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Love, hate and Kylie Minogue

 The Big Issue Australia 20 June 2019

It’s been more than two decades since Kylie Minogue left Australia to tackle the pop music industry. Since then, she has crafted a career impressive both for its longevity and range. A very public battle with cancer has proved her pluck. Once a Kylie-hater and now a Kylie-lover, the music critic Clem Bastow assesses the singer’s achievements. (1533 Words) - By Clem Bastow

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Australian singer Kylie Minogue performs on stage during her "Aphrodite: Les Folies Tour 2011" in Riga, Latvia. Photo: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

In the scheme of 'things I regret in life', the time I spent in the Kylie-hating wilderness ranks highly. This period occurred, roughly, from 1999 to 2002, during which time I was exactly the sort of person I would push into a mud puddle if I met them today.

It's difficult to pinpoint precisely why I hated Kylie Minogue: maybe it was a too-hip

university student thing. Maybe it was trying to impress some knob-end rock snob who proudly boasted they hadn't listened to commercial radio for 15 years. Maybe I was just being contrary.

One thing's for sure: it happened. For a number of years I rolled my eyes at the mere mention of Australia's 'singing budgie', ran from the room if 'On a Night Like This' fired up (a millennium anthem only surpassed in sheer omnipresence by Savage Garden's 'Affirmation' and Jennifer Lopez's 'Waiting for Tonight'). I wanted nothing to do with a culture that celebrated someone I perceived to be the height of Australia's fascination with mediocrity.

In retrospect, it was a momentary wrinkle in my critical capabilities; as Britney Spears would call it, a "brain fart". If I could reach back 11 years, I would grab that 18-year-old by the shoulders and shout: "What the hell is wrong with you, you wanker?"

Because here's the thing: whether you like it or not, Kylie is one of Australia's most important artists, with one of the most flawless back catalogues in the game.

There was a time, it bears remembering, when every man and his dog felt as though they'd been given permission to like Kylie. This was back in 1995, when the prince of darkness himself, Nick Cave, revealed his love of her single 'Better the Devil You Know' (1990). The song featured "one of pop music's most violent and distressing love lyrics," he said, opining "when Kylie Minogue sings these words, there is an innocence to her voice that makes the horror of this chilling lyric all the more compelling". As "chilling" as cave claimed to find the song, well, it's no 'He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)' [the Crystals; 1962]: Our love wasn't perfect I know/I think I know the score/If you say you love me, oh boy/I can't ask for more…

Also in 1995, Kylie and Cave recorded a duet, 'Where the Wild Roses Grow', and Cave later paraded her at the Big Day Out like an alt debutante. Tiresome armchair critics told all and sundry that, of course, they'd always liked her. It was complete tosh, obviously: this hopelessly patriarchal scenario of the male rock star swooping in and saving the poor defenceless poppet from her unfulfilling life of smash hits irrelevancy. The truth is that Kylie's catalogue had already been peppered with countless songs far stronger than 'Better the Devil You Know', and with far more compelling lyrical content.

And what about the Kylie Minogue album, released in 1994 to muted reception, a year before Cave bestowed his approval on her? It boasts possibly my favourite Kylie song, the darkly seductive 'Confide in Me', which Madonna aped some four years later with her 'Frozen'. The video, too, in which Kylie addresses the viewer like some futuristic late night phone-sex advert, is wonderful.

Then there's her remarkable 1997 album, Impossible Princess, on which she wrote or co-wrote every song. From the upbeat 'Some Kind of Bliss' to the spunky 'Did It Again' (with its hysterically self-parodying video, featuring Indie Kylie, Dance Kylie, Sex Kylie and Cute Kylie) to the sublime 'Breathe', the record is a remarkable kaleidoscope of pop.

Or how about her stonking 1998 collaboration with DJ Towa Tei, 'GBI: German Bold Italic', featuring Kylie singing, no joke, as a helpful typeface? (I can complement you well/Especially in red.) The video, directed by Stéphane Sednaoui (her then-boyfriend), with Kylie decked out as a geisha wandering around new york city, is a pop-art masterpiece.

