My 2018 Music

A playlist of my favourite albums of 2018:

And a playlist of my favourite songs:

Kylie

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My photos and videos of Kylie at the O2 last night are here.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Q Magazine’s review of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories in 1994 has always stuck in my memory. Its final line was “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?”

It’s no secret (hey!) that I’ve been immensely frustrated by Kylie for a while now. If I can be awful enough to quote myself (I can be):

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…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.

Despite some glimmers of hope that something interesting was stirring (the Anti-Tour, the Abbey Road album which had an air of putting the past to bed, the jump to Roc Nation) the resulting relaunch, Kiss Me Once, was an immense disappointment. It also bombed – the last time I checked, long after its speedy exit from most of the world’s charts, it had sold around 200,000 copies worldwide (2010’s Aphrodite was certified Platinum for shipping 300,000 copies in the UK alone). An artistic risk which doesn’t sell can be a noble failure; a commercial smash which treads water could be said to be giving the fans what they want. The stars don’t always align. With Kiss Me Once, however, the stars weren’t even visible.

Still, live is where Kylie has always truly excelled, right? There’s no doubt that she remains a hugely charismatic performer – and she deserves eternal credit for her live vocals which invariably knock it out of the park. Yet the infuriating, aimless, conservatism which marked Kiss Me Once (and has arguably characterised much of her career in the past decade) carries over into this tour. The show is overwhelmingly familiar – with over 40 top twenty hits in the UK and 12 albums to her name, do we really need all of the big Parlophone singles wheeled out yet again? Do we need performances of Sexy Love/Wow/Love At First Sight, three diminishing return rewrites of the same song? Do we need yet another PWL medley (as fun as it was)? There were the usual semi-naked male dancers, the same old ‘ad-libs’, the standard ‘impromptu’ rendition of an old hit. It was Kylie-by-numbers. There were nods to progression with interludes featuring the Garibay songs she surprise-released the other week but what would Kylie have to lose in performing some of these live? They are the most interesting, if half-sketched, songs she’s released in ages. Lest we forget, she debuted Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on tour back in 2001 while KylieX2008 featured two completely new songs.

In the Kiss Me Once show, however, we find a Kylie who seems hesitant and cowed. Perhaps the underperformance of the album meant she felt the need to ‘deliver the hits’ – but anyone around her with the slightest insight would understand that the vast majority of people (hello, gay men over the age of 30) attending a Kylie show in 2014 would go along for the ride, wherever it took them. The ‘casual’ fans have been drifting away for a while now, underlined by the fact that last night’s third evening at the O2 featured a curtained-off top section:

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Les Folies tour had 5 dates at the O2. KylieX2008 had 7. Are we seeing a trend here?

To go back to the quote at the beginning, I of course don’t think that Kylie’s career is over. Yet it’s conceivable that her time as a relevant concern is at an end and, on the basis of both KMO album and tour, she could be in Cher territory: release a ‘will this do?’ album for the faithful then go out on tour with essentially the same show as you always do. And we shouldn’t be in any doubt that a significant number of her fans would be absolutely fine with this – it’s all they want from her. My frustration, as always, stems from the fact that I know she is capable of so much more than that. I’ve been saying that she has nothing to lose for years – now we’re at the stage where surely even she must be aware of her decline. I think this could be her last chance to do something daring, as she has done before, to win over new hearts and minds. Alternatively, we’ll rendezvous in a few years for her three dates at Brixton Academy, marketed as an ‘intimate’ show but with a telling smattering of empty seats.

You Are A Target Market

‘The gays’ have been viewed as an exploitable market for at least a few decades now. Artists like Cher, Madonna and Kylie have long been famed for their fiercely loyal gay fanbase, so much so that every female pop star of a certain ilk has tried desperately to get in on the action. Then of course we have the straight-male-celeb-does-the-gays thing which has become an essential part of turning a b-lister into a profitable commodity. As I wrote here, “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants” and oh, it is ever so the case.

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’. It wouldn’t have to be a very long section, of course, as it would just have to lay down the buzzwords to use: homophobia, bullying, gay marriage, it gets better, love, equality etc. You don’t even have to make any attempt at subtlety – Class A, a truly dreadful boy band, released an equally dreadful single called ‘Pride’ and did a tour of British schools ostensibly to promote ‘pride’ and oppose homophobic bullying (in association with the ever-useless Stonewall). This has of course given them quick and extensive access to the market which is most important for any new boy band. It also renders them largely immune from criticism – as love of/support for the gays has become a totemic liberal value there are a multitude of voices who will defend such commercial exploitation of ‘homophobia’, invariably appealing to the mythical ‘young kid growing up and feeling alone’. The gay is always ‘out there’ in this equation, always a voiceless victim needing to be saved. Lady Gaga is obviously the standard-bearer for this conflation of homosexuality with victimhood, portraying herself as some brave freedom fighter bringing a voice to an oppressed minority. Only two weeks ago  the rich white woman with the model boyfriend who attended “one of the most selective and expensive schools in Manhattan” declared that ”It’s time for us to be mainstream”. Gee, thanks for that Gaga.

