmas," in part because it has always struck me as more of a New Year's anthem than a Christmas carol. Like so many of my favorite George Michael songs, "Last Christmas" casts a longing glance at the past, but then it pulls itself together to accentuate the possible. "This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special" is really just "you gotta have faith, faith, faith" decked out in red plaid.
This forward tilt (and those jeans) may explain why George Michael held such a magnetic hold over many a teenager from many a small town. There was plenty to identify with in the swagger that Michael personified; for one thing, he infused a you-do-you sensibility with an everyone-do-everyone sexuality. For another, he was a shape-shifter, jumping from one style to another to another, adapting to every occasion and any audience, coding queerness into every stitch and translating what he couldn't say into body language — all of which is probably still familiar choreography to any gay teenager.
A GAY UNCLE
Despite Michael not coming out publicly until the late 1990s, and despite my dad pitching my audiocassette of "Faith" in the trash after skimming the lyrics to "I Want Your Sex," George Michael was as close to a gay uncle as I had — well before I knew I needed such a thing.
For the generation that followed the generation nearly wiped out by AIDS, the loss of so many stars made our nights that much darker. "Father Figure" rang differently in our ears.
Watch and listen to him rehearse "Somebody to Love" in 1992 for a grand Freddie Mercury Tribute (and note David Bowie living for it in the background) and he's not just occupying Freddie's space in the song — he's handing down a question that connects one queer generation to the next: Can anybody find me somebody to love?
In 1987, Michael still saw himself as an "uptown boy whose teacher has told him goodbye." But by 2004, he was the one dealing the lessons: "You've got to go to the city," he advises quite frankly in the refrain of "Flawless" — a bottom-heavy club redux of the same lore at the core of Jimmy Somerville's "Smalltown Boy."
It was a prescient It Gets Better letter to queer kids staring hopelessly out the window or into the mirror: "You've got to reach the other side of the glass."
I HAD TO PULL OVER
I don't know if George Michael ever made it to the other side of the glass while he was still with us; but I know that when I heard that he'd died, on Christmas Day in 2016, I had to pull over.
I was driving through a remote stretch of Texas when a pocket of reception delivered a pile of texts into my phone. Some simply said "Sorry :( ," others were just links to songs. I turned on the radio. "Last Christmas" was already on and I just fell apart.
The road from Laredo to Austin is long and lousy with nothing much. So, after a cleansing stream of "Listen Without Prejudice," and needing to calm down, I listened to "PHON.O's Calm Down Edit" about six times in a row.
Funny thing about this remix: While the time-stretching technology applied to the track reduces the texture of the song to a digital shambles — the sleigh bells scatter into a dense din, faux bells elongate into hard shafts of chromatic light — Michael's voice remains uncannily legible. Beyond Michael's musical versatility — or, rather, at the heart of it — was his voice: that sinuous but steely tenor coiled around a molten core of gay pain.
The words yawn over too great a distance to be parsed into anything much — like long cirrus clouds you can't fathom into animals. But that voice, its achy lows and soaring highs, transforms here into something more like sculpture — a vast translucent scrim caught in a slow-mo winter wind. Over 35 minutes, your attention loosens it into something more like weather. His blues become the blue sky; it accentuates the possible.
If you're going to commit to crossing its 35-minute pixelated blizzard — and you're not driving in Texas — I recommend doing so through the YouTube edit, which simply throws the same brakes on the original video — pulling each frame into a gauzy memory of itself.
There's an almost absurd glamour in the camera's crawling pan over a spread of tipsy-looking guests in repose; and the staggering blur of the slowed footage deepens the video's wistful, wintry daydream into something more like a Lynchian coma. At one point, the shock of a single red parka drifting from the chalet into the woods feels like the kind of masterful virtual brushstrokes you might fixate on in a Bill Viola video.
In his memoir, Michael's Wham!-mate, Andrew Ridgeley, recalls the "Last Christmas" shoot — held at the posh Saas-Fee resort in Switzerland — as a "riotous affair" featuring a cast of friends including the model Kathy Hill and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet. All were "well-oiled" on local wine and given to sudden snowball fights.
Michael meanwhile, kept away from the fray between shots, hovering by the director's chair and "scrubbing any footage that made him look scruffy or podgy."
"On one occasion," Ridgeley writes, "he became so fixated on his appearance that, after rolling around in the snow with his fictional girlfriend, George insisted on running the film backward in search of a shot in which he was pouting broodily, rather than a take where he had been laughing and joking that seemed to better suit the scene."
I think about this a lot. George running the film backward. Slowing it down and going frame by frame trying to correct this inauthentic performance of joy. Scanning the footage for the face he recognizes from the glass — what Ridgeley sees only as a "brooding pout."
I think about what this means. How deliberately George inhabits each frame of video, each note of each song. I think about him "fixating on his appearance" and wonder if, in the midst of this blizzard of snow and success, he even felt like he appeared.
I think about the strange wonder of literally pulling this song apart and finding nothing but more of George's voice inside, and I think of that voice as a kind of light that warms the cold and wanes too early; that disappears but comes back next year.
Then I think about next year.