Kylie Minogue: the mysterious popstar who can do no wrong

As an album of "reimagined" Kylie songs emerges, Kate Mossman goes in search of the singer herself.

The Abbey Road Sessions (Parlophone)
Kylie Minogue

Recently, in case anyone missed it, a Boeing 777 was zig-zagging back and forth across the Atlantic in a complex press stunt designed to prove it was carrying the biggest pop star on the planet. Rihanna’s attitude towards the 200 fans and journalists on board (she ignored them – someone streaked through economy class just to give people something to write about), and the uncertainty over whether she’d even turn up at her nightly gigs, showed just what a big deal this woman was. That is, if you measure stardom by a distressing lack of engagement with your work, the world around you and everyone on your payroll. For some of us, Rihanna’s listlessness suggested something wasn’t quite right: others just thought she was being a brat.

Good behaviour goes a very long way in pop music. At the risk of sounding like a horsebreeder, a steady, upbeat temperament and a commitment to back-breaking hard work can elevate a musician to mystical realms as much as any old-fashioned hellraising – just look at Springsteen. Pop has to make people feel good. Your show must say: I love my work, I look after myself, I’m all right, you are here to have fun, we are all in this together.

Kylie Minogue has never been the most eloquent interviewee but in the breezy, unterritorial way she talks about her music she cuts a very unusual figure today. We are living in an age of musical auteurs (such as Gaga) and formidable, one-woman industries – but Minogue would never claim to be in sole charge of her artistic vision. Hers is a mind formed in the Eighties workshop of Stock Aitken Waterman: music is a product and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tours are “huge fun” – there she is in the wings, on footage of the 2011 Aphrodite tour, whispering “OK, everyone, good luck!”, pulling terrified faces at the camera, leading the “circle of trust” she learned from the movie Meet the Parents (“I thought it was important because we are a family for the next few months”).

Of her many stylistic changes Minogue says simply, “I think the music has always marked the time that it’s [made] in – that’s what pop should do.” In 2000, after a period as indie Kylie in the mid to late Nineties (dating Michael Hutchence, recording with Nick Cave), she gave herself over to the stylist William Baker for a redesign, went head-first into the gay community and stayed there. Those famous gold hotpants, inspired by the Peruvian pin-up painter Alberto Vargas, paved the way for more than a decade of slick dance pop and all that was classically stylish.

Now, an album of “reimagined” Kylie songs has emerged – wait, come back! – which gives prominence to her voice (apparently “improved” over the years) with a jazz band and an orchestra. Much of her later career seems to be about gently reminding people she’s not a puppet: “She’s much more creative than people think,” William Baker once said, clunkily. The Abbey Road Sessions gives the 44-year-old a cameo appearance within the pervasive Sixties soul revival. Like many of her creative choices – playing the “absinthe fairy” in Moulin Rouge, or that curiously brilliant performance in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors – it’s an elegant move, carefully designed to put a foot in another world without stretching the product out of shape.

“On a Night Like This”, (from her dance-pop, 2000 “comeback” album Light Years) has been turned, quite successfully, into a 6/8 shuffle with shoop-shoop backing vocals; “The Loco-Motion” is returned to its original Motown setting, which is funny, because when she released it in 1988 people couldn’t have cared less about its musical history. Some of those repetitive, throwaway pop lyrics – “I Should Be So Lucky”, for example – simply can’t stand the spotlight when presented on these grand musical settings. But generally the new backdrops work: the huge club anthem “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” simply replaces the original bubbly synth with pizzicato strings, while the cool, end-ofthe-night yearning of “Come into My World” works equally well with a lone piano.

Contrary to what press releases claim, you’re not getting an unusually intimate portrait of Kylie because, well, she doesn’t do that. This seems important – so different from what’s happening in new pop at the moment, where club-floor material is invested with dark, personal detail just to feed the hype. Kylie’s sadness, when there is any, comes straight out of the disco era: hey, at least we’ve got each other and we’re dancing. There’s a new song on the album called “Flower” (“my love song to the child I may or may not have,” she says) and listening to this rare glimpse of the interior mind, you somehow don’t want to believe it’s about her. She’s a relief from the cult of personal life that has overtaken the world of female singer-songwriters. She’d been in the soap opera already; she didn’t have to turn her own life into one.

Instead Minogue has become a mannequin upon which her fans project grand abstracts like joy, strength, liberation and love. Exactly what they are seeing remains ultimately mysterious to many of us but there are some simple things at the root of her popularity: graciousness (she really does get asked some stupid questions); a rare combination of drive and malleability. And a degree of shrugging, smiling self-sacrifice. All of which have allowed her into the small, golden chamber of public figures who can do no wrong – which is a great place to be, and otherwise pretty empty from where I’m sitting.

Kylie remains down to earth and essentially private. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism