GEORGE MICHAEL is not a whiskey-swilling geezer like Keith Richards or a rebellious bohemian like Thom Yorke. He's a well-groomed, gracious man of means whose favorite topic of discussion is the domestic bliss he shares with his longtime partner, Kenny Goss, in mansions filled with fine art and Labradors. Though he's faced down his share of scandals, Michael's music still signals frothy good times. It doesn't cause riots; it inspires middle-aged people to dance.
Yet the 44-year-old star is, in his own way, a pop outlaw. At the very least, he's complicated. "It's almost required with major artists that there's some duality," he says. "And I've got duality everywhere."
In a lily-scented private suite at the Hotel Bel Air, Michael sat at a table sucking cough drops and talked about his long career. He was in town to perform on the May 22 finale of “ American Idol.” Later that day, he'd catch a flight to Goss' hometown of Dallas (where the couple keeps a home) and then to London to finalize plans for the tour that kicks off Tuesday in San Diego and lands June 25 at the Forum in L.A. and June 27 at Honda Center in Anaheim.
"I've been doing a lot of work, changing it and improving it," Michael said of the "TwentyFive Live" tour, which he's already taken through Europe. "I'm dancing -- or walking -- on a stage that's completely illuminated; the whole thing is made of bulbs. There's a screen that comes down in a curve, and then I'm on the floor part, and then it goes down into the audience. And it's massive."
This show needed to be amazing, Michael said, because it's not only his first major foray into arenas in 17 years -- it's his last. But he's not retiring. He has many plans. They just don't involve being part of the pop machine.
"I've written a whole body of work that I'm incredibly proud of," he said about his quarter century of hits. "I've achieved what every artist wants, which is that some of their work will outlive them. But there are other things I can do with my money and my ideas, without my being center stage.
"There's very little you can do in pop music anymore," he continued, saying that what music he makes next will likely be distributed freely on the Internet. "There are things that I think I see in society -- the nature of being gay is that you are forced to challenge the general perception, otherwise you have to accept that something is wrong with you. Maybe that gives gay men the perspective that many have turned into art. And maybe I can do that in ways that will continue to make my life constructive."
Watch the news, not me
This is George Michael now: outspoken, self-assured, carrying around his share of beefs after so long in the spotlight, but open to the unknown.
He's exploring ideas for television, and not just because he's recently found success as an actor on "Eli Stone," the ABC comedy-drama about a lawyer who feels the need to change his life after experiencing visions (often featuring Michael). "Television is the most politically active medium," he said. "I am a political person, though not with a big P."
One thing is certain: Michael is sick of having his foibles dissected in the media. After a decade that began with his 1998 arrest for "lewd conduct" in a Beverly Hills park (he was cruising, an activity he later celebrated in "Outside," a highly danceable paean to public sex) and ended with him getting busted for marijuana possession after he was found napping in his SUV, he's mortified at being part of a celebrity culture that distracts from the real news.
"In England I've probably had about 20 or 30 front pages in the last 2 1/2 years," he said. "What interests me is what else happened on those same days, and how much our government is getting away with day after day after day. It's the perfect cover-up to every major story they don't want us to hear! What did Britney Spears do today? Where did George Michael fall asleep?"
Michael might seem like an unlikely champion of serious-mindedness. As the creative half of the gorgeously coiffed 1980s pop duo Wham! ("I don't know anything about haircuts, but I can blow dry hair brilliantly," he remarked with a laugh. "It's the Greek in me"), he was derided as the anti-punk, a decadent purveyor of meaningless fluff. Yet even as Wham! profited from hedonistic hits such as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," Michael practiced progressive politics; the group participated in the miner's strike benefits that were the left's cause célèbre (though they were criticized for lip-syncing) and Wham! was the first Western pop group to play in communist China.
This was the beginning of the public expression of that duality upon which Michael dwells. Its roots can be traced to his family life. His maternal grandmother was Jewish but married a Gentile and raised her children with no knowledge of their Semitic heritage. This was during World War II, and "she thought if they didn't know that their mother was Jewish, they wouldn't be at risk," Michael said. His mother was sent to convent school, effectively obliterating any traces of his grandmother's faith.
Years later, when Michael finally told his parents he was gay, "that situation and that honesty threw my family into absolute chaos," he said. "Not because of my sexuality but because of the idea of truth in the family."
Michael's music thrives on this tension between an urge to be expressive and the need to hold something back. Influenced by both the Supremes and Tom Jones -- the only records his parents allowed him as a child -- he quickly developed a style of blue-eyed soul that was both sensual and beautifully sad.
"I was most successful when I was the loneliest," he said. "And I think most people are lonely, even in love. We all know the difference between a great shag and something which is totally about loving someone. And by a certain age, we know that that kind of love is not a lifelong pattern for very many people. I do think we search for it -- sometimes with drugs; sometimes we don't even include the sex. We're searching for that glimpse of the divine."
Michael's belief that romance and sex can lead to some kind of enlightenment informs his best songs; it's a quality he shares with Prince, the idol of his youth. His lyrics are full of religious imagery and dramatic builds borrowed from gospel music. That inspirational quality is what made Michael's music perfect for "Eli Stone," according to series co-creator Greg Berlanti.
"His music, tonally, really matched the spirit of the show," Berlanti said in a phone interview. "So many of his songs dealt with what we wanted to deal with -- spirituality and searching. They're fun and poppy, but also extremely inspirational, and they have depth. And certainly the song 'Faith' itself seemed like almost the only song we could have opened with."
The internalized period
"Faith" was one of Michael's first hits post-Wham!, as he entered the career phase most strongly marked by an internalized split. He mastered his image, his music, but struggled with his sexual identity, releasing daring songs about love and sex while keeping his own desires in the closet.
He fell in love with the Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa in 1991. Diagnosed with AIDS a year and a half later, Feleppa died in 1993. Michael says it's still painful for him to listen to the samba music that influenced him greatly during this period. Yet his gift for vocal restraint, which most recently helped him through his "American Idol" performance despite a bad cold, seems directly related to the music he made then, when he was trying to express his joy without giving away his secrets.
"I never wanted to mystify anything that I did," he explained. "I always want to connect. I'm not writing like Bono, for instance, whom I would imagine thinks what I do is really kind of pedestrian, because it connects on such a simple level."
Yet Michael's simple songs contain a secret code -- implicit signals of the yearning of his heart.
Hits like "Father Figure" and "Jesus to a Child" tapped into the gay experience of the last two decades, transporting that community's story to the mainstream. "Freedom '90" was a pride anthem long before Michael actually came out.
"He's still one of the most important gay musicians alive, if not one of the most important musicians alive," said Corey Scholibo, entertainment editor of the Advocate. "And my opinion is that the gay community, though very harsh to judge when one is in the closet, is also very quick to accept once you're out of the closet."
Now Michael's lyrics explicitly celebrate his lifestyle -- and he's noticing more gay fans in the concert crowds that were once almost 100% female. Not that he's looking. Though he still stands up for the right for consenting adults to have non-monogamous relationships, he's very happy with Goss.
"I have this wonderful partner," he said. "Through rows and misunderstandings and pain, we have actually reached a fantastic place. So, recently, I've had to write about other people's lives when I want to hit that lonely mood. I have to refer to other people's pain."
So happiness is something of a burden, artistically?
That's one duality George Michael is really ready to face.