Why wasn’t she doing this in 2014? was my recurring thought upon listening to Kylie Minogue’s latest album, Tension, her sixteenth in a nearly four-decade career.
2014 was the year that nostalgia culture began to permeate the mainstream psyche and make major moves culturally. This was the year that Taylor Swift’s era-defining 1989 came out, the most overt — if not bastardized — stab at a mass-scale revival of big, bright 80s-era pop; its release marked the culmination of a zeitgeist that had been percolating in alternative pop and rock since the 2000s (though 1989 was bookended by two far superior similarly-themed LPs: Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob in 2013 and Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION in 2015 — there’s something in those Canadian waters!).
During the same time frame, the UK duo Disclosure was riding high on the success of their 2013 debut Settle. Via a whopping run of seven singles, including the now-classic “Latch” featuring then-unknown Sam Smith, the album also marked the re-emergence of a bygone genre by luxuriating in heady four-on-the-floor beats and melodic, life-affirming vocals of 90s house, as if rebuking the increasingly mind-numbing dominance of early 2010s fluffy, superficial EDM.
Ironically, fluffy, superficial EDM is precisely the type of stuff Kylie Minogue was churning out in 2014. That year’s Kiss Me Once ran the gamut from passable power pop (mid even by 2014 standards) to perfunctory Pharrell-produced funk to late-to-the-party dubstep and not much else, signaling a nearly decade-long quality decline in Kylie’s output despite an intriguing, commendable detour to country-pop via 2018’s Golden — her first to be released under her own label — and an on-the-nose return-to-form in 2020’s Disco, a pandemic-era offering that saw her perform technical duties for the first time in her studio album.
And then came “Padam Padam.”
Released at the onset of summer 2023, the synth-laden thumper became an instant viral smash — no doubt spurred by the enthusiasm of Kylie’s gay audience, long acknowledged as her most ardent and loyal supporters — and led to the British press coining the term “padam-ic” to describe its virality. Soon, it became her first single to chart within the UK Top 10 in twelve years, a bewildering fact considering this is the same person whose singles never missed the UK Top 10 within the first three years of her career. Even more bewildering is how the song received its debut live performance on American Idol of all places — lest we forget Kylie’s “stop-start success” stateside. The US-focused promo eventually culminated in a Grammy nomination for the track, her first since 2009.
Catchy as it obviously is, “Padam Padam” is without a doubt one of the dumbest songs I have heard in my life. While I acknowledge that dumbed-down lyrics and repetitive melodic lines are customary in modern pop, it’s also performed by a singer who has delivered monumental goods in the vein of “Confide in Me” and “Slow” (or even just solid gems like “Spinning Around” and “All the Lovers”), whose instantly recognizable crystalline vocals are wasted on a trite, uninspired composition — but shout-out to the track’s deliciously murky, moody production.
My excitement vastly improved when the album’s second single, its title track, was unleashed: yes, the whole thing is still dumb and repetitive (sample lyric: “Call me Kylie-lie-lie / Don’t imita-ta-tate / Cool like sorbet-bet-bet”), but its 90s house backdrop, all twinkling piano riffs and cascading, throbbing rhythms make for a more effective (and affecting) showcase for Kylie’s remarkable ability to inject zeal and zest into a recording, especially as, once again, she la-la-las her way into the song’s soaring finale.
Fortunately, most of Tension dabbles in this excursion. Placing “Padam Padam” as the album opener turns out to be a smart move as it instantly gives way to an unrelenting series of surprises. It starts with the very next track (and third single at the time of this publication). “Hold On To Now” is a spiritual soul sister to Robyn’s “Missing U” (and preceding that, Kylie’s own “Change Your Mind,” an outtake from 2010’s career highlight Aphrodite as well as a touch of OneRepublic’s underrated “If I Lose Myself”), all hypnotic synth lines ebbing and flowing against one of Kylie’s best, most emotive vocal performances ever committed to tape.
The goods keep popping up over the course of Tension. “Things We Do For Love” and “You Still Get Me High” would have sounded just at home in 1984 (say on an 80s Prom Playlist) as they would have in the 1980s-as-heard-through-the-modern-ear pop landscape of 2014 while stretching out Kylie’s shrill soprano to exhilarating heights. Similarly, deluxe edition closer “Somebody To Love” is a bittersweet, atmospheric number that hangs in the blurred lines between love lost and love hoped, punctuated by airy synths and syncopated drum lines that scan as a peppier successor to The 1975’s lovelorn, starry-eyed “Fallingforyou”.
In the context of Tension, these tracks round out the well-done-even-if-typical Kylie album cuts (“One More Time”, “Vegas High”, “Love Train”) and the trend-chasing moments like Spotify playlist-core “Hands” and “Green Light,” both of which could easily pass for Doja Cat tracks — the former even features faux-rap sections that have none of the camp and the bite of “Secret (Take You Home).”
In the context of Kylie’s overall arc, however, these numbers serve two purposes. First, they highlight Kylie’s unique vocal prowess, which lends her brand of pop gravitas in a way that perhaps would not quite work if performed by a more technically skilled or big-voiced singer. Second, and more importantly, they are ample showcases of Kylie’s well-documented willingness to experiment and what happens when said experiment is executed expertly, even if still within the pop frame. In fact, you would probably be hard-pressed to think of any other modern pop star who has undergone a major musical transformation … only to then forego it. The closest equivalent is probably Garth Brooks’ much-maligned cosplaying as Chris Gaines.
Following an ambitious foray into songwriting-driven pop-rock and electronica with 1997’s similarly maligned (but retroactively revered) Impossible Princess, Kylie has never quite retreaded risky artistic grounds at a grand scale, save for the occasional odds and ends, no doubt owing to public expectations of how her music should always sound: cheery, club-ready dance-pop that the gays and grandmas can equally enjoy. One time bestie Björk said matter of factly that being a star of Kylie’s stature is “a hard job, and […] not a lot of fun. It’s a service to the nation. You have to smile and do handshakes — it’s like being a diplomat, or the Queen.”
And queen of the charts she is. Unsurprisingly, this modus operandi has paid off majorly throughout the second act of Kylie’s career trajectory: in the UK, she is the first female artist to notch number-one albums in five consecutive decades, and with Tension debuting at the summit of the UK albums chart, she is now placed third among female artists with the most number one albums in that country. Given that she hails from (and is now back in) Australia and has a relatively lower profile in the US market, it cannot be denied that by industry standards, these achievements are highly impressive.
Under a review of Kiss Me Once, a comment struck a chord with me: “Of all pop stars, Kylie seems to generate an enormous amount of goodwill from the public in the way that can be a bit on and off for, say, Lady Gaga or Madonna,” reads the comment. “There’s no distracting sense of the [sic] “I’m an ARTIST!” trying a bit too hard that can distort the view. Her essential, reliable, and comforting Kylieness will always win the day in the end. And, of course, she has made some belting records.”
It’s as much trite as it is fascinating to compare the raison d’etre of Madonna versus Kylie as the quintessential modern female pop star. Whereas Madonna, ever the Baldwinian provocateur, insists upon her right as an artist to disturb the peace, Kylie’s entire brand since the late 1980s has more or less been, well, peacing the disturbed, artistic detours here and there notwithstanding. Rufus Wainwright even famously dubbed her the “anti-Madonna”: “She is what she is and there is no attempt to make quasi-intellectual statements to substantiate it. She is the gay shorthand for joy.”
Well-intentioned as this type of praise might be, it also begs the question: do we, as a culture, for all of our endorsements of feminist-minded diversity and inclusion, still reduce our female pop stars to convenient tropes and refuse to reckon with the layers of complexity they possess as human beings? Are we — and I’m specifically addressing other gay men here — still using these pop stars as mere tools on which we project our deep-seated hopes and dreams and place unrelenting demands so they live up to said hopes and dreams without fail lest we abandon the fandom?
While I concur there are a good number of reasons to admire Kylie (e.g. her childfreeness, an especially bold move for women to make in the public eye), sympathize with her (bouts with ageism in pop), or both (her triumphant battle against cancer), it makes sense, then, that she has maintained a perpetually happy-go-lucky, apolitical public image. Why should she, for instance, have her say on an ongoing genocide that would otherwise interfere with the prospects of a successful Vegas residency?
This way, Kylie gets to remain emblematic of the pitch-perfect pop star (and the keyword here really is “emblem”), constantly delivering exactly what her audience wants and reliably putting up a good, graceful front for the general public to fawn over ad nauseam. And that is how you keep breaking record sales instead of tension.