George Michael’s “Trunk”


Performers are dropping dead left and right, and people are trying to find ways to keep their talents and names profitable without their consent so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. I just read that a CGI version of Debbie Reynolds will star in a sequel to “Singin’ in the Rain.”


So far, at least.

Pop singer George Michael died on Christmas day, and already there is a controversy over his unpublished songs, what Irving Berlin and his generation referred to as a songwriters’ “trunk.” The “trunk” was where composition deemed unfinished, unsatisfactory or just not quite right were stored, perhaps for future commercial use, perhaps for oblivion.

Fadi Fawaz, Michael’s partner, posted online a song from Michael’s unreleased and unfinished album “Trojan Souls.” The song, called “This Kind of Love,”includes the lyrics: “This empty house seems to get colder and colder. So won’t you stay here with me?”

Michael’s  fans immediately clamored for the song to get an official release, calling for it to be properly edited to share with the world in George’s  memory. Michael’s Wham! collaborator Andrew Ridgeley has disagreed strenuously.  In response to one fan who suggested that a previously-unheard track should be released to raise money for Michael’s preferred charities, Ridgeley tweeted:

“No, #GM [George Michael] controlled all his output. I, nor anyone else have the right to transgress that principle.”

The singer’s representatives have not confirmed plans for any future releases, but don’t be surprised if they do: now that he is dead,  Michael’s music is hot and flying up the charts. We can expect that the same rationalization regarding Michael we have heard regarding the “Star Wars” franchise using Peter Cushing’s cyber-zombie to reprise his original role despite the fact that he is long dead and never anticipated having post-mortem, computer controlled performances attributed to him: “I’m sure he would have wanted it this way,” or in the case of Cushing’s  heirs, “We’re sure he would want us to make money off of him.”

Maybe, maybe not. In the case of performances and songs an artist chose not to reveal to the public while he was alive, the ethical course is to presume he did so for a reason, and whatever that reason was, it should be respected now.  Andrew Ridgeley is right.

Keep that trunk closed.


18 thoughts on “George Michael’s “Trunk”

  1. Hmm. There is a long history of posthumous release of unfinished creative works, in virtually all media. Some artists, in failing health, found a variety of ways to ensure that their unfinished works were finished somehow. Problematic with sudden deaths, where there was no reasonable thought that they would need to make such provisions. In the absence of specific instructions in either direction, survivors are left to intuit what the deceased would have wanted. Tricky. The safe answer is to do nothing. But is it the right answer?

  2. I think it would turn n whether George Michael intended for this specific song(s) to be released or not. If it is from an upcoming album, it seems that he did intend for the song(s) to be released, so I would have no problem with it.

    If he was vocally against his unreleased songs ever being released, then obviously it would be unethical to release them. In the absence of statements either way, I think we should defer to the designated heirs, who were specifically appointed by Michael to exercise their judgment in this way, rather than strangers on the internet trying to divine his intents in the matter.

  3. Jack,

    “Maybe, maybe not. In the case of performances and songs an artist chose not to reveal to the public while he was alive, the ethical course is to presume he did so for a reason, and whatever that reason was, it should be respected now.”

    Franz Kafka ordered all his remaining works (including the Trial, among others) destroyed after his death. His dearest friend, Max Brod, disregarded this request and had them all published. Had he not, I never would have had the pleasure of reading the Metamorphosis and would have been poorer for it. In other words, thank you, Max.

    I realize this may sound callous, but (to me) the dead don’t (or shouldn’t) have the right to make demands of the living — as they no longer matter. After all, what earthly good is derived from honoring the wishes of the dead in matters like this? Is their soul more at rest? Do they look down with approval? Do we get brownie points in the great hereafter? A person’s legacy isn’t some physical thing that can be carefully preserved and guarded for posterity; rather, it exists in the minds of those who care (and is therefore subjective). If people don’t want to remember Cushing as a CGI apparition, then don’t. Meanwhile, if still others can profit and make the world better for them and theirs by marketing his image, then it should be considered a blessing.

    The Universe exists solely for the enjoyment of those who are around to see it and if Michael’s songs, memory, or legacy can bring someone living happiness, I fail to see how a dead man’s wishes trump that.

    • I totally agree with you in some cases, and I totally agree with Jack in others. It seems to me that the balance of “doing good in the world” (whether for the world at large, or the loved ones of the deceased) and “what the deceased intended/would have wanted” is impossible to make a generalization about, which is why we *choose* who to leave our estates to — like giving someone power of attorney, you’re trusting them to weigh these things when the time comes and you can not. Sure, this is open to abuse, but without understanding the relationship between the deceased and the people they appointed, what exactly was stated when they were chosen, and the individual’s thoughts about their own legacy, we can’t make that call. Some people might have explicitly told their heir “when I die, cash in. On anything. Make all the money you can.”

