27 November 2007

She Will Survive

The unexpected staying power of Kylie Minogue
By Andre Mayer, CBCNews.ca
November 26, 2007

The challengers for the title of Queen of Pop are fervent but few. Céline Dion and Madonna have the strongest claims, given they’ve each sold in excess of 200 million albums. If ubiquity were the sole measure, I’d probably go with Beyoncé, who has an astonishing work ethic. Nelly Furtado has been surging of late, but I question her permanence.

Kylie Minogue’s name is rarely mentioned in such company, and it absolutely should be. The Australian-born singer has had a remarkable run, tallying no less than 29 Top 10 U.K. hits in a 20-year career. Her newest single, 2 Hearts, is a typical gem. Built on a swaggering glam-rock groove, it’s the potent leadoff to X, her 10th studio album.

You’d have little trouble arguing Minogue’s case for pop royalty in Britain, where she dominates the charts (as well as the tabloid press). She hasn’t been nearly as successful in the American market. I suspect it’s partly her Britishness, but also the uniqueness of her talent.

Let’s examine her competition. Beyoncé is a well-known double threat: she can sing and dance. Céline and Nelly can sing but can’t dance; Madonna and Britney can dance but can’t sing. Kylie… well, one could hardly say she’s got a gift for either. Her voice is genial in the lower ranges (her breathiness certainly enhances the effect); but it tends to become pinched, nasally, slightly ducky when she reaches for the high notes. Close watchers of her videos and performances will notice that she tends to downplay movement. It’s not that she’s stiff — Minogue is keenly aware of her wiles — but she’s nobody’s idea of a dancer.

Unequipped for Mariah-type outbursts, Minogue has put greater emphasis on actual songs. That’s no platitude — melody is a quality too often lacking in American pop, which has made a virtue of vocal excess. In fact, Minogue has made a virtue of consistency. Whether it’s mega-singles like On a Night Like This and Love at First Sight or her lesser-known album cuts, Minogue’s songbook is as strong as that of any current female pop star. For her new album, Minogue called on hot producers like Calvin Harris and Bloodshy & Avant, as well as her old songwriting partner, Cathy Dennis. From the shimmering In My Arms, to the sublime Stars to a freaky little romp called Nu-di-ty, X is another solidly tuneful collection; the fact that only two years ago Minogue had surgery for breast cancer makes it even more triumphant.

Given her early output, there was no reason to expect Minogue to last one decade, much less two. Her first release, The Loco-Motion, was a tacky dance-pop update of the 1962 hit by Little Eva. The 19-year-old Minogue sang it with winsome enthusiasm, but even in 1987, the thing seemed naff. Minogue spent her first half-decade under the stewardship of British hitmakers Stock Aitken & Waterman. She enjoyed chart success (I Should Be So Lucky, Especially for You, Better the Devil You Know), but by 1993 was finding SA&W’s style formulaic, if not restrictive.

Seeking to reinvent herself, Minogue co-wrote songs with an unlikely array of Commonwealth talent, from the Pet Shop Boys, to Saint Etienne to members of the rock band Manic Street Preachers. Like Madonna, Minogue was willing to stray from her comfort zone to keep things interesting. (Her most surprising collaborator was caustic Australian crooner Nick Cave, who was so taken by her 1990 hit Better the Devil You Know that he asked her to record the murder ballad Where the Wild Roses Grow in 1995.) After a spate of uneven material — including an awkward bash at guitar-based pop on the 1997 album Impossible Princess — Minogue found her métier. Starting with Light Years (2000) and culminating with Fever (2001), she produced a spate of hot singles in a style that could be best described as futuristic disco.

Then there’s her stage presence. Her shows mix elements of Broadway, burlesque and more general bombast; her flair for jaw-dropping spectacle exceeds even Madonna’s. Who could forget the 2002 Fever Tour, in which she emerged onstage in cybernetic armour? (Beyoncé stole this act at the 2007 BET Awards.) Or what about her performance at the 2002 British Music Awards, in which she hove into view lying on a giant compact disc?

Given Kylie’s highly sexualized persona, critics have good reason to believe she is more invested in style than substance. A member of the British band Lush once remarked, “It’s a shame she gets so much credibility when there are so many women worth a hundred times that. It’s war—you shouldn’t stick up for Kylie, she should be fought at every turn.”

Like most pop divas, Minogue has made a fetish of her image, but never at the expense of first-rate songs. She’s savvy in other ways, too. Shortly after the release of the single Can’t Get You Out of My Head in 2001, underground producers Soulwax remixed the tune with New Order’s throbbing 1982 hit Blue Monday. When it came time to perform the song at the Brit Awards in 2002, Minogue opted for the Soulwax version — Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head — thus becoming the first pop star to legitimize mash-ups. (The Brit Awards appearance has been expunged from YouTube, but here’s Kylie having another go of it at the 2002 World Music Awards.)

Can’t Get You Out of My Head won her a new cohort of fans. The song was re-recorded by the Flaming Lips, sampled on Kid 606’s 2002 mash-up extravaganza The Action Packed Mentallist Brings You the F---ing Jams and has been covered live by everyone from Basement Jaxx to the Unicorns. Indeed, Kylie is one of the rare megastars to boast the unironic appreciation of the indie set; Madonna and Céline can only dream of that sort of reach. One can even hear echoes of Minogue’s future-disco in the work of artists like Goldfrapp and Róisín Murphy.

X isn’t risky enough to suggest a new direction — if anything, the album reveals Minogue’s own inspirations of late (most noticeably, the work of Gwen Stefani and Timbaland). But like every album she’s released in the last decade, X is a remarkably consistent collection, bound to galvanize dance floors the world over.

X is released by EMI Canada and is in stores now.

Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

Ten indispensable Kylie tracks

Better the Devil You Know (1990): Although unabashedly upbeat, this single marked a shift in Minogue’s image, from jubilant teenybopper to provocateur.

Where the Wild Roses Grow (w/ Nick Cave) (1995): This dark, mournful collaboration with Nick Cave may be the biggest aberration in Minogue’s discography, but it’s also one of her finest recordings.

Cowboy Style (1998): The fiddles and Middle Eastern lilt sound weird at first, but the snaky melody brings it all into focus.

On a Night Like This (2000): An ecstatic club track, this is the starting point of Kylie’s current hit streak.

Spinning Around (2000): As dizzying as its name suggests.

Kids (w/ Robbie Williams) (2000): A smart-alecky duet with Robbie Williams, this song features an absolutely colossal chorus.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001): Simply put, one of the finest disco songs ever recorded. And it’s damn sexy, too.

Love at First Sight (2002): Another indestructible dance-pop gem.

Slow (2003): A more restrained come-on, this robotic cut owes a debt to German synth pioneers Kraftwerk.

I Believe in You (2004): A throbbing, Giorgio Moroder-inspired disco joint co-written with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.

The new album, X, is very good. I was quite surprised. There is a big variation in sounds, themes and range and it keeps you engaged from beginning to end. The first single, 2 Hearts, didn't really catch me at first, but now I'm really starting to dig it! Yay for Kylie!

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