Interview: Boy George the Provocateur, the Activist, the Bieber-Sympathizer
By Courtney E. Smith
Boy George wants to push your buttons, softly.
On the morning of our interview, he inadvertently pushed some buttons by chanting in his New York City hotel room. As a Buddhist, it is his preferred way to start the day: a ritualistic activity meant to open the mind. But the gentleman in the hotel room next door objected.
“I can be quite noisy and robust in the morning,” George says with a smile. “I like to have a good get it out.”
We, along with a handful of gossip blogs, found out about the incident not because a spy at his hotel ratted him out but because George tweeted the incident in real-time. Even in a private moment seeking zen, George can’t help but take a poke at his critics.
That mantra extends to his latest album, This Is What I Do. He’s left the electronic music that he’s been best known for on the table in favor of creating something unexpected, and yet perfectly expected record for those who are intimately familiar with the universe of what influences Boy George. It’s a collection of songs in a crooner vocal style, funneled through his Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen influences. There’s also Jamaican dancehall, country and the Verve. In fairness, George achieved the latter by working with the Verve’s producer, Youth.
“I’m at a point in my life where the questions are the same, but I don’t necessarily need the answers,” George says of his journey in creating the album. “This record feels like — people have said to me, ‘Oh, you’re being really honest!’ Which wasn’t really how I started. For someone like me, who has grown up with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, it’s hard not to invest a lot of myself in what I do.”
George tell us he is being conscientiously positive about what he puts into the world and has been pleased with the returns.
“I’ve sold a lot of records, I’ve sold like 150 million records, and I don’t think I’ve had that many good reviews. It’s one of those things that when you’re really successful, critics hate you just because you’re successful. It’s a bit like the Justin Bieber thing. People say, ‘Oh yeah, but he’s really rich.’ And no one has sympathy. I’m like, ‘Poor kid. Who’s looking out for him?’ And people are like, ‘Who cares, he’s got millions!’ What has that got to do with anything?” he asks, laughing. “When you’re successful, people have no sympathy. Nobody wants to catch the tears of a millionaire.”
It would take a figure like George to understand a boy king like Bieber; he’s lived the life. And he’s got a way with conversational zingers — both in person and on social media. Irreverence is a verbal tic he wields like a butterfly knife. It has turned him into one of the most sedulous, provocative and politically outspoken artists making music right now.
He wears his activism, literally on his face, with socially conscious and human-rights oriented MAC cosmetics, and on his sleeve, writing critiques of myopic religiosity with the song “My God”. He doesn’t consider it controversial, but the simple act of an artist directly commenting on religion at all is a whisper to a scream in a world where the Hot 100 is dominated by Katy Perry and her accidental inflammation of the Muslim community.
“I suppose ‘My God’ is saying, if you have God in your heart — whoever you choose God to be — surely you should be the light,” George explains. “You should be beaming positivity. Often when I meet people who are passionate about religion or faith, they don’t seem to be very happy…I think of it as being something very positive and illuminating. Certainly not stern and criticizing. That’s not how I see it at all. That’s what the song is saying: have some more faith. You who say you have faith, let me see it.”
That notion of faith, which George describes as a suspension of disbelief and naïve in the same way that believing in love requires naïveté, is a sentiment he explores in other tracks, like “Bigger Than War” and “Any Road.” But the center of the album is its first track and first single, “King of Everything.” Whether taken from his own experience in the public eye or imagined, it is first and foremost a psychological profile, with all the expected world-weariness, of a person who has experienced and lost a lot. You know, the kind of thing Justin Bieber might write when he’s in his 50s.
George side-steps the sexuality problem that bold-faced pop names like Madonna or Mick Jagger encounter by investing themselves into the concept until it’s marred beyond comprehension. It’s the problem of aging gracefully and remaining relevant, which seems to be especially challenging for a generation of pop stars who became famous courtesy of MTV. George tells us he pointedly made the decision to not try to sound current, musically speaking, on his album.
“Quality music is a bit like quality food,” he says. “Your veg and your grains. I look at classic music like that. If you stick with those things, like a little bit of jazz, little bit of country, little bit of soul — you can’t go wrong really.”
Alongside all the slings and arrows that George throws out on Twitter about life’s outrageous fortunes, he also takes time to comment on gay rights. Russia presents a particular conundrum for him, both as an out man and as an artist who has performed there in the past and may well perform there again again, when the country’s laws against promotion of homosexual propaganda aimed at children is purposefully vague.
Boy George (@BoyGeorge) February 05, 2014
“Sometimes high-handed morality promotes the thing it’s trying to get rid of. I suppose as a gay performer you wonder, ‘What is promotion? Is it my hat? Is it what I think, is it the way I walk?’ I think the most political thing you can do is be yourself…As far as I know, I’m not really known as a gay performer in Russia. People don’t think of me as a gay activist. They know my music and I’ve DJed there a lot, but I’m not sure how it would be now. Unfortunately, what’s going on in Russia is that they’re not ready for what they see as the politicization of gay culture.”
George illustrates the point, lauding a YouTube video series in which a young man asks people if they believe homosexuality is a choice, then asks them when they decided to become heterosexual. In our interview, he is still that guy who wears makeup and is happy to talk about it. But even in his heyday, George never painted himself into a corner with his sexuality in quite the same way as fellow ’80s star George Michael managed to. Even today, there is one aspect of the bigotry against homosexuality that sticks out to him.
“A lot of homophobes concentrate on the sexual aspect of gay culture. As I recently said in a French interview, my sexuality takes up about two hours a month at a push. I think the same could be said for a lot of straight people. If you were to actually narrow it down to how much of your life is really about your sexuality, you’d be amazed…What we need to do is educate. I don’t think attack is the answer. I don’t think that’s going to help.”
Also present among all these ruminations on his album is a polarizing figure: Yoko Ono. George covers her song “Death of Samantha” and gives her a shout out on “Bigger Than War” as the one thing love may not actually be bigger than. That she would be a muse to him is just another unexpected curve ball thrown without any flippancy intended. For him, it’s all a matter of questing for answers about who he is, but not necessarily about getting those answers — a Yoko-esque life philosophy if ever there was one.
“What I try to do now is just be,” George says. “Be in my life, be in my work. I suppose the cliche is ‘be present.’ And shrug a lot, say, ‘I don’t really know the answer.’”