February 2021

Arts & Letters

Stopped back in time: Kylie Minogue’s ‘Disco’

By Lesley Chow
The showbiz trouper delivers another album of spare, efficient pleasure

From 1994 to 2003, Kylie Minogue could be found at the intersection of the most exciting trends in art direction, cinematography, emotional affect and, yes, music. “Confide in Me” (1994) laced rich Middle Eastern pop with a cool cynicism – its video envisioned the star as a series of doll parts, available to purchase on demand. “Put Yourself in My Place” (1994) floated a beguiling rhythm and pictured Kylie as a vulnerable body in outer space, disclosing a rare tenderness within her Bardot image.

Even more impressive were her 2003 singles “Slow” and “Chocolate”, surely two of the most riveting marriages of art and music ever produced. Video director Baillie Walsh took the daringly sparse “Slow” and made it a study of forms, line and slow-build momentum. Reclining in blue, with her eyes severely defined, Kylie held the gaze in a sea of writhing hot bodies. Conversely, Dawn Shadforth’s video for “Chocolate” was a deliriously romantic vision of surrender, with lines and borders dissolving as a gauzy voice described “placeless place” and the opening of “fragile seams”. The track is irresistible, no less for drawing on the language of advertising. Its lyrics are practically an ode to chocolate caramels and soft centres (“If love were liquid it would drown me … In a heart shape come around me / And then melt me slowly down”), prizing textures and mouthfeel over coherent meaning. The video is equally seductive – Shadforth’s depiction of warm bodies in a sensual world must be one of the most compelling realisations of the female gaze on film.

With these releases, Kylie and her team became part of an unlikely vanguard in pop, apparently on the brink of further innovation. That didn’t happen – after the commercial disappointment of her 2003 album, Body Language, the star seems to have retreated from risks. Since then, her music has promoted club vibes and escapism, moving away from structural ambition. The records X (2007), Kiss Me Once (2014) and Golden (2018) didn’t make a dent in the culture, though they enhanced her reputation as a stalwart, sticking to her lane and making the best of her vocal range.

Kylie’s latest album, Disco, has earned respectful, even enthusiastic, reviews, lauding the singer’s commitment to what she supposedly does best: uncomplicated dance numbers. Minogue has a writer’s credit throughout, and the opening songs – “Magic”, “Miss a Thing” and “Real Groove” – are elating if conventional, evoking paradise as they spiral upwards. All three tracks are bangers, to be sure, but they are not haunting or provoking in the manner of “Chocolate” or “Confide in Me”.

That Kylie now appears to have more career longevity than Madonna is a prospect one could never have imagined in the early ’90s. One might have supposed that Kylie’s girlish persona – she is very much a princess of pop, rather than its queen – would date less well than the formidable imagery and intensity of Madonna and Janet Jackson. But for the past two decades Madonna and Jackson have been at the mercy of social media and physical shaming, and despite significant bodies of work, their prestige has taken a beating. Both have been mocked for overt displays of sexuality combined with age and power.

Kylie has seemingly learnt from their experience, and avoids veering to extremes of seriousness or sexuality. In place of naked ambition, she maintains a strict focus on dance music that reads as pleasingly unaffected, and she has successfully incorporated camp into her performance style. In interviews she comes across as a mildly self-deprecating showgirl, and visually she is still the green fairy who twinkled her way through Moulin Rouge (2001) and beyond. At present, her standing in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe is equivalent to that of Jennifer Lopez in the United States: a tabloid fixture turned beloved showbiz trouper, verging on iconic. Another decade or two might take her to Cher status.

It has been a strange career trajectory for the former soap star. Critically reviled during the ’80s and ’90s, she had a surprise US breakout in 2001 followed by a period of creative experimentation, and is now an industry favourite praised for her unpretentiousness. Has her style really evolved so much, or is it just that pop exuberance is in short supply these days? Certainly, her vocals have changed over the years. The voice once derided as thin, weak and limited sounds considerably more refined and effortless on Disco – but also less human.

