"No one gives a shit about Boy George."
So says Boy George. The English singer's new album "This is What I Do" comes out March 25, marking a return to pop music after 11 years as a house music DJ. But Boy George is the first to admit in the past decade he's been in the headlines more for his personal problems -- rehab and community service, to name two -- than his music.
Still, anyone of a certain age will have a hard time thinking of him as anything but the androgynous pop star who lead Culture Club from out of the British new romantic scene to the top of the charts with smash 80s hits like "Karma Chameleon" and "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" -- back when seeing a man in lipstick on MTV was a source of much shock, speculation and, frankly, excitement.
And the truth is, many people do still care what the outspoken, iconic personality has to say. Like sticking up for Jared Leto’s performance as a trans character in "Dallas Buyers Club," or why Lady Gaga's "little monsters" might not be getting her message of tolerance. On the line from a promotional tour in Australia, George also offers insight into why he made a reggae album, how Facebook confounds him, and the best life lesson he learned from David Bowie.
Why, after 18 years, make a studio album? And why make it a reggae/soul album, instead of dance music, which is where you’ve been hanging out for so long.
I thought it would be too obvious to do a dance record. And I didn't feel it would make the right impact. Making this record was an opportunity to repaint not only the idea I had of myself but also how other people saw me. I wanted this record to be a musical experience. A lot of current pop music is a big production, you know? I wanted to go back to all the things that originally made me love music as a kid, the things I grew up with in the 1970s, and put them all together in a Boy George way.
Is it fair to call it a reggae album? It's not as blatant as something like Sinead's "Throw Down Your Arms."
There's definitely a strong reggae flow on this record. Originally, it was going to be a full reggae record, but we felt that was a little restrictive. Making an album is a quite fluid experience. You might have a strong idea of what you want to start with, and it becomes something else. You have to allow that.
How much do you care about what people think of your work, at this point? On the single, "King of Everything," you sing, "What's the word on the street? Will I be king again?"
That's a little bit too much of a literal interpretation of that one! [Laughs] That song is more about being a successful human being than a pop star. It's a guy singing to his wife, and he's talking about being the king of her life. I wrote it very much as a character: A boxer guy, with a wife and kid, talking about putting down the booze. So it's not about me in a literal sense, although there's a lot of me in that song.
Q&A continues after slideshow
It's interesting that you wrote that from a straight man's point of view. I think it's easy for people to forget that songwriters are not always writing about themselves, especially for out gay writers. You don't have to write exclusively about the gay experience.
Absolutely. If you only write about yourself, it can become self-pitying. If you go back to my early songs, they were very, "Oh, woe is me." They were always about someone I'd just broken up. This album, because I wasn't fresh out of a destructive relationship, I was in a pretty good place, it helped me to play around with the themes a bit. One of my biggest struggles initially was, "What do I write about?" I didn’t want it to be full of "you broke my heart and I hate you." I've done that, in abundance. The record had to be about where I am now and how I see things now.
This also makes me think of the recent controversy over Jared Leto in the "Dallas Buyers Club," for being a straight man, playing a trans character. What do you make of the complaint that they should have cast a trans actor?
I'm happy if a person gets it right. I just saw the film on the plane coming over here and I think Jared Leto did a brilliant job. I think he was very, very respectful and he got it spot on. Particularly, how he played the drug addict. I thought he nailed it. It had no hint of caricature about it, to me. I think it's a shame that trans [actors] don't get movie roles. The same thing applies to actors who are gay being told they can't play straight roles. I find that very annoying. That's the whole point of acting: Pretending to be someone you're not.
The issue is just whether or not you do it respectfully. I tweeted that Matthew and Jared were both astounding. It certainly wasn't a pleasant movie to watch. I lost a lot of friends around that time, so now I wonder if they might have been here if it wasn't for the dishonesty of the medical profession. It's a shocking movie. We were talking about it after, for hours. I thought Jared Leto…wow…he really pulled that off. Anybody who has an issue with that is really nitpicking.
I want to ask you about being Boy George, the icon. How does this either help or hinder your creative goals. Does it get in the way? Or does it open doors?
When I made this record, I started from the point of view that no one gives a shit about Boy George. That was my frame of mind. A lot of people say to me, when I'm DJing, "You're not that Boy George." The dance world is a kind of alternative reality, a parallel universe. I certainly haven't been involved in pop music for a real long time. People don't know who I am. They kind of know vaguely who I am, through some of my personal dramas.
Maybe they know who I am through their mothers, but I considered this a clean slate, a clean canvas, like I was given another chance. One of the big things for me in the last ten years was, you know, that I kind of stopped and asked the question, "Who do I want to be?" Not thinking about how others perceive me. I've spent my career doing that. That's what you do when you're in the public eye, you constantly obsess about how others see you, and you never actually stop to look in the mirror and say, "What do you want to see?"
When you step outside, are you ever not Boy George?
All the time. I'm hardly ever Boy George these days. At the moment I'm able to walk around pretty much unnoticed. It's a wonderful experience that I treasure. When I was younger, I probably needed the attention much more. People still engage but in a very different way now. It's such a weird time, culturally. I have 600,000 people following me on [Facebook]. But you kind of wonder who these people are, and what they want.
You like Twitter? You use it a lot.
I like tweeting. But it feels like it has nothing to do with my musical career. I feel like a lot of what I'm doing recently is a big PR exercise because, you know, I have done a lot to distract people from my music. So I have to forgive people for not knowing what I actually do. What I'm doing now is about awakening my audience and allowing them to have a musical experience with me.
What would you like people to know you for? After everything you’ve done, what are you most proud of?
What I'm doing now, I think. One of the things about being involved in dance music is that I've been able to avoid nostalgia. I do still get people coming up and thanking me for the '80s like it's all my fault, though.
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As an androgynous man on television in the '80s, you had an enormous cultural impact. That's hard to forget.
All of that is really important. And from what I see, in America that was a much bigger impact than anywhere else -- with MTV suddenly I was in people's living rooms in Iowa and Nebraska. I was doing some promo in LA a couple of months ago and someone came up and gave me a beautiful card, thanking me for helping them be who they wanted to be. That's quite a regular thing for me. And I don't take that lightly. From all of what I did in the '80s, that's what I’m most proud of. Not just about sexuality either. My thing was always about anyone who felt weird, for whatever reason.
Lady Gaga has take on that role, that message.
Sort of. But I don't know that it’s resonating with her audience. I do get fans of hers telling me to "die, fag."
In your view, how have things changed, since the 1980s, in terms of being able to speak your mind about sexuality and other hot topics? You recently told an interviewer you could never get away with what you used to say on TV back then, today.
The things we talked about, were a bit spicy back then. In the UK, people would ask quite outrageous questions, but it doesn't happen now. In a funny sort of way, it’s actually OK. It probably wouldn't seem appropriate for me to say the things I said 10 years ago. I've reached the point in my life where I have more self-respect and there are areas I wouldn't go into now. Not everything I think has to be said.
Sometimes if you give away so much of yourself there's nothing left for you. If I've learned anything from David Bowie, it's that a little bit of mystery is a good thing.