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Freedom road

George Michael has found happiness following his own path.

June 14, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

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 celebre (though they were criticized for lip-syncing) and Wham! was the first Western pop group to play in communist China.

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