Show Hide image

Kylie Minogue: “It’s not right if you’re a woman who enjoys expressing her sexuality pretending you’re not sexual”

Jude Rogers talks to the pop princess about gay best friends, life after breast cancer and why she spent New Year alone.

Gold standard: Kylie in concert during her Aphrodite: Les Folies tour, 2011. (Photo: Sari Gustafsson/Rex)

Twenty-seven years is a long time in pop. In 1987 the first Beatles albums made it to compact disc. Whitney Houston was massive-haired, massive-selling and squeaky-clean. That same year, a 19-year-old flew to Britain after an invitation to work with some producers who then forgot they had asked her to come. Hurriedly, they knocked off a song for her in 40 minutes and made her learn it and sing it in an hour. She was gracious, and nailed it first time.

Two months later, “I Should Be So Lucky” was Kylie Minogue’s first number one in Britain. Seventy million record sales later, she is releasing her 12th studio album, Kiss Me Once. Looking at the album artwork,
it’s as if nothing has changed – the radiant, diminutive platinum blonde is still there, her features seemingly made to be spray-painted on the side of a bomber jet.

But things have changed. Forty-six this summer, Minogue is a survivor of breast cancer and a reformed dabbler in Botox; today, she looks like a middle-aged Julie Christie starting to bloom. Pop remains her main creative outlet, which confuses some people; they forget that the genre was born in the Sixties, just as Minogue was, or that pensionable men don’t get criticised for ploughing on with the same shtick in rock.

This has been Minogue’s biggest year in some time. Her new album is her first as a management client of the rapper JAY Z’s Roc Nation roster, and she has had a great reception on the BBC1 talent show The Voice. Not many people could be both a mumsy, warm judge and a hip-hop affiliate and not care about the join. She has also toured her B-sides in recent years and had positive reviews for her role in the French director Leos Carax’s art-house film Holy Motors. All of which suggests the new album might be a more mature work. Instead, it has songs on it called “Sexercize” and “Les Sex”.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Minogue is her unwillingness to be pigeonholed. It’s a strategy that also quite neatly protects her real identity.

On a warm weekday afternoon, she sits in a private room above a west London members’ club. I had imagined meeting a shiny wall of bonhomie, a perfect, plastic smile. I get a woman in an artsy black jumper and jeans who makes lots of warm, thespy faces, using an anorak over her knees as “a nanny blanket”. Each week she flies to Australia to judge their version of The Voice, she explains, while trying to sort out her album launch here. “And I’m really trying to make sure – this is very boring – that I keep warm and eat enough to get sustenance. If I get a cold, that’s it; a complete spanner in the works.” This isn’t the patter of Lady Gaga or Madonna.

Perhaps that is partly because Minogue is an adopted Brit. That 1987 trip to the London pop powerhouse of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, at a time when her star was rising in the Australian soap Neighbours, had a lasting effect, she says – she has more or less lived in the UK since then. “At that age in your life when you are separating from your family, becoming independent and becoming your own person, I happened to be here. I was just absorbing all the culture, as much as I could, around me at the time.” There is a distinct melancholy here; a yearning for that time. “Maybe that feeling’s why I stayed, in some ways.”

Minogue may feel an affiliation to Britain because half of her family is Welsh. Her mother, Carol Ann Jones, born in Maesteg, South Wales, became a Ten Pound “plastic Pom” when her family emigrated in the Fifties. Minogue’s grandmother Millie, known in the correct Welsh terminology as Nain, is still flourishing in Melbourne at the age of 94, and her granddaughter still has a drink with relatives whenever she plays over the Severn. “I really do! It’s one of my great regrets that I can’t do a Welsh accent.” She tries and fails, valiantly, to say “thank you” in Welsh. “Or, er, Llanfairpwll . . . argh . . . five-days-later-go-go-goch.” She rolls her eyes. “Oh dear.”

A half-hour in Minogue’s company is like being in a charm factory, but not in a clinical way. Funny and polite, apologising for interrupting your questions, she thanks you for doing your research. I am reminded of that girl recording “I Should Be So Lucky” in an hour. One presumes that graft, and attitude, are the reasons why she’s still here.

This approach also explains why it’s hard to think of her as an artist. Artists curate their lives cleverly, managing the way the world sees them. Minogue’s career trajectory is altogether messier. She’s the pearly-toothed pop star who broke up with Jason Donovan to date Michael Hutchence, the front man of INXS, whose later death by hanging was surrounded by rumours of fetishism. She was the pale-skinned focus of a 1995 murder ballad by Nick Cave, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, but is better known for accompanying a song about nothing more profound than “spinning around” with shakes of her shimmery-gold hot-panted behind.

