Over 20 years ago, as Prime Minister Tony Blair led the UK to join the US invasion of Iraq, pop star George Michael took a principled, public stand against the war. His example put antiwar politics in the limelight.

George Michael performing in Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 26, 2007. (Greetsia Tent / WireImage)

Summer, 2002. Flags and bunting billow as the UK marks Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. The Three Lions put in a better than expected performance at the World Cup, but in true English fashion, there is grumbling because the glory of almost four decades previous could not be replicated.

Despite the cultural distractions, real political discomfort is brewing. US president George Bush is pushing to take military action in Iraq with the stated aim of toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whether he gets international backing or not. Brits wait with bated breath as UK prime minister Tony Blair mulls joining him.

At the same time, George Michael, one of the most successful musicians of the 1980s and ’90s, has been launching a comeback after a hiatus. After releasing the single “Freeek!” in March, he returns in July with a music video for a new song: “Shoot the Dog.”

The song has a funky, feel-good beat, at odds with the lyrics he sings in husky tone:

So, Cherie my dear

Could you leave the way clear for sex tonight?

Tell him

“Tony, Tony, Tony

I know that you’re horny

But there’s somethin’ bout that Bush ain’t right”

“Shoot the Dog” pushed discussions over the war out from the political realm — or the “chattering classes,” as Michael called them — and into the public realm, eight months before the disastrous invasion of Iraq would be launched. Some Brits were left reeling by the video’s sexually provocative content, calling it distasteful and unnecessary; others applauded him for using music to give voice (and beat) to growing public discomfort over Blair’s blind allegiance to Bush on the “war on terror.” It would also jolt contemporary pop music’s political conscience at a time when protest in that genre was rare, and set a precedent for other artists to speak up before, during, and after the invasion.

The video was released on July 1, to outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. The tabloids, his music industry peers, and the public appeared to take delight in skewering Michael for the video. Why should a pop star throw in his two cents on a matter so serious and complicated? And how dare he disrespect the leaders of the free world with such sexually charged barbs!

Opponents said the song and video were simply a publicity stunt, and a cheap way to boost record sales. Some said the tropes he leaned on for the video, including the depiction of Blair as a lapdog, were tired and uninspired. While there was nothing wrong with a pop star expressing themselves politically, the song was not worth listening to because it was musically underwhelming, some music critics said. Though the video made headlines and sparked public debate, the song received little radio airplay.

In the UK, the Daily Mail asked if he had “lost the plot”; the Sun asked if he had “killed his career.” In the United States, some of the tabloid reception to “Shoot the Dog” was downright homophobic. A story from the New York Post published a day after the video’s official European release date accused the singer of ridiculing the United States for its reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Its headline read:

“POP PERV’S 9/11 SLUR — GEORGE MICHAEL MOCKS BUSH”

Michael quickly released a statement in defense of the video, full of the self-deprecation he often employed.

I am first and foremost a singer/songwriter and lucky sod, and I’m fully aware that people don’t really like their pop music and politics mixed these days. . . . “Shoot The Dog” is intended as a piece of political satire . . . I hope that it will make people laugh and dance, and then think a little, that’s all.

In interviews with the US media, he sought to reassure the American public that he was not an al-Qaeda sympathizer, that 9/11 was actually very bad, and that his long-term partner was American, so how could he possibly hate America? Not all of the public were reassured however, with some in the CNN studios reportedly booing him as he fielded phone-in questions from viewers about the video.

Though he tried to extinguish the outrage felt in the United States over the song and video, he stood by the decision to release it. Homophobia-fueled tabloid reactions were not going to force him to relent; he had weathered a media storm in 1998 after the Los Angeles controversy, and he would weather it again.

“I don’t think I could be this outspoken if I was worried about my privacy being invaded in the way it was years ago . . . there’s nothing left of it now, so what have I got to lose, really?”

Pop Stars Protest

As summer faded, public alarm in Britain over a potential invasion grew. In September 2002, a British government dossier would claim that there was evidence that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction — a claim that flew in the face of findings by UN weapons inspectors, and one that in later years would be definitively rubbished.

