The author is CEO of the Awara Group, which offers consulting, accounting, tax, and legal services. He is the author of several books on politics and philosophy, as well as Putin’s New Russia. He speaks fluent English, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish, and German, French, and Spanish less fluently. He resides in Moscow.
What prompted me to write this Awara Accounting report on the impressive development of Russia’s airports was to produce a cure for the but-beyond-the-MKAD syndrome. The MKAD is the 110 kilometer outer ring road around Moscow. And this syndrome refers to the habit of the detractors of Putin’s Russia to claim that any visible development of Russia, if any, has happened only within the limits of Moscow city – “just go outside the Ring Road and you’ll see there’s nothing but poverty and ruin.”
Many of those who suffer from this syndrome live in a deep-seated cognitive dissonance where they just refuse to trust their lying eyes, while some of them are just peddlers of pure propaganda or victims of the latter.
So, let’s see what actually happens beyond the MKAD. Amazing airports have been built or reconstructed both in Moscow and across the vast country and many other impressive projects have been presented.
And it is not just airports, it is roads and bridges, too. Those Awara has covered in other reports in the series on Putin’s incredible infrastructure investments. You can read about the amazing new bridges at this link: Putin the Pontiff – Bridge maker and the great development of Russia’s roads here.
What’s remarkable is also the efficiency and speed of the construction of the new airport terminals. Most of them have been built in three years and some in two or even less. The Simferopol airport (above) was built in two years and was up and running within three years from the decision to initiate the project. Krasnoyarsk (below) needed only1.5 years to complete the construction.
Russia’s 79 international airports
Our method was to review all the airports in a list of all of Russia’s international airports. (An international airport is one into which a plane can fly directly from a foreign country as it runs a passport control). There were 79 airports in our list. From what I had registered from the news and in my travels, I expected that there would be some 10 or 15 cool new airports to present. But no. The task proved much more overwhelming as it turned out that almost every one of the listed airports had been reconstructed or was due for reconstruction.
Instead of writing up an easy piece with nice pics, I ended up spending weeks on identifying and digesting all the information. The investigation showed that practically each one of the 79 airports had either been modernized or about to be so. I identified less than 10 airports on the list of international airports which were not brought up to modern quality standards since 2000 or on the way to it. And of those half were either remote outposts or military airfields. I am confident, that all the passenger airports in the major Russian cities (defined as having some 150 thousand or more inhabitants) will be totally modernized within the next 6 years.
Practically all the development of the international airports has been funded by both public and private money, where the infrastructure like runways and flight controls have been recipients of public funds whereas the terminals have been mostly built by public funds.
In addition to the 79 international airports there are some 60 regional airports with more or less regular traffic. These will all also be upgraded according to a multibillion government program on development of regional airports running up to 2024. This forms part of a broader strategic program ordered by President Putin to improve the Russian economy, demographics and infrastructure with public and private funding amounting to a total of $400 billion.
An important goal with the development of the airports is to help decentralize the economy by way of increasing direct interconnectivity of Russian cities instead of people having to fly transit through Moscow, which has in the past really hampered the overall development of the country.
The new airport facilities are really needed to keep up with the passenger boom
The new enlarged and reconstructed airports cater to a growing number of passengers. In 2000, when Putin first took office, the Russian airports served 35.5 million passengers, but by 2018 the number had grown sixfold to 205 million. That surpasses the 135 million passengers of the USSR in the 1980s. The growth has been huge and accelerating, just in five years from 2014 to 2018 the number grew by one third.
In the meanwhile, the Moscow air cluster with 97 million passengers (2018) has become Europe’s third largest air hub after London (126 mln) and Paris (104 mln). Sheremetyevo – Europe’s fastest growing airport – alone has grown 4.5 times since 2000 to present 46 million. At the same time, Moscow’s second airport Domodedovo grew from handling 2.8 million passengers in in 2000 to 30 million in 2017.
Air travel is a very solid indicator for economic activity, these figures then show that there is much going on that does not catch the eye of the GDP.
