It would have taken a brave soothsayer to predict, back in the 1980s, that Kylie Minogue was on track to become Australia’s most enduring pop icon. Like the legion of soap actors to follow, the young Neighbours star broke onto the charts with an inauspicious piece of pop fluff – a cute cover of The Loco-Motion that had all the hallmarks of a one-hit wonder.
Three decades later and Kylie (who needs just one name – as far as I’m concerned, there is no other Kylie) has become the first woman to have number one albums in the UK for five decades straight, capped off by her latest release, Disco.
It’s a fitting album to rack up this milestone: a collection of songs exemplifying the cathartic joy that’s been central to Kylie’s brand since the beginning. It’s music that makes you want to dance, and while the dance floors where many of her fans gather are currently off limits, it doesn’t feel like a tease. Instead, it’s a gift.
The release of new Kylie music is a big deal in gay nightlife – you can almost guarantee you’ll be able to hear her new singles somewhere on Sydney’s main strip, Oxford Street, within a few hours of release. I remember being at the now defunct Nevermind nightclub the week Get Outta My Way was released in September 2010. I heard the scratchy beat kick in from the bathroom. Within seconds my phone buzzed with a text: “GET OUTTA MY WAY!!!” I immediately zipped my fly and ran to the dance floor, pushing my way through the crowd while singing the song’s hook to find my fellow Kylie devotee. (Apologies to anybody there that night – I don’t remember washing my hands.)
It’s not the way anybody is experiencing her songs in 2020, but Kylie’s music remains a constant among the uncertainty: a place for people to connect when there are fewer physical spaces to gather.
Disco entirely embraces the genre from which it draws its name: there are cascading strings, strutting electronic riffs (lead single Say Something) and lush melodies (follow-up single Magic and album highlight Miss a Thing) that conjure up Studio 54 at the end of the 1970s. It’s not the only big pop album of the year to draw inspiration from disco – Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure both tip a sequined cap to the ghosts of dance floors past – but it never feels like it’s chasing trends. While other pop stars are pushing disco’s cool swagger to the fore, Kylie is comfortable with its outdated quirks. She might have spent much of the first half of her career effortlessly staying ahead of trends, but that doesn’t matter so much when you’re pop royalty.
There’s ground on Disco she’s covered before, particularly on her 2000 comeback Light Years, with its lead single Spinning Around, and on 2010’s Aphrodite. Despite all her reinventions – the club-inspired electropop of 2001’s Fever, to 2018’s country-inspired Golden – disco-tinged pop is where both Kylie and her fans are most comfortable.
Even on her brief detour through dark, indie house and rock on 1998’s Impossible Princess, Kylie managed to find her way to the disco: on the album’s tour, a largely serious affair, she added a cover of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, performed in a towering feather headdress with two dancing boys in bedazzled speedos and feathers. This explicit nod to her gay fans is considered a pivotal performance in her career: the birth of the “showgirl” persona central to her live performances, and the moment she shook off any shame or musical snobbiness she’d faced as a pop star specialising in bringing joy to people’s lives.
Weaving its way through Disco is Kylie’s voice – once derided as too light, bright and girly to be taken seriously, now regarded as a distinctive, technically secure vehicle for pop. It’s not the voice of a grand diva touched by the hand of god, but something more attainable: she whispers and purrs her way across the album’s throwback melodies, but sounds more alive and immediate than singers who would belt their way through the same material.
The appeal of Kylie has always been in what she represents: the meeting point of the ordinary and extraordinary. That’s not to say she’s an aspirational figure – although that’s true for many – but a transcendent one: the girl from suburban Melbourne who lives in a world where everything sparkles, and invites you inside. And for people who often need to transcend their circumstances just to survive (I’m thinking of many LGBTQIA people) she’s an unlikely beacon.
The last track on Disco is a strange little song that would seem saccharine if sung by anybody else: Celebrate You. Over an ABBA-esque melody (not the only one on the album – Last Dance is straight out of the Voulez-Vous playbook), Kylie sings to “Mary”, an undefined character, assuring her that she’s “not ordinary” and imploring her to “just believe it”.
In the album liner notes, Kylie explains: “Mary is anyone and everyone who needs reassurance that we are enough and we’re loved.”
It’s not hard to imagine Kylie singing it to the fans who have helped her achieve this enormous music milestone.