Does Minogue regret not shaping her career more elegantly? “Oh God, no. That’s my idea of torture.” Why? “Why not? I even used to hate it during Neighbours, when people would say to me, ‘Well, you can’t be a singer; you’re an actress.’ I’d be all, ‘What planet are you living on?’ ” She’s sitting up straight now. “I’d think, ‘What do you mean? Are you saying that, as an actress, I can only play one role?’ Isn’t that the point of being an actress – or rather, the point of being a person – that you do different things?” She shakes her head. “I couldn’t do anything else.”

In the past she has been advised by people around her not to do certain things – but she’s often ignored them. In 1996 Sam Taylor-Wood asked her if she would appear in a short film called Misfit, miming to the last known recording of a famed castrato. “That was before Sam Taylor-Wood was Sam Taylor-Wood,” she points out. “But I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s an interesting idea. Let’s do it.’

Yet she won’t knock the poppier, sexy side of her work. She recalls wearing suits and little make-up around the time of her 1994 album, Kylie Minogue. One morning she woke up and knew that it wasn’t really her. “I thought, ‘What am I doing this for? It’s not who I am.’ It’s not right if you’re a woman who enjoys expressing her sexuality pretending you’re not sexual.” Also, she says by way of a defence against detractors, “I often do these things with a wink.”

This is true: Minogue’s sexuality is often presented in layers of camp; it has a context in reality rather than a sense of distant, dead-eyed objectification. But her move towards becoming a gay icon has had an odd consequence – the primary fan base for this beautiful, sexy woman is one that doesn’t want to have sex with her.

Mechanic next door: Kylie as Charlene Mitchell in Neighbours

What’s that like? She thinks for a while, and smiles. “Well . . . I see what you’re saying. But I guess it’s just been that way for such a long time . . . I don’t know.” She tails off. “I still flirt with those people. I have a ridiculous amount of GBFs [gay best friends]. But, yeah, I guess it’s everything in life but with the sex removed.” She gazes into the distance; it’s a question that she might come back to later, for herself.

What is Kylie Minogue’s feminism? “It’s a tricky one,” she begins, but then implies straight away that it shouldn’t be. “I mean, women should have equal rights in everything – of course they should – but the rest is a minefield. I think it’s important to try and celebrate my femininity, but that’s not for everybody.” She is also a bit sick of being asked what it’s like to be a “woman in music”. I don’t blame her – men are rarely asked to discuss the cultural impact of their bum.

“Also, someone asked me at a press conference how I felt about the gender imbalance on The Voice. I said, ‘Actually, I don’t mind being the only girl there, because you don’t want to be pitted against someone else.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, that’s not fair, either, because it shouldn’t be about getting involved in a dress-off or face-off.” That’s the way tabloid media work, though, I say. Minogue nods, and then shrugs. “Unless you’re a serious philosophical thinker and writer and you think about it a lot . . . You know, I just get on with it.”

Perhaps the only way to get a full measure of her is to pry into the toughest part of her life. In May 2005, while on tour, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; her treatment required eight months of intensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy. During her recovery, her mother was always at her side and they became obsessed, together, with the cult 1975 Maysles brothers film Grey Gardens, about two faded aristocratic sisters living in a crumbling house.

“I had headwear on every day, and me and my mum were just like them, trying not to go crazy,” she laughs. I wonder out loud about the psychological effects of the cancer. “It was like living on another plane for a while,” she says eventually. “I mean, part of your brain’s functioning like normal and the other part is just so shocked and terrified it can’t compute. Also, I’ve always been compassionate, but to have compassion and a first-hand experience of something like that . . . it makes you a very different person.” She nods, lips tight. “I just wish you could jump-cut to that without the experience.”

The start of Minogue’s forties made her more reflective at first, but more daring thereafter. Her last album, The Abbey Road Sessions (2012), was an orchestral rejig of her hits but also included an original composition of hers, “Flower”, written for the child she may never have – another issue she has always had to deal with in interviews. After that cathartic experience, she had a vision. “I know this sounds stupid, but the vision was a horizon with nothing on it. Nothing. Not a thing. That idea made me feel really calm for the first time.”

Soon afterwards she sacked her manager of 27 years – politely – and took up the new offers from Roc Nation and the BBC. The woman who’d been given a second chance at life was despatching her past . . . and giving herself a third.

Minogue spent New Year’s Eve 2013 at home in London, on her own, thinking less about what had gone and more about what was coming. “And I loved it – I didn’t just want to be dragged to a party because I’m supposed to go to a party. Something had woken me up, so I wanted to stop and take a few breaths.” Which sounds to me a little like a pop star growing up at last. She gives the answer I knew she would: “Perhaps . . . but also, never!” 

“Kiss Me Once” is out now on Warner Brothers Records

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
Show Hide image

The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496