She is, to be fair, the perfect representative of an LGBT movement which is dominated by the concerns of privileged white men and is all-too-willing to allow itself be used as a mark of superiority by equally privileged liberals who fancy a taste of ‘the other’. That’s why the gay marketing ploy works so well. By buying into this idea that ‘gay rights’ exist in a vacuum, removed from any other political/geographical/human concerns, can completely ignore unpleasant issues of race, of poverty, of wider inequality (you can even ignore any discussion ofwhat ‘equality’ even means.) You don’t have to do anything at all other than say a couple of sentences and point people towards the e-petition.  In essence you’re saying nothing that’s any more controversial than ‘I like cake’ yet your ‘support’ for the gays will be widely seized on by (at least) the gay media and will confer a fabulous sprinkling of radicalism on you. This completely unthreatening ploy sees the cause, and the gays, as instrumental to the real message – buy our product. So you find LGBT people celebrating the commercialisation not only of homophobia but of themselves. They become less than human, useful only for their victimised sexuality and perceived lack of voice. In this way this marketing ploy is as insidious and harmful as any ‘homophobia’ which it ostensibly aims to address (at least until the next single is out). We don’t need the Class A, Matthew Morrison and Saturdays of the world to promote their wares off the back of our ‘oppression’; more than that, we shouldn’t allow it. They can stuff their commercialised, profit-based, neutered and one-dimensional ‘Pride’.

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.

Limitless Joy: Kylie Minogue Interviewed

I must admit, I was already getting rather bored of the ‘K25’ concept. The whole thing seemed a bit…cheap. For a while now it’s seemed like Kylie was heading down a Las Vegas route where she basks in ‘being Kylie’ and plays to the faithful. Launching your own celebration of your own 25 years in pop kinda seems in that vein. I was trying to think of other acts who’ve done similar and the only one that easily came to mind was Janet Jackson with ‘20YO’, though even that was marking the anniversary of a particular album and not an entire career. ‘20YO’ did, however, undoubtedly come from some desperation and confusion as to exactly where Janet fitted into the current pop scene and it’s been hard to shake the impression that this is where Kylie is currently at.

Today’s announcement of a long-rumoured’ Anti-Tour’ consisting of ‘b-sides, demos and rarities’ has made me reconsider. Perhaps with K25 she is showing that she is not only completely at ease with her past but subtly repositioning herself for a future where she again takes risks and, finally, fully lets her listeners inside. Fingers crossed. More than anything I would love Kylie to make that one career-defining album of brilliance that I think has so far eluded her.

It’ll certainly be an oddity to see a Kylie concert which doesn’t consist of high-camp production values and pandering to her gay audience (I’m just assuming, here!) but, most of all, it will be a delight to hear some of her lesser known treasures. I’ve put some of these in this playlist – obviously constrained by what’s on Spotify, but I’m not one of those who think there are lost gems on her early albums (I think the PWL albums are all dreadful) so it’s not a massive loss.

Kylie AntiTour Playlist

’ She doesn’t parade her vulnerabilities; she does not play the victim. She is not continually letting us in to the details of some battle with bulimia or weight problems or health problems or drug abuse, or the way her heart always seems to get broken (fill in likeable talented/wealthy/successful actress, musician, etc here). Nor does she complain about how hard it is to juggle work and family, or let us into photo shoots where we see the banal and recognizable rituals of grocery shopping or ferrying kids, so that we can know reassuringly that she is JUST LIKE US (fill in likeable female politician/news anchor here).’

I found this piece interesting in terms of the contrast between the typical response to Madonna in comparison to the one afforded to Kylie. There is a definite sense that the latter ‘knows her place’ and rarely has ideas above her station. She doesn’t deign to offer her thoughts on the wider world and is firmly an ‘entertainer’. However while gender is relevant here, in a wider sense the fetishism of inoffensiveness is a much broader trait in our culture. As Morrissey put it, ‘They’re so scared to show intelligence, it might smear their lovely career’.

Madonna as ‘male artist’