That month, Brits began taking to the streets in their masses to urge Blair to reconsider. Musicians other than Michael were making their opposition to the war known and invited the public to join them. Blur’s Damon Albarn and Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja backed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament antiwar push, and the two later designed and financed antiwar adverts that appeared in the National Music Express. Not all musicians held the view that they had a duty to speak up on warmongery though. Oasis’s Noel Gallagher said war warnings from Michael and other musicians were “laughable.” “I play guitar in a band and we’re really good. Arsed about anything else,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

Public approval for the war would continue to plummet even further; by February 2003, more than two-thirds of the public opposed the invasion. On February 15, more than a million people took to the streets of London in a bid to prevent the war — the largest demonstration the UK had ever seen. There was also more musical protest from Michael: he rerecorded Don McLean’s Vietnam War protest song “The Grave,” performing the song on Top of the Pops and the Graham Norton Show. He also duetted with the indomitable Ms Dynamite at the 2003 BRIT Awards on a version of his hit song “Faith,” the lyrics reworked:

We’ve been here before

Talk of violence and talk of war

I don’t want to see the children die no more

So I gotta make a stand

Any musician taking an antiwar stance at this point was pretty much preaching to the choir. Even so, in the days before the war, a usually media-averse Michael stepped up his television presence. In a slew of TV appearances, Michael drew links between the inflammatory role that the media, and Murdoch-owned publications in particular, had played in the aftermath of the Los Angeles incident, and how those same outlets were beating the drum for war the loudest. He also tied the push for war in Iraq to events in Palestine, where Israel responded to the second intifada with brutal bombardment.

“I’ve no sympathy with Saddam Hussein. . . . He should be gone, we need him gone in order to stabilise the region. But we cannot do this when the entire fundamentalist, terrorist network around the world is waiting for this to legitimise what they want to do,’ he told the BBC’s HARDtalk in February 2003. “Why have we left him alone for twelve years, why did we leave him there ten years ago, and now at the point that [Ariel] Sharon is bombing the West Bank, we’re going to decide to take on Saddam?”

Flawed but Earnest

While Michael’s opposition to the war was determined, the thinking behind it seemed a little shaky. He never claimed to be an expert, and he said in interviews that much of his awareness on international politics had come about after his mother’s death in 1997 sent him into a debilitating bout of depression that bound him to his home. It was late-night television shows like the BBC’s Newsnight and Question Time that raised the alarm for him, and those influences were clear.

He seemed to pit Western society against “fundamentalist: Islamic thinking in a way that feels rooted in “Clash of Civilizations”–type thinking, and he applauded “moderate Muslims” speaking out against attacks conducted by extremist groups. He also appeared to avoid airing the opinion held by many in the public that the United States and its allies were plotting for the war in order to exploit Iraq’s natural resources, namely oil.

His hope that Blair would change his tune was unjustifiably boundless, given the British prime minister’s unrelenting push for war. Given fifteen seconds at the end of the Richard and Judy chat show to summarize what he thought Bush and Blair’s thinking was just days before the invasion, he said: “I believe Mr Blair’s intentions are honorable but misguided and foolish, and Mr Bush’s are dishonorable and foolish.” As the time bomb for war continued to tick, he kept speaking with the hope that the prime minister would hear reason: “If I was writing him off, I wouldn’t be here. If I thought that man was not listening to anybody, I wouldn’t be here,” he told HARDtalk.

After the invasion was launched in March 2003, yet more musicians would speak up. British musical icons including David Bowie and Paul McCartney contributed to a compilation album by War Child to raise money for the victims; both musicians would air criticism about the coalition’s approach to and handling of the war. A year after the invasion began, Bush and Blair were patting themselves on the back as they prepared to hand power over to an Iraqi interim government. While promoting his fifth and final album, ‘Patience’, Michael was asked by MTV about why he took the stance he took, and whether hope could still be had.

It’s easy to be despondent about what’s going on, but you have to be hopeful. . . . I think people are more politically aware at this moment in time than in any moment in time that I can remember. . . . if nothing else, what’s gone on has been positive in that way.

Today, as Israel continues to unleash genocide in Gaza, the British public is making its horror at its government’s complicity in the Israeli onslaught clear, attending huge protests whose size has brought back memories of those held prior to the invasion of Iraq. No pop star of Michael’s stature is speaking up with the dogged determination he showed. Some are posting on social media, or sporadically speaking up at awards shows; others have stayed silent, or have even posted in support of Israel, all while Palestinian activists in the United States and Europe are increasingly being silenced. Some vocalists say they have kept quiet because they do not know enough about Palestine to speak out on the issue; with his earnest opposition to the Iraq War, George Michael showed that that is not enough of a defense.

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