At about 19.26 last Monday evening, on the piazza outside the BBC, I thought I momentarily glimpsed what separates the very famous musician from the musical icon. And it was Kylie Minogue who taught me.
I was presenting The One Show, alongside Alex Jones, on BBC One. Kylie was our guest for the evening, promoting her new album and single. When I told my mates on Facebook about it, trying not to come across all #humblebrag, one close friend, who is female, sent me three texts. In order, they were: “Omg Omg Omg Kylie???”; “She was my first ever concert in 1988”; “I know you’ve met many more important people but this really is too much!”
I make a distinction between being star-struck and being in awe. I am often star-struck. I am only moved to awe if those I meet have done something morally wonderful, or shown courage and leadership in a way that inspires me, or are really good at cricket.
For instance, when Shaggy came on the show a few weeks earlier, I was star-struck. If you have my kind of taste in music, Shaggy has been a big part of your life. Meeting him was exhilarating. I subsequently learned about the amazing charitable work he has done in his native Jamaica. That raised him closer to the level of awe.
When I am in awe of someone, I become a trembling wreck, and feel my own pitiful life to be worthless. I have never felt this more strongly than when I bumped into Bryan Cranston while queuing for a wee in New York some years ago.
Kylie was charm personified, relatable, humble enough to ask after the family of a balding Indian she had just met ahead of her billionth TV interview. Most impressively, while on air, she paused and took time to really consider her answers. I respect that. In the age of instant opinion, it was lovely to see the pop princess pause to think. She put me in awe.
And then, as we spoke, I realised she had mastered something icons frequently master: the art of reinvention. Her new album is suffused with country influence. Kylie met Dolly Parton, became very interested in the music, and tried to accommodate her own temper and style within that tradition. She has reinvented herself as a country pop star, and it is persuasive.
Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella this week took the art of self-reinvention to new heights. The whole point of David Bowie was that he was forever reinventing himself. Bob Marley, my musical hero, went from the ska and rocksteady of his early years to more of the black rock group sound that Chris Blackwell of Island Records wanted to cultivate. Michael Jackson went from cherubic hero of the Jackson Five to the star of Thriller.
Why should reinvention raise a superstar to the level of icon? Because, I think, one serviceable definition of iconic stature in music is the ability to personify different zeitgeists. To be really iconic, you have to sustain relevance over different eras, and feel contemporary even as you age.
When Kylie sang “I Should Be So Lucky” in 1987, which I remember my mum singing in our kitchen, she seemed to embody something vital about the 1980s. When “Spinning Around” came out 13 years later, it felt as much part of the year 2000 as chatter about the millennium bug.
It’s obviously going too far to suggest that her latest incarnation, Country Kylie, is the voice of the left-behind voters who support Donald Trump. But there is something fresh about it; something novel, exciting, and unexpected.
It allows her most dedicated fans, several of whom were raised to near-ecstasy by that performance outside the BBC, and many of whom were dancing in the country style, to feel something that another master of reinvention, Bob Dylan, once sang about: forever young.
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge