In 2012 I think you can throw out a statement like “Kylie Minogue is a pop genius” safe in the knowledge that few people are going to parse it. The calls of ‘music snob’ over anyone who dares to criticise pop music in certain ways have become so inevitable and trite that you can anticipate them before a sentence has even finished. Indeed, Price conjures up this ‘enemy’ himself with his contrast between the ‘rockist, hippy notion of ‘genius’’ and pop – a neat trick inviting readers to share in his bravely unpopular opinion against hordes of dreary, middle-aged puritans. Yet his distinction is fairly arbitrary and disingenuous. Pop is filled with its own ‘auteurs’, from Michael Jackson to Gaga, while ‘rock’ acts like Mumford & Sons and Coldplay are widely and almost instinctively mocked. That archetype of ‘manufactured’ music, Motown, is held in universal high-regard while self-consciously ‘rockist’ artists who consider themselves superior are almost universally sneered at (see the reaction to Jake Bugg’s X Factor comment this week.) We’re a long way from Michael Jackson and Van Halen uniting warring tribes and as musical genres (and tastes) continue to fragment and shatter the ‘rock vs pop’ idea seems ever more quaint.
The problem with taking this defensive stance as the lead point of a Kylie interview is that everything which follows is forced through its prism and interesting questions regarding her career are swept away. People make allowances for Kylie as a pop act that they never would for a band, as they rather patronisingly see Kylie as being less about the music. In fact Kylie herself makes the point that rock acts also have ‘producers, video directors, costume designers, choreographers’. They also frequently have external song-writing collaborations. Yet few feel the urge to make an issue of these as a stick to beat anyone with (except as a dreary riposte to a rock act’s own ‘authenticity’ which would have that all notions of artistry in music are meaningless.) Acts who are seen as outside of ‘pop’ are given a much freer rein to do what they want without comment (in fact, experimentation is positively encouraged)– something very relevant to Kylie’s career.
Kylie has clearly previously been concerned with that ‘rockist, hippy notion of genius’ in that she very ostentatiously broke with PWL and signed to an independent label in order to take creative control of her music. This culminated in ‘Impossible Princess’ where every track is either written or co-written by her (it’s worth noting, however, that this wasn’t just about writing – ‘Kylie Minogue’ features only one Kylie writing credit , less than her final PWL album.) Certainly there were many who held an idea in their head of Kylie as a pop puppet and scoffed at her attempts at ‘cool’ and ‘indie’ – yet there were also many who sneered at her perceived efforts to garner ‘authenticity’. In short, her pop fans deserted her in droves and she gained few new listeners to replace them. Post-‘Impossible Princess’, her career was markedly in decline.
It was at this commercial nadir that she came to “embrace my past and embrace pop”, as she says in the interview. The resulting album, ‘Light Years’, is perhaps a career high. Aside from being enormously entertaining, it feels relaxed and engaging. Notably, Kylie has a credit on 10 of the 15 tracks – there is a real sense that she has worked through a crisis of identity and is at a good place.
Then comes ‘Fever’, an album which seems constructed around the era-defining ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’. It’s confident and conquering – it’s also where things started to go wrong. The pressure of replicating that album’s success bled through in her follow-up – Kylie is lost in ‘Body Language’’s forced Americanisms and ill-fitting r&b. Her post-cancer ‘comeback’ ‘X’ is, as she acknowledges, all over the place. What is most interesting, however, is that she eventually gave interviews where she spoke of struggling to get ‘personal’ songs which she had written onto the record. This is touched on here in the revealing exchange regarding ‘Flower’, where she speaks of ‘submitting’ the song but it being ‘passed by’. If being a pop genius is ‘about having a vision of exactly what you want, and knowing exactly who you need to work with’, how does having to submit songs for your own album and having most of them rejected square with that? It seems a particularly demeaning position for a pop princess with (at the time) 20 years in the business to find herself in. ‘Aphrodite’ followed the electro-pop template which has dictated every post-‘Fever’ album – it was business as usual and that business involved Kylie competing for conveyer-belt hits with Alexandra Burke. By now, Kylie seemed as trapped in an identity as she clearly felt at the close of her PWL days.
This year has seen #K25, a celebration of 25 years in the business and Kylie’s adoption as a national treasure. The ‘Anti-Tour’, a short series of stripped-back gigs which focused on her more ‘interesting’/obscure material ( the set-list of which consisted of over 50% self-written material) seemed to offer glimpses of a more interesting future. Another impersonal electro-pop track, ‘Timebomb’ (apparently recorded during sessions for her new album), suggested otherwise And now we have ‘The Abbey Road Sessions’, a re-recording of old hits which serves as an unsatisfying curio for hardcore fans only. Given Kylie’s previous stated desire to record a jazz record, at times it frustratingly hints at more interesting possibilities.
Kylie has willingly placed herself into the nostalgia circuit. With her previous few albums clearly struggling to sell outside of her fan-base, it’s difficult to see this changing. Interviews like this won’t dwell on this fact, celebrating Kylie for her numerous brilliant pop records and anticipating criticism by emphasising the fluidity of pop. However (again touched on here) if we approach pop as merely fronting persuasive hits, Kylie’s age is clearly against her and she begins to seem increasingly irrelevant. What’s the point of a blank slate for Calvin Harris when you have Rihanna, for example? I don’t think you have to be too concerned with ‘rockist’ notions to believe that delivering further albums of off-the-shelf electro-pop can only offer diminishing returns, both commercially and critically. Perhaps the odd big hit, a la Cher and ‘Believe’, but nothing that most people will want to return to years down the line. Her ‘voice’ (in its widest sense) is not so compelling that you would rather hear her deliver a dance-pop song over many current chart mainstays. Instead she increasingly appeals to our emotional connection with her past rather than any meaningful connection with her present. The great frustration of Kylie’s career is that she clearly has talent, she clearly has had an interesting life and she clearly has yearnings to go beyond her comfort zone – is it unreasonable to ask for some of that to (finally) be heard in her music? As good as some of her albums are, she has not yet delivered a compelling career-defining one which you feel only she could have made. I think, rather than implying that such matters are better left to boys with guitars and that Kylie deserves applause for once again acting as a void, we should be rooting for her to once again challenge us (and herself). Clearly you don’t last a quarter century in pop by accident yet Kylie currently seems so slight as an artist. Acting as an ephemeral personality onto which writers, producers and listeners can project themselves is indeed a kind of genius but it is ultimately a brief and unfulfilling one. I believe Kylie is more than capable of filling that void herself, of compelling us with her own voice. I hope that’s the ‘genius’ she begins to strive towards in her second 25 years.