The song I always return to as a counterpoint to Cave's favourite, though, is the deceptively ebullient 'What Do I Have To Do' - also released in 1990 and also a Stock, Aitken & Waterman production.

It contains my favourite Kylie lines: There ain't a single night/When I haven't held you tight/But it's always inside my head/Never inside my bed. This Kylie has an inner life (who knows, maybe even a sex life that doesn't involve having another body inside [her] bed). She knows that being alone, even though she longs for love, is better than being with the Devil You Know.

The thing is, as strong as her later work has been, the SA&W years are unfairly dismissed as the filler before the killer from the late 1990s onward, when in fact they include some of her most exciting work. 'Shocked' (1991), with its echoing synthesiser intro that gives way to a characteristically 1990s piano riff, is terrifically exciting in the way so much early 1990s dance music was. More importantly, though, with its brilliant Jazzi P rap breakdown (From a man who respects me/Loves my mind as well as my body/No retreat and no surrender/Equal to you regardless of gender), the song is far from fluff.

That's the thing about the anti-Kylie brigade: membership to that club requires a person to subscribe to the tiresome old mentality that pop music is inherently vacuous; that those who perform it must surely be brainless automatons who are simply shoved in front of a microphone by a league of faceless svengali types.

This is all well and good, except that this stance requires a person to conveniently forget that many of the artists we now consider legends (such as Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra) rarely, if ever, wrote their own songs.

Is it not as valuable to be a talented interpreter as it is a songwriter? After all, being of the opinion that artists in the former category are somehow lesser creative beings suddenly relegates a whole lot of brilliant classical musicians and opera singers to the sin bin. (The strength of Kylie's work as an interpreter, it should be added, is ably demonstrated by the many artists who have covered her songs and only ever come off sounding second-best. Britney Spears' back catalogue has a similar effect on those who dare to 'ironically' cover '…baby one more time' et al.)

In any case, given Kylie has written or co-written most of her material since the late 1990s, the 'she's just a pop-puppet' argument is not only stale, it's redundant. People who are concerned with things like that are the sort of people who need to ask if it's okay to like something, or wait for permission from tastemakers like Cave.

It has been fascinating watching Kylie's career skyrocket since 2000. Yes, she was always famous, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s and her relationship with Jason Donovan, but in the 2000s she has been elevated to that rarefied stratosphere reserved for those who can be referred to by one name only - Pink, Madonna, Bono…

Like her one-time collaborator Robbie Williams, much of the past decade has seen Kylie focus on cracking the US. Unlike Williams, who was so crushed by his failure that he disappeared to investigate UFOs for a year, Kylie has made headway into that most alluring of markets, culminating in her winning a Grammy Award in 2004 for 'Come Into My World'.

Her conquest of America led to one of her greatest moments, too: the glorious 2004 single 'I Believe in You', written with Jake Spears and Babydaddy of the Scissor Sisters. That song, with its undulating synthesised bass line and heavenly vocals, cast Kylie as a sort of fairy godmother sprinkling disco stardust over the dance floor.

The more ungenerous armchair critics have suggested that Kylie's battle with breast cancer from 2005 somehow increased her public standing. Did her stoicism endear her to the public? Undoubtedly. You could also argue that her private strength was mirrored by the quality of her musical output at the time, but to chalk her success in the latter stages of the past decade down to sympathy sales is both incorrect and insulting.

Where, prior to the turn of the century, she was merely a star in the Commonwealth, so to speak, Kylie is now unquestionably a global superstar. It is, perhaps, the ultimate riposte to those who once dismissed her as little more than a former Neighbours star.

As the spangled juggernaut that is her $25 million Aphrodite Les Folies tour prepares to roll into her homeland, and I find myself scrambling to buy a ticket, I can't help but think back to those years I wasted griping about Kylie.

Perhaps I should take her own advice, from 'Confide in Me': [w]e all have our cross to bear/but in the name of understanding now/our problems should be shared.

 

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