A French house-inspired verse shimmers along, gloating with the smoothness of its own repetitive, euphoric possibility; a woman pouts, sending out her songs amongst a strawberry-coloured wash, entirely aglow as she sings only about the sweetness of desire, never the humiliation; another version of this woman, who is an expert in expressions, is clad in a white head drape, an alliance of the virginal, futurist and erotic; in another time and place she glides along a low-lit bar, tiny pants glistening, moves poised for dramatic pop effect; later she circles a Parisian city block, multiplying with each lap, her style setting the standard for the girl-next-door of the early 2000s; over a decade before this she appears with her 80s blonde perm, set under a wide-brimmed hat, and she says, “C’mon, c’mon” and persuades me to dance with her.
I don’t know where one Kylie memory stops and the next begins. She’s been in my personal consciousness for 21 years, and our collective consciousness for over three decades. She is the only artist from my early childhood who I still seek out with genuine interest, which is how I came to Golden and ‘Country Kylie’. Upon listening, I wasn’t bothered by the datedness of her latest recording, which holds onto a distinctly early-2000s sheen. And even though I have little affinity for country music, I don’t object to the latest image (plus I doubt this album is targeting women in their mid-twenties anyway). What’s jarring is that listening to Kylie now is to remember listening to Kylie back then. The fragmented associations I have built up, the identifications that started in childhood, the thoughts I have about Kylie and pop, are too weighty to vanish under new material. Hearing Golden now, the only thing I’m listening to is music, and this is what rattled me the most—music is only one part of what makes pop. Of course I turn to Kylie for pop, but I also turn to her for things that sit beyond (yet are still entwined) with music, and now that ability was being taken away by my own memories.
When I was around seven or eight I must have seen Kylie in black boots, because there I was, on the floor, nico pen adrift, tiny brown boots halfway-coloured to mismatched black. Looking back, much of my childhood was spent dressing up as someone else, but one of the main stars my small world revolved upon was Kylie (my other two major obsessions were Shania Twain and The Bee Gees). I relentlessly played her songs. I sat next to the cd player, lyric book in hand, every iteration of love and need feeling colossal. I danced the locomotion, and mimicked the moves of ‘Fever’. It was an obsessive affair (which I’d repeat in teenage years but under more ‘subcultural’ guises). I perfected various Kylie routines but never did I ask my Mum, Am I good? Instead I asked, Am I like Kylie?
I’d come to associate the sounds, styles and lyrics of Kylie as not only hers, but in some ways my own. Yet it was an osmosis that went beyond identification—it was more akin to emulation. This is hardly unique to only me: experiences of pop culture are full of children, adolescents and adults engaged in all kinds of emulative behaviour, and repetitively so. People slave away perfecting guitar solos in the style of their chosen hero, songs can be sung again and again with no bounds to their easy reproduction, cover bands form on the regular, ‘everyday’ people craft their image in their idol, whether it’s growing the locks of hair metal or perfecting the pout of Kim Kardashian.
Emulation, which often starts in childhood, might be one the greatest ways we experience pop culture today. Yet as an aesthetic experience, as an engagement with the world, there is little positive recognition of it. Perhaps it’s the supposed fickleness of mass culture that stops emulation being taken seriously. But I also think it’s because we still tie experiences of art to what’s considered authentic; by which I mean what’s unique and non-repetitive. Emulation isn’t concerned with the unique; its very nature is to continuously incite imitation. And not only that, but when one emulates, it’s the most sincerest form reproduction—a copy that doesn’t try to comment on its appropriation or context.
When asking other people about whether they had any obsessive Kylie moments, the conversation kept going back to outfits…
… and the talk of clothing reminded me how emulation does not equal guaranteed fulfilment.
“The 50p hot pants” of ‘Spinning Around’ initially shook my eight-year-old world; the sweat of bodies in motion, the exhilaration of first looks, the collective thrill of the #1 hit. I remember standing in the cheap white light of a Big W changing room wearing shiny short-shorts, feeling confused, and then positively mortified—I looked nothing like Kylie! It was probably the first realisation I had that judgments such as ugly and beautiful existed, but without the awareness that these things are, in fact, just judgments.
The rumour goes that Kylie always wanted to be Madonna (and then Madonna did that self-referential, meanly funny, act of wearing a Kylie shirt when they first met). But by Kylie’s account, her first instance of emulation was another: “Earlier, when I was eight, I dreamt about being Olivia Newton John, as many kids dream of emulating someone like that.”
Growing up I remember watching 20 to One, a countdown show where some category of life or pop culture was ranked from lowest to highest. An episode on duets featured Kylie and Nick Cave’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. On the TV there sat a man, a commentator, proclaiming the song to be Minogue’s best and Cave’s worst. Even today I’m snarky at his snarkiness, irritated by how flippant, how cynical, the judgment is. But this is a common narrative: Kylie accused of using Nick, who put his entire credibility of being ‘Nick Cave’ on the line to sing with her. But like Anwen Crawford wrote for Overland, “Cave had toiled for years in the semi-wilderness of critical acclaim and mediocre album sales and it was his duet with Kylie that brought him to the Australian public at large. Once again, he needed the woman much more than she needed him.”
Even people who you think might understand still surprise you. Robert Forster, when writing for The Monthly, critiqued a book titled Rock Country that contains a ‘top list’ of Australian pop and rock acts: “Cave, with perhaps the highest international profile of any of the nominees, and as commanding a performer and artist as any, is a shoo-in, you would think, when constructing any rock-star list. Yet he comes in ninth in the Rock Country list, behind Kylie Minogue.”
Although one of the great joys of judging popular music is the ability to freely circulate truly honest opinions: it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to explain yourself to these people.
Yet there is one particularly ungenerous, at times almost bullying, piece on Kylie and her sister Danni Minogue, written by Peter Conrad for The Monthly in 2010. Largely caricaturing the sisters as debased ‘gods’, the article, which is meant to be sadly funny, paints the pair as crass aesthetes, transparently starved for public affection, pliable to every whimsy of fame: they are illustrated as harpies. Conrad writes of Kylie, “As always, her music is merely an excuse for a revision of her image…” There are continuously jibing moments: “…without the budgie tweet of her singing voice and the rhythmic camouflage of a band, she recited the fatuous lyrics…” Meanwhile Danni is “like some rampantly fertile matriarch from the Hindu pantheon.” He concludes: “Watching, I felt suddenly sorry for this ageing waif [Kylie], and also for the rest of us, so credulously fascinated by Dannii and Danyl, Jacko and Jackie O, J-Lo and SuBo, Posh and Paris. While God was alive, I certainly disliked him. Now that he has been replaced by our own inadequate inventions, I think it might be time to invite him back.”
There are things Conrad doesn’t mention: 80 million Kylie albums sold by worldwide, third best-selling female artist of all time in the UK, number one hits every decade since the 80s. But success doesn’t only lie in numbers: she’s produced some of the most iconic pop images and songs of our time, internet forums show story after story of Kylie aiding people through their various struggles, she’s the backdrop to weddings and birthdays, and her community resides in the millions. Conrad’s ultimate qualm is with celebrity culture, but by the point he was writing Kylie’s fame was old news anyway: she’d already been around 23 years since ‘Locomotion’, her first number one hit in Australia.
But I do question if it’s really that pivotal to like or defend Kylie today:
This tweet from writer Shaun Prescott went mildly viral one night. It points out, rightfully so, that poptimism has lost a sense of interrogation, and that pop’s status as both culture and commerce has been whittled to a focus on the former, while pop’s capitalist, mass-produced, conformist tendencies, which often reinforce largely white, commodified and patriarchal ideals, are neglected. It’s no longer radical to profess to loving pop (in fact most reviews of Golden criticise the album for not having the strong pop of Kylie’s yesteryears). The better mission might be to try and understand why we love pop—to understand what the pop experience really is—when pop simultaneously carries ideals and notions that have standardising and conforming influence on our lives.