Kylie’s voice, already nasal and metallic, has been buffed to an alien level of smoothness, a mere sliver of a sound. Everything that was gauche and raw about her early tone – the “budgie” squeak that critics found so excruciating – has been erased. On the verses of “Miss a Thing”, her vocals sound almost vaporised, atomised. Whatever digital processing has taken place, it is as if a preset function has been used to add sparkle and gloss to her timbre – the sonic equivalent of Vaseline on the lens. With more filtering on her voice than her image, Kylie is an unusual pop star – the retouching on her artwork can’t compare with the inhuman sheen of her vocals.

To a new generation of listeners, this airbrushed abstraction of a voice paradoxically communicates warmth and nostalgia. Paired with lively videos and uplifting dance motifs, a sound that should be unnerving and robotic instead signals straight-up good times. In her most challenging work in the past, Kylie played up the eerie side of her impersonality, from the sweet machine dispensing love for sale in “Confide in Me” to the erotic “placeless place” of “Chocolate”. However, for fans of her recent tracks, the detachment in her tone reads as transcendent rather than disturbing, the voice of a benevolent goddess – with an album named Aphrodite (2010) to boot – whose only allegiance is to the dancefloor.

With Kylie, a computerised voice doesn’t necessarily suggest the uncanny the way it does in Daft Punk. While Daft Punk portray themselves as a band of replicants, dialling up imitations of life and love, Kylie’s songs tend to hint at a soft, naked self beneath her polished exterior. She is often cast as a loser in love, the gentle girl who has been supplanted by a newer model. Disco’s “Real Groove” contrasts her with another woman who’s “got that perfect body”, as if the singer is fragile and heartsick behind her glazed voice, burdened with soul and implied physical flaws. Kylie’s sound is also naturalised by its reassuring sense of familiarity, enhanced by her use of classic disco and funk rhythms – explicitly referenced in her latest record, but flagged as early as her throwback hit “Step Back in Time” (1990).

One of the most surprising trends of 2020 was the return of disco to the forefront of popular music. Although Daft Punk and Phoenix have performed stylised interpretations of disco grooves since the late ’90s, the past year has seen a full-scale revival of the genre, with a raft of artists including Kylie, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa co-opting the sound of Studio 54 and openly quoting tracks by Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Kool & The Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Disco’s absence from cultural favour for the past 30 years is partly a result of the violence of the “death to disco” backlash of the late ’70s and early ’80s, where an audience in America’s heartland, in particular, turned disproportionate rage on what it perceived as a decadent elite given to fashionable sexual ambiguity. On the surface, disco’s comeback might be considered a gesture towards reconciliation, reclaiming the diversity that middle America found so distasteful.

But the trend is unlikely to have a profound influence – it seems to be less about embracing the freedom that disco historically represents than ransacking its glamour and making convenient use of the tracks themselves. As adopted by this new generation of artists, disco no longer poses a threat of subversion or confusion. It has become shorthand for adult allure and sophistication, the ideal genre for a star who wants to remain ageless, or a young singer playing the long game.

The disco of today does not aim to blur or overwhelm the senses. It is decidedly efficient in its placement of beats and effects. The choruses are derivative of Rodgers or Moroder, avoiding plagiarism (and litigation) by employing deft variations on their recognisable phrasing. A track often consists of stringing out bits of filler between quotes, marking time until those killer hooks kick in. Disco is now conspicuously professional – no matter how much Kylie insists “I wanna lose control” in “Miss a Thing”, there is no danger of loss of self, no mystery surrounding identity.

These songs offer a literal, if respectful, citation of disco’s pioneers: Summer, Gaynor and even Olivia Newton-John are the style guides for contemporary female artists. Dua Lipa’s hit “Physical” (2020) appropriates the aerobic intensity, the feel and even the lyrics of the Newton-John track of the same name. Kylie’s single “Magic” could easily slide into the soundtrack of Newton-John’s 1980 Xanadu, if that film didn’t already contain a superlative song of the same name. Who would have thought that the unassuming Newton-John would become a towering figure to the leading pop stars of our day, an icon to be endlessly referenced and riffed off?