When I first came to Moscow by air in 1993, the city did not have a single modern airport. Actually, back then the Sheremetyevo international airport, present day Terminal F, should have formally counted as a modern one as it was built only about a decade earlier in 1980 in time for the Moscow Olympics. But the airport – built by a West German company – was terribly outdated in design and functionality from the start. Both the façade and the interior design was informed by a dark and gloomy style prevailing in Russia during the 1970s. My impression as a passenger was that that the terminal must have been in operational neglect at least three decades by then.
I used to hate having to travel through that airport and each time I would wish they’d remove the heavy copper circles which were misdecorating the ceilings and literally weighing over the heads of the passengers. One day sometime in the early 2000s it did happen; the copper was gone and a white suspended ceiling was there instead. Somebody told me that the reason was that the commodity price of copper had surged. Whatever, I was happy for it. In the 1990s the restrooms where stinky and you’d be lucky if they were furnished with paper. And then there was the strong kerosene fumes wafting around the whole airport. An odor which you would connect with Russia in good and bad. For me it actually became so characteristic of Russia, that I later found myself upon arrival inhaling that fume, like one would mountain air, happy as I had returned to Russia from the increasingly oppressive West.
But today all has changed, if Sheremetyevo Terminal F was probably the worst of all the world’s major airports, I considered the new Terminal D as one of the best when it opened in 2009. Presently the terminal is overcrowded as it operates way over its planned capacity, but that should ease when the domestic traffic is fully transferred to the new Terminal B, which opened in 2018.
If Sheremetyevo Terminal G was depressing, then the domestic terminal then called Sheremetyevo 1 was like a parody of all that was wrong with the later stages of the USSR just before its demise. Moscow’s second airport, Domodedovo, at that time was very much the same, but today Domodedovo along with Sheremetyevo are modern international airports meeting the highest global standards. There is a third major Moscow airport as well, the Vnukovo airport. And a smaller, fourth Moscow cluster international airport, Zhukovsky (Ramenskoe) opened in 2018.
In 2018, in time for the FIFA World Cup, Moscow’s Sheremetyevo got the new Terminal B for domestic flights. This one will be merged with present Terminal C, after the renovation of the latter, to form a hub for domestic flights, while Terminals D, E and F will serve international flights. An underground shuttle train opened in 2018 already connects the domestic and international terminals.
The old Domodedovo terminal in Moscow
A waiting lounge at the old Domodedovo
The new Domodedovo (above and below)
New, in 2012 (above) and old, in 2000 (below) Vnukovo, Moscow’s 3rd airport.
Let’s now go beyond the MKAD and look at the other new amazing airport complexes around the country. This is just a selection, there is much more.
Saint Petersburg was really in a need of a modern airport, and it was therefore such a relief when it finally opened in 2013
Belgorod a city of 350 thousand inhabitants close to the Ukrainian border got this new beautiful terminal in 2013.
Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East got a new airport terminal in 2012 as part of the preparations for the APEC 2012 summit.
Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third largest city on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains received a new terminal in 2009.
This new airport complex was erected in 2012 in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia’s sixth most populous city. It was built in the run up to the 2013 Summer Universiade and enlarged for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
This new airport in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave at the Baltic Sea, opened in 2017
The new airport in Nizhny Novgorod was also built as part of Russia’s infrastructure upgrade in preparation for the 2018 football World Cup.
The new airport in Novosibirsk is from 2015. Novosibirsk with 1.5 million is a city in Siberia at the Ob River. The Trans-Siberian Railway fueled much of the city’s growth in the 19th century.
The new terminal in Perm from 2017 is a real architectural gem. Perm has a population over one million and is located in the, Urals 300 kilometers north-west of Yekaterinburg and 400 kilometers north of Ufa.
Rostov-on-Don is one more of the cities which got a new airport terminal (opened 2017) in preparation for the FIFA 2018 World Cup. In fact, this was a brand new airport built on virgin field, whereas the other airports in this survey represent development and enlargements of previously existing airports.