Pop music, more so than any other art form—aside from perhaps fashion—inherently carries contradictions of commerce and art wherever it goes. Stars like Kylie end up being as problematic as profound, which could be the great narrative of the popular song at large.
The more I listened to Golden, and the more I thought about how I listen to pop today, I kept thinking of a sentence from Greg Jackson’s short story Wagner in the Desert: “We listened to U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue post-ironically, which is not to say, exactly, sincerely.”
In Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, critic Michael Robbins writes, “But I take it on faith that popular music is art (I take a great many things about art on faith, and so do you), for all its evanescence and monetization.” I felt such relief reading this, because I too have such faith—I just needed to hear someone else say it first.
Yet many people who like Kylie don’t necessarily take pop-music-as-art on faith. These lines are all from essays that are generally favourable toward Kylie: “…but we all know that pop music can be far more than just simple and repetitive”, “Kylie has embraced the form of the innocuous pop song” and “Kylie Minogue is by no means merely a singer, dancer, actor and model.” It’s as if to be meaningful, Kylie must be more than pop: for pop to be meaningful, it must be more than pop. Pop’s simplicity and repetitiveness, its innocuousness, is precisely part of the experience.
Pop music has given me some of the most important aesthetic experiences of my life—and these experiences are not well accounted for.
An acute awareness of what pop is and does is something Kylie is often praised for having: “She admits to being manufactured pop” and “She once called herself “a watery icon”… a sly recognition that the images she projects are a mirage.”
The message is that good pop is self-acknowledged by the performer, but surely every pop star is aware of their artifice: Kylie could see it from the beginning. An interview in 1991 for The Independent reads: “‘Of course I know that there will always be someone younger and more beautiful than me. Sometimes I ask myself, Why am I here? and I really don’t know the answer.’ Kylie crosses and uncrosses her skinny, black-stockinged legs and tugs at her whouffed-up blonde hair. ‘There are, she adds wonderingly, ‘probably a million of me out there.’’”
Kylie’s brand of pop may be particularly derided because her songs are often love songs (Golden is no exception), and love songs are thought to be “unreal” compared to their “real” counterparts (the lyrics of rock, in particular). But I wonder, as sociomusicologist Simon Frith also wonders, whether the love song, as one of the most widespread cultural artefacts, reflects how our lives are tethered to romantic ideology, of ‘being in love’. For Frith, it’s not that the songs work to make people fall in love, but they instead describe the famed rush of romantic love. The love song first follows the ideology of romantic love: not the other way around.
As for love song lyrics being “unreal”, Frith writes how in everyday life “One is more likely to say “I love you more than there are stars in the sky” than “there are ambiguities in the way I feel about you.””
As much as Kylie sings about love and desire, she’s also an object of desire, and as much as others and myself have emulated her, we’ve probably projected, too. There is a chameleon ease that Kylie contains, which sees her often referred to (and at times referring to herself) as “a blank canvas”. Rather than being seen as an ability, or as a form of self-protection or privacy, it often sees her disdained as inauthentic, as flimsy, as unknowable in a very impersonal way.
Yet for so long women have been the bearers of whatever images and ideals men have painted, wrote and sung: Kylie, like other pop stars, could be seen to take this projection to its very extremes—if a projection is what I am meant to be, then I will give it to you in the most straightforward, brutal and spectacle-like, way as possible.
In this way Kylie does two jobs: she performs songs, but she also performs Kylie performing the song. She acts various roles and emotions, and matches her expressions and fashion, but what gives her dimensionality is that she holds this acting up for us to admire. To be a pop star is for the artwork and the artist to be the same thing.
While there have been efforts to either save Kylie from, or condemn her to, pop culture (that she’s feminist, a gay icon, an aesthete, self-knowing and so on), Kylie doesn’t need rescuing—she’s right where she wants to be.
Kylie Minogue – Golden
Released in April 2018 by BMG
Originally published on Difficult Fun.