This wholesale return to the past was anticipated by Kylie’s ’90s single “Step Back in Time”, a high-energy pastiche of vintage funk and R&B. Its lyrics were stitched together from tracks by The Temptations, The Jackson 5, The Fatback Band and The Floaters – mostly just the titles of their greatest hits, since there is no room for deep cuts here. Rather than wistfulness or longing, the song’s attitude was a happy and grateful succumbing to the matchless highs of the ’70s. Musical moments have replaced personal memories, line by line (“Remember the old days / Remember the O’Jays”): the song did its best to squeeze out anything original. “Step Back in Time” remains one of Kylie’s most satisfying numbers, where a blissed-out immersion in another period is seen as entirely logical (“When nothing is new and there’s nothing doing … All you can do is step back in time”).

That’s the feeling carried by the current disco pop, especially with the determinedly anachronistic Kylie: that the best one can hope for is a trip to the past and its store of devastating hooks, particularly in times where “there’s nothing doing” (I can’t think of a better summary of 2020). While the disco of the ’70s was driven by a fervent belief in futurism and an abundance of lavish sounds, contemporary disco is cool-headed and sparing with its grooves, doling out its archival treasures with a watchful eye. In Kylie’s version of the genre, one doesn’t get the sense of passion or delirium, but of a machine firmly in control of rationing out pleasure. Once dismissed as mindless euphoria, disco now has its traditions carefully referenced and echoed – as if the joys it offers are precious and finite.

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is an Australian writer on music and film. Her book, You’re History: The 12 Strangest Women in Music, will be released in March.

Kylie Minogue, 2019. © Hanna Lassen / WireImage / Getty Images

Cover of The Monthly, February 2021
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Industry, Science and Technology Minister Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Image

Porter’s complaint

Christian Porter wants his defamation case to run on his terms

Still from Shane Meadows’ ‘The Virtues’

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

Image of artwork by Sarah Goffman

The moment of reckoning

Any addressing of parliament’s abuse, misogyny and sexism must also tackle its racism

Cover image of ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma


In This Issue

‘At the dance’, a painting by Micheline lee

Nightclubs, pandemics and our real selves

For some in the disabled community, it wasn’t long after COVID hit that the all-in-this-together sentiment started falling apart

Image of The Incredible String Band, Royal Albert Hall, London, 1969

Sikh and ye shall find

The psychedelic origins of a popular yoga blessing

Image of ‘Queen Elizabeth and Vincent (on country)’, 2018

The paintbrush is a weapon: Vincent Namatjira

The Archibald Prize winner’s politics are less straightforward than the art world might like to think

Still from ‘Australia Remastered’, courtesy ABC

Eye to eye in the wild: ‘Australia Remastered’

The continent’s natural wonders – some now gone forever – are celebrated in a series that uncovers footage from the ABC’s disbanded Natural History Unit


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Patricia Lockwood

Mind over meta: ‘No One Is Talking About This’

The debut novel from the extremely online Patricia Lockwood considers how the virtual invades the real

Image from ‘Supernova’

Lodestar: ‘Supernova’

Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in Harry Macqueen’s quiet elegy to a loving relationship in its twilight

Image of Pharaoh Sanders and Sam Shepherd

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album

The death of Yokununna: ‘Return to Uluru’

Mark McKenna explores Australia’s history of violence, dispossession and deception through one tragic incident


More in Music

Image of Pharaoh Sanders and Sam Shepherd

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album

Girls don’t cry: Arlo Parks and Phoebe Bridgers

Two young musicians spark the old double standard of judging female artists who demonstrate their pain

Image of Rose Riebl

The composition of emotion: Rose Riebl

The pianist and contemporary classical composer bringing a virtuosic touch to minimalism

Image of Toots Hibbert, 1976

Ready steady gone

The passing of its figureheads underscores pop music’s waning influence on personal identity


Read on

Still from Shane Meadows’ ‘The Virtues’

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

Cover image of ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

Cartoon image of man standing on chess board

Reality is irreversible

The systems game and the need for global regime change

Image of Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme