January 5, 2017 5:50 AM EST

George Michael, who died Dec. 25 at the age of 53, was a pop star who could only have been incubated during the 1980s. The ideas and institutions taking shape in that chaotic decade, from MTV to the gay-rights movement, became intrinsic to Michael’s cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal, igniting his songs and solidifying him as an icon.

Wham!, Michael’s duo with school pal Andrew Ridgeley, released its first album, Fantastic, in 1983. Make It Big followed the next year and carried Wham! across the pond, with the playful “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” blanketing airwaves and causing a run on choose life T-shirts. The pump was primed for Michael to break out: His solo debut in 1987, Faith, presented Michael as an auteur who flaunted his smoldering sexuality and profound love of R&B. He questioned celebrity culture just as the 1990s were coming along to turbocharge it. As Faith was asserting its supremacy on the pop charts, he told Rolling Stone, “Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that.”

He did much more than that: as his musical output slowed, he emerged as an ardent defender of gay rights and critic of intrusions into privacy. In the end, the sterling combination of Michael’s voice and his belief in pop leaves behind a body of work that will be sung along to, cried to and celebrated for a long time to come.

–MAURA JOHNSTON

This appears in the January 16, 2017 issue of TIME.

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