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

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

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