      If the deceased didn’t trust them, they wouldn’t have left them in charge. In absence of explicit evidence or testimony that an act would be against their wishes, I think we should assume estates are acting in good faith, whether in releasing works/liscensing projects or in withholding those.

      George Michael would have wanted us to have faith. 😉

  4. I loved Ridgeley’s response. I wish everyone associated with Michael would read that and simply realize that some things are unpublished for a reason. Michael didn’t publish those songs because he didn’t want to, or if he did, never finished his work. This should be the ethical equivalent of stare decisis — his decision not to release the songs, or release them timely enough, should stand as decided. His unfinished work should remain unfinished.

    Fans, God love them, are obnoxious people when they become unmoored from ethical principles by the tragic loss of the object of their affection. It’s the form of a stage of grief, I suspect.

    I loved “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” but I don’t want to see the avatar of a 21-year old George Michael reprising that or any other song. Nor do I want his legacy in music compromised by profiteering off his passing. Suppose his unfinished or unpublished work is simply not up to standard? It would tarnish his legacy unfairly to release them.

    It reminds me of a rather pithy line in a supremely un-pithy movie, namely Cocktail: “Bury the dead — they stink up the place.” Indeed they metaphorically do when we allow their passing to justify this sort of unethical silliness.

  5. What a person — famous or otherwise — ‘keeps’ to be finished later should have the privacy that the person intended. The ‘needs of fans,’ or the world, are unimportant here. Agents and executors can say that they have the world in mind, but all they see are dollar signs.

    Any creative person — alive or dead — should still have the right to control the creative output disseminated in his name. To be honest, I don’t care one whit about George Michael’s legacy. But the principal remains the same: if among my ‘effects’ was found an incomplete letter to a family member about an unresolved issue, would I consider it fair to copy in everyone involved? No. The fact that it was unfinished and not disseminated proves my ambivalence about it.

    So George Michael had these ‘works’ in a trunk, for painfully obvious reasons. The way to honor him is to honor the trunk. Burn it or give it to family for safekeeping. (Unless the family is as money-hungry as the agents: thus perhaps the attorney should prove his worth by destroying same…)

    • What “painfully obvious reasons”? I’m a fiction writer, and the works in my “trunk” are there because:
      I haven’t gotten around to finishing them.
      I have finished them and haven’t gotten around to publishing them.
      I never intend to finish them, but there’s something good I might want to recycle or show people someday.
      I don’t intend to finish them, but you never know.

      And the fact is that the real reason most of them are there is time. There are so many ideas in the world, and only so many hours to write, edit, contact publishers, etc. (Or compose, record, mix, deal with agents and record companies, etc.) So, if someone came along after I died (or now, even) and wanted to finish them for me… YES! Please!

      (Seriously, anyone?)

      I don’t claim to speak for all artists, but I know I exist, and from what I understand, Tolkien was of a similar mindset to me, at least in terms of trusting his son, Chris, to finish his never ending work. Terry Pratchett left his work to his daughter, with his blessings to continue it, but she declined. Robert Jordan personally arranged for his brother-in-law to finish the series he was working on.

      Which, as I said above, is why this should be up to the person *they* trusted to leave these things to. The person entrusted with it knows what kind of artist the deceased was far better than our generalizations.

        • I specifically *didn’t* dare: “I don’t claim to speak for all artists, but I know I exist[…]”

          That is, any ethical solution to the situation that claims to be representing the artist’s interests must INCLUDE but NOT be limited to interests of artists like me and the others I mentioned.

          Your solution doesn’t represent me and those artists. My solution, allowing an artist to personally select someone who speaks for them and looks out for their interests, and trusting that artist’s decision making, represents both artists like me (because I would pick someone who would consider finishing my work) and artists like you (because you would pick someone you trust to destroy your non-public output.)

          If your representative doesn’t follow your wishes, they’re acting unethically by releasing things. If my representative turns down opportunities to release things, they’re acting unethically. Either one is wrong, because their job is to represent us as individuals.

          And it just so happens, that’s the current system. It’s just a matter of understanding that different artists left different instructions, and giving the estates the benefit of the doubt that they’re following those instructions, *whatever they might have been.*

          • Exactly what I said. A trusted representative to make decisions, or the trunk remains sealed. What’s so hard about this concept?

            • Your original post left out the part about a trusted representative, your entire second paragraph seems to be arguing that if something is left unpublished it was never intended to be published, and there’s no reason that Jack reported in this case to think that George Michael’s partner isn’t a trusted representative and doesn’t have instructions that tell him to release some or all material in certain ways.

              That’s where the confusion came in.

  6. So is the moral of the story to destroy whatever you do not wish to be seen?

    Sounds like my “never save anything electronically you don’t want public” rule.

    • Prudent artists and writers have been doing it for centuries. The same goes for love letters. There is always the risk that someone greedy will be willing to harm your legacy by using your lesser works to make money.

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