The day George Michael died, I did what any mourning child of the 80s lost in the logic of late-capitalist consumer-fandom would do: I bought a t-shirt. A few clicks on eBay and I had ordered myself a copy of the iconic t-shirt made famous by Wham! in the 1984 music video for their smash hit ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, with its stark, black-on-white imperative, CHOOSE LIFE.
‘Outfit for 2017 sorted’, I announced on Facebook. It was a small symbolic way to give a figurative finger to all the high-calibre pop culture losses of 2016, from Bowie to Prince to Cohen to Carrie. During their lifetimes, each of them had in some way given the finger to bourgeois morality, which had made me love them. But it was also a means for me to galvanise my optimism in preparation for 2017: the spectre of Donald Trump and the global rise of right-wing populism. It was a way of connecting visibly the peppy imperative refrain, ‘Wake me up!’ before we go-go down that road, because the world has been there before and we all know where it can lead.
‘didn’t pick you for a pro-lifer…’ quipped an American friend when I posted a proud selfie in my commemorative fashion garment, which I had immediately adorned with a pink triangle pin (in remembrance of homosexual victims of the Nazi regime). In the photo, taken at Midsumma Festival, I beam smugly at the clever triple-layered statement I’m making: GAY on GAY on (a) GAY. In my mind, George’s t-shirt had always been associated with the campaign against AIDS.
What was my friend on about?
I was six years old when ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ came out. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was an historic year in late twentieth-century politics. I was instead starstruck by the soundtrack: Boy George, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Cyndi, MJ, Tina, Madonna, Bruce and the Bronski Beat. Wham!’s video was an explosion of upbeat peppy happy glitter YAY! The t-shirt was also worn by members of Queen, both in film clips and on stage.
These pop icons were pro-gay, pro-women, pro-Black. I could hardly believe they were rabid ‘pro-life’ anti-abortionists. Yet my friend made me wonder: what was behind the t-shirt’s gleeful allcaps petition?
For a lot of people, 1984 actually meant death. Ronald Reagan had been President of the United States for three years and Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister of Britain for five. As leaders of the free world, they were choosing death for millions.
1984 was the year Reagan first instituted the so-called Mexico City policy, or ‘Global Gag Rule’. Reinvigorated by Donald Trump on his first day in office, the rule forces foreign NGOs to choose between A) accepting US family planning funds but being prohibited from providing abortion counselling, referrals or advocacy, let alone actual abortions (except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment), or B) refusing US funds and finding an alternative.
Between 1979 and 1986, Reagan and Thatcher cemented their ‘special relationship’, pushing hard for increased nuclear weapons and escalating the Cold War. It was a time of boosting Western hegemony through arms manufacturing and deployment.
In 1984 the US government, supported by Thatcher, deployed the Pershing II ballistic missile Weapon System in West Germany as NATO tried to regain its lead in the arms race against the USSR. The four years from 1981–1985 saw a whopping 40% increase in US defence spending. From November 1983, the US was permitted to station 160 cruise missiles on British territory. Under Thatcher, the UK purchased the Trident nuclear missile submarine system and tripled its nuclear forces.
1984 was the time of radical deregulation, ‘trickle down’ economics, extreme tax breaks for the rich and a freeze on wages. This was the year Margaret Thatcher identified trade union leaders as ‘the enemy within’. In March that year British miners went on strike and for the next 12 months, Thatcher’s government would deploy brutal state force to eventually break them, achieving a major victory for the neoliberal economic agenda.
It was a war both abroad and at home – on workers, Black people, women and gays.
It was also the year George Michael wore the CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt in a music video that reached number one in the charts in ten countries, including both the UK and the US.
As a slogan, CHOOSE LIFE has variously been associated with suicide prevention campaigns, anti-nuclear campaigns and other progressive and public health causes, including a sexual health manual (‘teenage survival kit’) in Zambia. Rightly or wrongly, I’m not alone in my associating it with an AIDS campaign: a Google image search for ‘aids headlines 1984 uk’ turned up numerous pictures of George Michael, but it appears my memory simply created a pastiche of quite separate stories.
1984 was the year Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners (GLSM) formed to raise money for the strikers, organising a ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit concert in London with openly gay singer Jimmy Somerville and the Bronski Beat on the bill. GLSM’s founder, the charismatic young socialist Mark Ashton, would later die of AIDS in 1987 at age 26.
1984 was also the year Bob Geldof founded Band Aid. Perhaps in line with Geldof’s vague bourgeois liberalism I simply confused the AIDS campaign with the Band Aid benefit concerts, which George Michael also performed at. (And after all, they both had something or other to do with ‘Africa’ didn’t they?)
Even before he came out in the late 1990s, George Michael was not only a fiercely outspoken interview subject, never shying away from expressing left-wing political opinions and openly opposing Thatcher. He was also a strong, visible and vocal supporter of LGBTIQ rights, an open and regular non-gay punter in the London gay clubbing scene, and performed at numerous high-profile awareness-raising gigs in both the UK and the US. The first of these was the Stand By Me AIDS Day benefit concert – aka ‘the AIDS party’ – in April 1987, with a line-up including Elton John, Boy George, Kim Wilde (with her dad!), Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Jimmy Somerville’s new outfit The Communards.
In fact it’s difficult to disassociate any of these artists from the pro-gay British pop-culture milieu in the mid-1980s. Elton John lamented bitterly at the time that AIDS had been largely ignored ‘because it meant getting rid of a lot of poofs’.
Certainly there was little sympathy before, or even after 1987, when the UK finally launched its AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance leaflet and television ad (with sombre voiceover by John Hurt, RIP), and Princess Diana was photographed holding the hand of an AIDS patient.
