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

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What can a new book of Holocaust testimony tell us about the Third Reich?

Laurence Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Holocaust than anybody else.

“The first authoritative and accessible account of the Holocaust in three decades”, proclaims the publisher’s blurb about this book. But wasn’t Saul Friedländer’s prizewinning classic Nazi Germany and the Jews (in two volumes, in 1997 and 2007) authoritative and accessible? Perhaps the publishers think that Final Solution, the thousand-page epic published posthumously less than a year ago by the late, highly readable historian David Cesarani, wasn’t authoritative? Or maybe Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), which nobody could reasonably say wasn’t authoritative, in some way wasn’t accessible?

These are not the only serious and approachable accounts of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews between 1939 and 1945. The Holocaust is one of the most intensively studied subjects in history and the publishers are misleading potential readers when they imply that somehow it isn’t.

What new insights and material does Laurence Rees bring to the table? Rees made his name in the 1990s as a television producer, making numerous outstanding programmes. He was editor of Timewatch, the BBC’s flagship series of historical documentaries, and then became head of history at the BBC while continuing to produce his own programmes, including The Nazis: a Warning from History (1997) and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution (2005). These and other programmes were notable for their depth of research, their accuracy and their awareness of the latest thinking by specialists on the topics they covered. Rees has won numerous accolades for his work, including a Bafta and two Emmys. He has done more than anyone else to raise the standard of historical documentaries and to spread to a wide audience in a gripping fashion the findings of academic research, above all on the Nazis.

But he grew dissatisfied with television’s insatiable demand for new methods and perspectives. In 2008, he resigned from the BBC to set up a multimedia website about the Second World War, although he returned to television work with his independent company, with programmes such as The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and Touched by Auschwitz. One hopes that he will continue making documentaries for many more years.

Rees has accompanied a number of his television documentaries with products of an even more traditional character: books. Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution” (2005), a tie-in with his television series of the same name, became a bestseller. Like his others books, The Holocaust reads rather like a television programme put down on paper in an expanded but, in essence, unaltered form. The text is a kind of voice-over, written in plain and simple language that often verges on banality.

Television documentaries depend above all on visual images. The room they leave for spoken words is very limited; hence the need for simplicity and concision. However, a book of more than 500 pages demands a different kind of approach – the employment of stylistic grace of the sort that one finds in Friedländer’s magnificent volumes – and it is notable by its absence here.

Among Rees’s great virtues as a producer of documentaries about the Nazis were the assiduity and ingenuity that he displayed in searching out eyewitnesses and persuading them to speak to the recording camera. Often their testimony was gripping, moving and disturbing. Who can forget the blank denial of an elderly German woman confronted by Rees’s team with a denunciation that she had written to the Nazi authorities at the age of 20, reporting the “suspicious behaviour” of a neighbour who failed to give the Nazi salute and seemed to have a Jewish friend? The Gestapo always investigated letters such as this, and all too frequently the story ended with the arrest of the person denounced and their imprisonment and even death.

Over the years, Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Third Reich than anybody else. For the television series he produced, hundreds of interviews had to be boiled down to a few fairly short excerpts. In The Holocaust: A New History, he presents a further, much more generous selection, marking it as “previously unpublished testimony”. Thus the book reproduces the documentary format of interviews linked by commentary.

Much of this testimony presents detailed evidence of the sufferings of the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism across Europe. Rees quotes at length an interview with a Frenchwoman who was taken with her family at the age of nine by French police as part of a round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942. They were kept in appalling conditions at a holding camp in Beaune-la-Rolande, south of Paris, and then their mothers were taken away, to be murdered at Auschwitz, although the children did not know their fate.

Among the graphic details supplied in the narrative, the interviewee describes how suddenly the children went to the camp latrine, and said, “Oh, come look, come look” – at the bottom, mixed with the excrement, there were many brilliant, shiny things. They were wedding rings that the mothers, having been told to surrender all their jewellery, had preferred to throw away rather than give up. Her father, who was away at the time of the raids, eventually succeeded in using bribery to free the girl.

