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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times