SABETA, YAMAL PENINSULA
Sabetta on the Yamal peninsula got an airport in 2014 in connection with Russia’s push to develop its Arctic regions and in this case especially the Yamal LNG project and the Yuzhno-Tambeyskoye gas field.
In 2014 opened the new airport in Samara in the southeastern part of European Russia on the east bank of the river Volga.
Simferopol airport in Russian Crimea is probably the nicest airport in the world. Built in 2018, four years after Crimea’s liberation from Ukrainian occupation.
It was an amazing feeling travelling through that airport. The architect has really managed to do what is most important in places like that, to neutralize the stress factor. Everything is so spacy, harmonious and green that you get a feeling that you are in a giant spa instead of an airport. The Simferopol airport really calmed my nerves on a busy travelling day.
The Sochi airport was built in 2009 and enlarged in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
This airport in Talakan in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) opened in 2012.
The new international terminal in Tyumen was opened in 2017. Tyumen was the first Russian settlement in Siberia and now has an estimated population of 750 thousand.
Ufa, the capital city of Bashkortostan at the Urals received this new air terminal in 2015.
This is the airport in Volgograd, the WWII name of which was Stalingrad. A new international terminal was constructed in 2016 and in 2018 another terminal for domestic flights was opened to accommodate football fans for FIFA 2018.
The newly constructed airport in Krasnoyarsk opened in December 2017. Krasnoyarsk is located at the Yenisei River in Siberia. With a population over one million it is the third largest Siberian city after Novosibirsk and Omsk. Novosibirsk got a new airport in 2015 and Omsk will get one before 2022.
Those were some of the airports built and upgraded within the last decade, now let’s look on some airport projects underway.
The Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov presented in May 2018 this bold project for the new airport in the Chechen capital Grozny. The construction is expected to commence in 2020.
The projected new terminal at the Saratov airport is one more of the new Russian airports with daring architecture, not only functionality but beauty, too. Saratov on the Volga River and with a population of some 850 thousand will have this airport up and running in 2019.
The Irkutsk airport will be modernized with this new terminal in 2020. Irkutsk is a city of 600 thousand people near the Lake Baikal.
Krasnodar, Russia’s fastest growing city, in the South of the country will get a new airport and air city hub by 2023.
This new terminal in Nalchik is due by 2020. Nalchik is a city of 300 thousand situated at an altitude of 550 meters (1,800 ft) in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is Russia’s easternmost big city situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Interestingly, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is actually situated quite a bit eastward from Tokyo if you go by the latitude of geographic coordinates. That should really give you an idea how huge Russia is. This new airport terminal will be erected there by 2021.
As part of Putin’s drive to develop Russia’s Far East, Khabarovsk will get a new modern airport terminal by 2019. Further the airport will be developed into a logistic hub with an air city consisting of business centers, hotels and an exposition center. Khabarovsk, a city of more than half a million people, is located at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers about 800 kilometers north of Vladivostok and only 30 kilometers from the Chinese border.
Chelyabinsk is just to the east of the Ural Mountains and 210 kilometers south of Yekaterinburg. This city with more than 1 million inhabitants will soon get this new airport terminal which is due in 2019. The construction was spurred by the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization summits to be held in Chelyabinsk in 2020.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with a population of 200 thousand is on the Sakhalin island, one thousand kilometer west from the Kamchatka Peninsula. Their new airport terminal is due by end of 2019 so as to accommodate growing needs of tourism and business.
We will round off this survey with this impressive new airport terminal which will be erected in Gelendzhik. Gelendzhik is a Black Sea resort 250 kilometer west from Sochi. In fact, between Sochi and Anapa on the whole coast, there are no high quality resorts except for Gelendzhik, but this one is truly a gem. The new terminal will be built by 2021. Gelendzhik is the only one in our survey which does not presently have the status of international airport, but that should be taken care of by the time this new airport is done. With Gelendzhik completed, Russia’s Black Sea region will have six modern large airports – Sochi, Gelendzhik, Anapa, Simferopol, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don – in a matrix of roughly 300 kilometers between airport. That is an impressive density in itself and doubly remarkable considering there was not a single decent airport there before 2009. Considering also the road building happening in the region, the area is on its way to develop into a Russian Provence, with which it already shares the climate and nature.
Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture
At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”
This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”
Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.
Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.
He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.
In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.
And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.
The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true
In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.
Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.
Buzz Lightyear: To Lesbians and Beyond | Culture
The first homosexual kiss in a Disney movie has been more than expected. Many of us wanted to see it in Frozen: some interpret the ice princess’s song “Let it Go” as a reference to being gay. Lots of people awaited it in Luca, where the love between protagonists Luca and Alberto was at times more obvious even than that of the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. We longed for a legendary, effervescent kiss, the fruit of a rebellious and passionate love. It was going to be a vindictive kiss, full of fireworks. It would be one of those kisses that precede the mythical The End, when the screen fades to black behind the lover’s mouths. It was a kiss that was going to take everything over. Above all, it was going to be the great kiss of the 21st century, undoubtedly the century of homosexual visibility and the century of the gender revolution, the moment when women fall in love and kiss for the first time and do all of it on the big screen. (Well, not all of it.)
The first lesbian kiss in Disney history appears in the recently released Lightyear, and it has sadly led to the censorship of the film in 14 countries in the Middle East and Asia. The kiss takes place in 1995, that is, 27 years ago. The first homosexual kiss of the Disney Pixar factory recognizes that it is years late. It is a 90′s kiss. It comes not from the 21st century, but the 20th. How? The film starts with the following premise: in 1995 Andy, the protagonist of Toy Story, went to the cinema to see Lightyear. This is the movie he saw then. Lightyear, therefore, is not the end of the saga but its prequel. In addition, the controversial kiss does not happen between a young protagonist and her girlfriend, but between two mature women who have been married for years. We are not facing a rebellious kiss, much less a political or ideological one. This kiss is not intended to be a novelty or to make anything visible. It is an absolutely conventional gesture. Thank you, Disney Pixar for going beyond my wildest dreams when it comes to normalizing visibility. And thank you for listening to your workers and refusing to remove the scene. In the long run, it will be more profitable to sacrifice box-office earnings than dignity.
In addition to being between two women, the kiss happens between two mothers, on the day that they celebrate their son’s birthday. It is not the classic Disney kiss, a culmination of the romantic love between the leading couple, but a stolen moment of quotidian happiness. It is a fleeting kiss, insignificant in the history of lovers. It lasts just seconds. It is not charged with any special meaning in the love story. It speaks of a way of building affections and meaning different from that imposed by the traditional heterosexual canon: seemingly unimportant gestures of are everything. It represents a kind of love where kisses do not represent a turning point in the lovers’ lives, but rather small anchor points in their story history. In this gesture, romantic love is not ultimately the center of life but part of it. In Lightyear, we witness the anodyne kiss on the lips between space explorer Alisha Hawthorne and her wife, and we realize that partners are not at the center of any story, but rather one of those fragments that give meaning to life. It is a sapphic kiss in the sense that it is another way of building love, more horizontal, quieter and healthier.
Alisha—a female, lesbian and black—does not have as much screentime as Buzz Lightyear—male, white and the story’s protagonist. She is the protagonist’s friend, confidante and inspiration. Together they are trapped on an uninhabitable planet due to a mistake he made. From that moment on their lives run parallel but radically different–almost like the story of lesbian and heterosexual love. She adapts to the circumstances and begins to live the life that has befallen her, without rejecting its difficulties. The conditions are not the best, but Alisha falls in love–with a woman–and celebrates her luck. Together they have a son. Along the way, she takes care of those she loves, she has a granddaughter, she fights and she investigates. She fills her life with meaning, and she dies. Buzz, on the other hand, insists on “finishing the mission,” “being important,” “saving the world,” “succeeding,” “being a hero,” “doing things alone” and “being the first.” Buzz, who will never know love, embodies many of the traditional values of heteronormative love, starting with the desire for protagonism and the sense of a linear life narrated through love or milestones, leading only to deep, intimate failure.
Lightyear attempts to travel into space to escape from the planet where he is trapped, failing over and over again. Additionally, though, time is altered every time he subjects his ship to hyperspeed. Every time he returns, a few minutes have passed for him and a few years–four, ten or twenty–for Alisha. He burns through life, while she lives it. In one of the final moments, Buzz Lightyear explains to Alisha’s granddaughter why he and her grandmother became space rangers. “We just wanted to be important,” he says. “Trust me, she was,” she says. And the hero understands that his whole life has been a huge misunderstanding. He will have to return home, knowing that his home is the one he has tried to flee all his life.
The film is a masterpiece, full of action, emotion, humor and imagination. Its commitment to diversity includes a warrior over seventy years old, a rebel whose role is essential in saving the world. No one is talking about the old woman for the simple reason that old age remains invisible even when it occupies the center of the scene. The film also gives us Sox, an adorable robotic cat that demonstrates how the only technology that works is that which helps people, not that which attempts to change them. It is truly one of the great Pixar movies, much more than action and stars.
At this point, it had gotten hard to explain why we humans want to keep going to infinity and beyond. But there is a moment, at the end of the film, when we understand: when the elite protectors of the universe excitedly observe the bronze statue of Alisha, a black lesbian woman, the source of meaning for humanity, because she is the one who knew how to live a small life with greatness.
George Michael revisited: binge-eating ice cream, sex and ecstasy | Culture
George Michael abhorred fame and avoided interviews. Over his 30-year career, the singer of “Faith” released only four studio albums as a solo artist. But his figure left a lasting impact on popular culture. The public’s fascination with him lingers even today, as demonstrated by the recent release of both a documentary and a book about his life, just when the artist would have turned 59. The two works depict the pop star’s life from dramatically different perspectives.
The musician himself worked on the film George Michael: Freedom Uncut with his former collaborator, David Austin. It follows the career of one of the best voices in pop, starting in the eighties and ending in 2016, the year of his death. Narrated in the first person, the documentary gives a partial glimpse of the star. In contrast, journalist James Gavin’s book George Michael: A Life explores the singer’s dark side in great detail. The biography chronicles Michael’s addiction to GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, his depression and his dependence on sex. According to the account, Michael spent his later years sinking into drugs and prostitution and alienating his friends, including Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham!. Gavin spoke with more than 200 friends and acquaintances of the artist, resulting in a portrayal of an emotionally fragile and insecure man. According to the author’s thesis, which several friends corroborate but his family denies, the performer died not of a heart condition, as was said at the time, but of an intentional overdose: suicide.
The documentary film focuses on the eighties and nineties, the artist’s creative peak. The book, meanwhile, primarily describes his last years of life, when he made headlines more for his arrests than for his music. Both are pieces of a puzzle that the artist created before the public over three decades.
It is difficult to understand the career of George Michael, who would turn 59 this June 25, without delving into his biography. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in 1963, he rose to worldwide fame alongside his school friend Andrew Ridgeley. Together they formed Wham!, a group adored by teenage girls and despised by critics. Michael enjoyed a global fame that he never wanted. He felt undervalued as an artist, relegated to the status of a teen star. He also didn’t take well to playing the role of a heterosexual idol in order to sell records to the female public. He was ready to embrace his sexuality, but society wasn’t. At the time, both Elton John and Freddy Mercury were married to women. In Spain, Miguel Bosé walked hand in hand with Ana Obregón. A mainstream artist couldn’t afford to be gay.
Still, George Michael represented his sexuality with a certain impudent joy in public. In his later years, looking back, Michael said his sexuality had been an enigma, even to him, but his music was always honest. “I do want people to know the songs I wrote when I was with women were really about women and the songs that I’ve written since have been fairly obviously about men,” he said. “So when it comes to my work I’ve never been reticent about defining my sexuality.” George Michael was sex. His music was too.
