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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era