Kylie X revisited

Some people have lumped X into the Body Language clearance bin, framing it as yet another failed attempted to recapture the voodoo-magic of Fever. But I disagree. While like many other K fans, I’m sad it didn’t represent the hallowed fusion of Impossible Princess lyrical openness and Fever pop smarts that’s been anticipated for so long, it’s still a quality pop album that holds some of the best songs of K’s Parlophone era. Unfortunately X, as a set of songs, is obscured by two things. Firstly, cancer, or its absence: for some the album was immediately written-off because it didn’t deliver the confessional that was expected of Kylie after her two year ordeal, dramatic cancellation and spectacular comeback (a pretty arrogant assumption, I’d say). And secondly, the disastrous promotion the album received from a beleaguered Parlophone, which was at the time caught up in the near-disintegration of EMI. As we start gearing up for the next album, I think it’s time to look back at what went wrong, but also at what actually went right.

The comeback

While 2 Hearts signalled an appropriately oddball new direction, one of the first reactions X met with was a bewilderment that someone who’d just been through cancer could sing about Speakerphones and ‘lookin’ hot’ before a big date. Against that enormous emotional backdrop, I guess it was inevitable that X would seem shallow in comparison. But its lack of reference to the last few years (with the exception of No More Rain, Stars and Cosmic) did seem particularly pointed. There was no White Diamond-style melding of life-affirming sentiment with pop sparkle. For the most part, she was singing about cheap nightclub thrills, just like she did in Light Years and Fever.

This is criticism that seemed to grate: whenever it was put to K, she would visibly bristle, and seem almost defiant when she made the very logical point that part of what she wanted to embrace with X was a new kind of normality. Her experience had made her value the normal and the trivial even more – a sentiment most people who’ve been through a health crisis, big or small, would share. But this is also a criticism that pre-dates ‘the cancer stuff.’ It’s been a perennial complaint of K fans that we rarely get to see beyond her pop façade. She rarely reveals anything. Which would be fine, except that after the dark, revealing and lyrically brilliant Impossible Princess, we know there’s a lot going on.

Love me, I’m…. The One

But as with most K albums, the odd moments of brittle vulnerability end up channelling something much more personal than the words themselves, and seem all the more powerful because we really don’t know anything else of her (while harbouring a deep suspicion that, like us, she’s fragile and slightly messed up). For me, the most personal moment in the album is also its most formulaic track – The One. Yes it’s about circling someone in a club (probably The Peel or its international equivalent,) but when she sings ‘I’m the one… love me, love me, love me, I’m the one’ the effect is so potent she may as well be singing about that basic human need for connection that’s never quite possible, but haunts you nonetheless (or, umm, something). Because of this emotional punch, as well as its elegant production, The One is by far X’s standout track. Which makes its commercial failure all the more dispiriting, and infuriating.

Parlophone screwed it all up…

X’s promotion started out alright. We already knew the script after William Baker was photographed walking out of a hairdressing salon clumsily/cannily displaying an A4 sheet of paper with the X campaign strategy sketched out in biro: internet marketing, TV special, tour etc… In the beginning all the cogs were turning as they should, apart from a series of damaging internet leaks. The buzz was there, The Kylie Show, while a little hokey in parts, showed off the songs to good effect, the reviews were mostly positive and 2 Hearts did alright, while not setting the world on fire. But with the choice of Wow as single no.2 in the UK/Aus, and In My arms as single no.2 in continental Europe (do they not realise we use the internet?) it all started to go pear-shaped.

Not only was Wow a retrogressive choice (in parts it sounded like Aunty Christine singing a Karaoke version of Love at First Sight after a big night on the piss), but the decision to release different singles in different jurisdictions signalled that Parlophone was nervous about the album. It also meant two very bodgy clips for the price of one: in Wow she looks like a frigid Star Trek creature, and In My Arms, while clever visually, seemed like it was filmed for pennies. But it gets worse. There was a half-hearted crack at the US market, with the decision to release the Janet Jackson-lite All I See. While K gamely went on the promo trail (albeit with a few shaky performances), Parlophone decided that the US could be cracked sans clip. Eventually K suffered the indignity of filming, and funding, her own promo vid (canoodling with dancer Marco de Silva against a white screen) as a ‘gift’ to her fans. Not a good look for a superstar. And when finally there was talk of releasing The One, first it was on, then it was off, then it was digital only, then it was canned. Once again K stepped in and filmed her own clip (which wasn’t bad at all), but to anyone looking closely, it seemed like the Kylie machine was in chaos. Apparently there had been a rift between K and Parlophone after the decision to release Wow/In My Arms (although this rumour doesn’t quite make sense as she seems to love both of those songs, although it would certainly explain a lot).

By this point it didn’t really matter that Parlophone was fucking her ‘round, since the KylieX2008 tour was kicking off and there was finally a chance to present the songs as she wanted to. I’ve obsessed over the tour here, so I won’t go over it again. Although, the fact that the tour rolls on with no rhyme or reason (Morocco, some ski resort, Poland, Madrid, US) suggests that the normally slick K machine is still in a state of partial chaos. But what of X? What would we make of it if things hadn’t turned out the way they did? It’s not a great album, but there are moments of greatness. It’s biggest weakness is perhaps its lack of adventure – while tracks like Speakerphone and Nu-di-ty are interesting, and quite oddball, they disappoint by sticking firmly to the Bloodshy & Avant mold, channelling the generic Sleazy-Britney sound pioneered by Gimme More. And for the record, hearing a 40-year old Australian singing about ‘dropping socks with your mini boom box’ is less than convincing.

But a further light is shed on X by the tracks that never made the album. Lose Control for example, another Kish Mauve track, perfectly fuses themes of claustrophobia and escape (in its talk of ‘wheels turning’ and ‘ropes tightening’) with modern, anthemic dance. Why K chose not to include it, and other similarly revealing tracks, is food for thought. Whether it was record company medelling or her own fear of personal revelation, we’ll never know. But as the forums heat up with talk of album no.11, the same debate will no doubt rage on – will this finally be the confessional watershed we’ve been waiting for? Or maybe what we actually want from K is that she has the self-possession to not reveal herself, realising, as I think she does, that what we all invest in her is meaningful in itself.


4 responses to “Kylie X revisited

  1. Yes yes Guy but you seem to have forgotten one small but important detail: “X” isn’t actually very good. And being “better than Body Language” doesn’t count.

    Like others, I also was disappointed that “X” didn’t fuse the lyrical openness and musical experimentation of “Impossible Princess” with the kyborg electro genius of “Fever”. They had all the time in the world to come up with an album – there was no momentum. And yet K has said in recent interviews that “X” was a product of the time they had – presumably pressure from Parlophone – but this is an acknowledgement both of her dissatisfaction with her record company and with the record itself.

    I don’t agree that it’s arrogant to want “X” to address her cancer. It’s what we want from her, and if nothing else, Kylie has (having learnt her lesson with Impossible Princess) always put her audience first, shelving credibility and genuine artistic expression for music she feels will have commercial success. It needn’t have been literal (though she does, of course, with No MOre Rain and Cosmic) – Kylie (or her people) has frequently been clever enough to place her music where it can be read in the context of sub-cultural narratives. “Your Disco Needs You” is case in point – an obvious call to arms for the gays who have supported her for so long, subtle enough for the music to be mainstream, enormously camp to those who can read it. “X” gave her the chance to construct a narrative in a context which could be read by mainstream audiences – a narrative of commercial fandom, played out through Kylie’s Kancer Survival Journey. This doesn’t mean we needed songs about cancer, but we need songs with substance. Perhaps a tinge of sadness – where we could read a song about heartbreak as being about illness – and songs of celebration (of the “White Diamond” ilk) signifying her survival. It would only have made the gays and the straights love her more. The skull’s appearance in the concert is a none-too-subtle example of this narrative, but there’s no real sign of it on the album itself (No More Rain/Stars/Cosmic excepted… but none were singles). We needed an album with a narrative into which we could read our own meaning. In keeping with Kylie’s recent work, it needn’t have been dark or lyrically revealing. BUt it needed to leave us somewhere to go, it needed to be suggestive of darker times and of celebratory return. INstead we got crap songs about speakerphones.

    Which is not to say it’s not without merit, and “The One” is, well, the one. We all heard the songs that DIDN’T make the album, so its final construction was very pointed. My feeling is that this was the album Parlophone wanted to make, and K had to go along for the ride.

    And what now? Her random touring suggests she’s out of contract. Momentum gone once again. No chance to release yet another greatest hits. She just needs a fucking good single.

    Meanwhile Gyy, I am looking forward to your analysis of the commercially ignored artistic triumphs… Will you also include Wendy Matthews’ “Ghosts” and Emma BUnton’s “Free Me”?

  2. Okay, first of all I feel moved to defend ‘Wow’, a song I love and would listen to on repeat last year. I love the wah-wah effect she makes it into, and also the breathy backing vocals that almost make the song title into a puff of wind. That’s it, I think – she sounds puffed, or winded, by desire.

    I’m glad you bring this up now because only the other day I was looking at the Wikipedia page for this album while researching a review of Miike Snow. What struck me was the omnivorous, unfocused nature of its production. Was it Neil Tennant from the (rejected!) Pet Shop Boys who said, “At one stage every songwriter in London was being invited to write for Kylie”?

    The final album is like a grab-bag with different sounds and producers competing and clashing. What I liked most about ‘Fever’ was that there was a unifying principle.

    Personally I like Kylie when she’s in the club – that kind of dance-floor transcendence is what she does well and I would’ve been embarrassed by an album of ‘cancer songs’.

  3. While I totally disagree with your summations about the album (I think it’s one of her strongest and I love all but 3 of the tracks), the observations about the trainwreck on wheels that is Parlophone are pretty spot on. It seriously disturbs me that she’s sticking around for more of the same for album number 11.

  4. Still divisive!

    Mel, I agree that the strength of Fever was that it felt like one album, even if it was also kind of thin. At least it seemed like they had confidence. Apologies for slagging off Wow. (“Wow, wow wow WOW!”)

    Mike, so, umm, what do you think of Sensitized? 🙂

    And Simon, I’m not sure I can bring myself to look at Ghosts and Free Me. I’m not sure I’d call them artistic triumphs, although I do like Big, and Beloved makes me cry. Although, so does the opening credits of Working Girl, which suggests I’m an easy target.

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