In 1984 the term ‘gay plague’ had become the going phrase in the press, having first appeared in Murdoch’s Australian newspaper in 1982. According to British Social Attitudes survey reports, in 1983 nearly two-thirds of the British population considered homosexual relations to be always or mostly wrong. Over half the population in the UK thought it was wrong for homosexual people to be employed as teachers, and 42 per cent thought they should not be employed in any ‘responsible position in public life’. By 1985, the number of British respondents with negative views had increased to almost 70 per cent, and by 1987 to 74 per cent. Surveyors hypothesised that the shift was related to public concern about AIDS and its association with the male homosexual community: the 1987 survey took place just weeks after the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign was launched. Meanwhile in the US, negative attitudes had plateaued at 75 per cent since 1982, having steadily liberalised over the preceding decade.
During this time, both Reagan and Thatcher aggressively attacked health programs and funding. National Archives documents show how Thatcher actively and repeatedly tried to prevent the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, arguing that it ‘could do immense harm’ to teenagers to read information about anal sex, and that the proposed, evidence-based campaign material might even breach the Obscene Publications Act. As for Reagan, by 1987 – six years into his presidency – more than 20,000 people in the US had died of AIDS (70,000 by the time he left office in 1989).
It is nevertheless curious and even awkward that, aside from the obvious hermeneutic distortion required to use a slogan like CHOOSE LIFE, the anti-choice lobby in the US would co-opt a t-shirt that so many associate so strongly with an outspoken gay pop star from Britain – one who so brilliantly lampooned the US police establishment’s use of entrapment and gay-shaming (against himself) in the video clip for his smash hit ‘Outside’ in 1998.
In a pro-life chatroom, one user whined: ‘I remember getting all jacked up in college because George Michael wore a t-shirt that said, “Choose Life” – I thought he was against abortion and was pretty disappointed when I found out he was talking about AIDS.’
And yet there it is on the World Wide Web: ‘Shop for pro-life t-shirt online now’ with a picture of Catherine Hamnett’s CHOOSE LIFE design.
Interestingly, Hamnett has definitively settled the matter. In a public cease-and-desist notice, she protested: ‘The US anti-abortion lobby attempted to appropriate CHOOSE LIFE. We are taking it back and promoting its real meaning. Ours is authentic and I believe in a woman’s right to choose.’
In fact Hamnett has become well-known for using the fashion industry to make statements, often less ambiguous than CHOOSE LIFE. Some reveal a most basic, almost parodic, soft liberalism – such as SAVE THE WHALES – while others are firmly interventionist and demand-based, including WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW worn by Boy George and others, STOP WAR BLAIR OUT from 2003, the more recent EDUCATION NOT TRIDENT and NHS NOT TRIDENT, and the earlier 58 PER CENT DON’T WANT PERSHING, which she wore to a meeting with Margaret Thatcher in 1983. CHOOSE LIFE, she said, was a comment on war and conflict.
Political intervention or no, Hamnett is a designer, and still wants to sell t-shirts. In 2008, her website bore the intermingled messages of left liberal fashion, Buddhist principles and imperative logic of late capitalist ‘consumer choice’:
CHOOSE LIFE was relevant then. CHOOSE LIFE is even more relevant now.
CHOOSE LIFE is a message forever.
CHOOSE LIFE over WAR
CHOOSE LIFE over DESERTS
CHOOSE LIFE over EXTINCTION
CHOOSE LIFE over everything you do.
Buy a CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt in your size now.
It has been Hamnett’s highest grossing design of all time.
To clear up one further misconception, because it’s a popular one: the CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt predates Irving Welsh’s 1993 Trainspotting by almost a decade. This makes a lot more sense when we recall the alienated protagonist Mark Renton’s opening barrage in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film version: ‘I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?’
Like 1984, 2016 seemed to be a year of death – especially for those who grew up in the 1980s heyday of neoliberalism. Pop culture, no matter how commercial, always responds to its political surroundings (cf. Beyoncé). Many of the icons who passed away last year had come through that period of Reagan and Thatcher, and in their avant-garde, commercialist way had always somehow offered succour to the freaks, queers and leftists.
But – dare I bother uttering such a banality? – celebrity deaths in such puny numbers pale in comparison with the millions of lives lost and bodies controlled at the hands of governments with their bodies of armed men and weaponised moralism.
‘Life is winning’, declared Mike Pence at the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington on 27 January, saying he and Trump would embrace a ‘culture of life in America’. But like Reagan and Thatcher before them, it is clear that the new administration is embracing a culture of more death and destruction. We can hardly feign surprise at Trump’s immediate onslaught on reproductive freedom, on immigrants, on Muslims, on the Standing Rock Sioux, even on facts. Obama didn’t exactly choose life either. Between 2009 and 2015, his drones killed more than 2500 people. Nor is the dribbling sycophancy of Theresa May and Malcolm Turnbull particularly surprising. Thankfully the resistance is already reaching unprecedented levels of energy.
The beauty and curse of liberal slogans is that they can be variously interpreted. If CHOOSE LIFE is devoid of specific meaning, then I choose to interpret my t-shirt as an appeal to optimism of the will (with thanks to Antonio Gramsci); as a celebratory call against despair, demoralisation and alienation.
How do we CHOOSE LIFE beyond buying a t-shirt? We learn from those who witnessed and survived the AIDS epidemic in the face of Reagan and Thatcher. We muster, we galvanise. We choose international solidarity. We choose power from below. We choose not the vague notion of ‘freedom’ but liberation from oppression. We choose to defend immigrants. We choose to expand reproductive choice. We choose not to side with the state. We choose to be part of the locomotion of history, the festival of the oppressed. We choose collectivity, solidarity, resistance.
Now choose who wore it better?