On his first solo album, he broke away from his good-boy image to present himself as a sexually liberated man–in a trajectory later imitated by many pop artists, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. His first solo song, “I Want Your Sex,” was dedicated to a man, but his then-girlfriend, makeup artist Kathy Jeung, appeared in the music video. “[Kathy] was in love with me but she knew that I was in love with a guy at that point in time. I was still saying I was bisexual,” he explained in a 2004 interview with the British magazine Attitude. The song caused controversy for defending promiscuity in the harshest years of AIDS, and its explicitly sexual lyrics were censored on several radio networks.
In the music video for his second single, “Faith,” Michael played the role of the American macho, wearing a leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, combined with close-ups of his butt swaying to the beat. The singer was asserting himself as a mature composer. At the same time, he was sexualizing himself. The song made him a worldwide success. He began to rub shoulders with pop royalty, including Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. At that time, pop stars were at the heart of popular culture. But only George Michael used his role to confront record companies and eventually renounce media overexposure.
If singers were kings, MTV was their palace. In the 1990s, a good music video could boost a song’s sales and its artist’s fame. That’s when George Michael decided to disappear. He barely promoted his long-awaited second album, much less commercial than the first. Its first music video, “Freedom,” featured the five most important top models of the moment. The video was directed by first-timer David Fincher, who before revolutionizing Hollywood already revolutionized MTV. It has gone down in history as one of the best video clips of all time.
Freedom: Uncut, the new documentary, focuses on that creative stage of the singer. Some of the participants in that video, such as Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, give interviews about Michael, and the film includes discarded footage that Fincher did not use. While the documentary focuses on his art, it also touches aspects of his personal life, including the deaths of his mother and Anselmo Feleppa, his great love, who died of complications from AIDS in 1993.
The two deaths had a devastating effect on Michael, and they triggered the spiral that Gavin focuses on in his book. The author calls the singer a “pathetic, lonely and broken figure.”
George Michael did not publicly come out of the closet. He was wrenched out in the most shameful way possible. In September 1998, a plainclothes officer made a pass at him in a public restroom in Los Angeles, California. When the artist played along, he was arrested. Searching him, police found marijuana and crack. The former leader of Wham! was fined only $810, but the media’s penalty was devastating. Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic lashed out at him. It was no longer the eighties, but a scandal like that could still end anyone’s career. He explained himself the best way he could: with a song. The video clip for “Outside,” the single from his greatest hits album, was based on the famous incident. It portrays several men dressed as police kissing in the bathroom of a club, while a press helicopter records different couples having sex. Michael took control of the narrative, as sexual and as honest as ever.
But no song could silence the news that followed. A few months later, the musician was arrested again after a car accident. The police found him “drenched in sweat” with “eyes open and pupils dilated.” It was his seventh arrest in 12 years. In the biography, Gavin expands on this stage, at the time portrayed by the press at the time in a disjointed and sensationalistic way. The author places it in the context of the impulses of a depressed, frustrated man taking refuge in drugs and sex. “For Michael, GHB seemed heaven-sent,” the journalist writes about the drug, a central nervous system depressant closely associated with sex parties. “Apart from fueling his sexual compulsiveness, it made a depressed, self-hating man feel attractive. It brought joy where there was little. GHB gave him confidence … but it also took him to a new and terrifying level of self-destruction.”
Gavin describes one of the music industry’s brightest stars as a lonely, friendless man, secluded in his mansion. He spent his days watching episodes of his favorite soap opera, Coronation Street, while binging on Haagen Dazs ice cream and junk food and using GHB. The author writes that the singer held parties with prostitutes and large amounts of drugs in his mansion in north London.
The journalist’s description is consistent with statements made this week by Kenny Goss, who had a relationship with the singer between 1996 and 2009. In an interview on the English program Piers Morgan Uncensored, the art dealer recounted that everyone around him knew that Michael would die soon. “I spent a lot of time worrying about him,” he recalled. “What’s the line he says in one of his songs? He says, ‘I can see it in your eyes when you look at me that way, it tears me in two’. And it really did.”
George Michael died on Christmas day of 2016. The official report says that the death was due to heart failure. His fans remembered him with “Last Christmas,” a song that many read as a Christmas carol, but which actually tells a tragic story about heartbreak and distrust. “All my songs are autobiographical,” the singer used to say.
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