At a Nazi death camp, one former prisoner interviewed by Rees had escaped immediate gassing by following the cryptic advice of one of the inmates: “Say you’re a carpenter.” He quickly learned the trade on the job and describes how when the women arriving at the camp had their heads shaved, they “gained hope, for if they are going to have their hair cut, it means there is going to be some life after . . . for hygiene is necessary in a camp”.

The interviewees provide vivid descriptions of the horror of the evacuation of the camps as the Red Army approached, with the SS shooting anyone on the “death marches” who failed to keep up. One interviewee, whose job was to sort the clothes of murdered Jews, remembered: “When I marched out of the camp . . . I was very well dressed. I had a Russian hat, a fur hat, with a heavy coat, and good shoes. And the only thing is, I don’t know what made me do it, but I had my pockets full of lumps of sugar. Why I did it, I don’t know – other people took meat. The sugar and the snow [mixed together], I survived because of that.” Often Rees’s subjects evoke the state of mind they were in at the time, ranging from dull despair to terror, while those forced to help the SS suppressed their feelings in order to survive.

All of this is effective and often it is powerful. The question to ask, however, is whether relying so heavily on such testimonies is the right way to go about putting together a book, as opposed to a television series, on the Holocaust. There is no denying that the interview material on which Rees focuses is largely compelling, always illuminating and on occasion very moving, and Rees and his team clearly took great care to sift it for inaccuracies. Taken as a whole, it adds considerably to the detailed picture we already have of the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews. Still, it gives the book a rather partial character. This is not a complete history of the Holocaust and much of the most compelling evidence is left out because we have read it somewhere before.

Rees does incorporate written material in some quantity but he nonetheless privileges his interview material because, as he argues, when you talk to the people who lived through it, the history still lives. That is the view of the television producer; for a historian who spends almost all of his or her time ploughing through mountains of documents, history lives through the written word far more than it lives through interviews, because the written word can have the immediacy that comes from being contemporary, rather than being passed through the sieve of decades-old memory.

In its narrative structure, this is a fairly conventional chronological account of Nazi anti-Semitism. The first eight of the book’s 18 chapters describe the origins and spread of anti-Semitism in Germany and its consequences in practice once the Nazis assumed power. It is noticeable here that there is an overwhelming focus on Hitler, who is portrayed as almost the sole driving force in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It’s a pity that Rees didn’t devote more attention to other leading anti-Semites in the Nazi leadership, from Goebbels to Alfred Rosenberg, or to the question, much debated and researched in recent years, of how far and in what way the Nazis’ hatred of Jews was shared by the bulk of the German population.

Persecution slid into murder in a process that Rees correctly portrays as occurring in stages and linked to Nazi plans for the creation of a new racial order in Europe that involved the murder by starvation and unchecked disease of millions of “Slavs”, “Gypsies” and other supposed racial undesirables. At this point, Hitler becomes much less prominent in the narrative, in a way that is surprising given his centrality in the first half of the book. Perhaps this is inevitable, in the light of Rees’s admirable determination to range across the whole of Nazi-dominated Europe, taking in the persecution and murder of Jews from Belgium to Belarus, but it again throws into relief his relatively narrow focus on Hitler earlier on.

The late David Cesarani deliberately extended his narrative of what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe” – a “problem” that was entirely of their own making and a “solution” that was a euphemism for brutal, unrelenting extermination – beyond the end of the war, up to 1949, because, he argued, the suffering of the Jews did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich but continued in displaced persons’ camps and in what remained of Jewish communities in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Rees stops abruptly in 1945, however, and we don’t learn enough about what came after.

This isn’t, therefore, the best book about the Holocaust, nor is it the first authoritative and readable account in decades, but it does add to the mass of testimony and evidence accumulated by other historians. Like all of Rees’s work, it is accurate and carefully researched, and the combination of a clear, simple style and powerful transcripts will ensure it a wide readership.

Ironically, in view of the scepticism that led its author to abandon his job in television because he thought that the future lay with the World Wide Web, it is perhaps a history not for the internet but for the television age.

Richard J Evans’s books include “The Third Reich in History and Memory” (Abacus) and “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge