Kylie Minogue, the Unknowable Pop Star

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Although it’s only March, I am almost certain Kylie Minogue’s “Into the Blue” is the best mainstream pop song of 2014. It’s the perfect mix of light and dark: an angelic voice proseletizing positivity and self-sufficiency, a pulsating beat providing a hard undercurrent, and a dramatic string section to boot. And yet, “Into the Blue” is nowhere to be found on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the industry barometer of America’s most popular songs based on radio play, streaming services, YouTube, and hard-earned downloads. Why?

The answer is that Kylie Minogue is not really a “radio artist” in America, despite being practically inescapable in her native Australia and all over western Europe. Well, except that time she reached #3 in 1988 with “The Loco-Motion.” Fifteen years later, she reminded America that yep, she was still there, with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (which peaked at #7) and “Love at First Sight” (#23). But of the 57 singles Minogue has released, a mere five have cracked the top 50 of the Hot 100. She’s been popular for 26 years now, but she’s consistently been relegated to the various Dance/Club Play charts.

There’s one big reason Minogue has not become a pop icon in America the way she is elsewhere: not only is there nothing controversial about Kylie, but we don’t really know that much about her. Minogue’s songs are completely universal and non-specific, a quality we do value greatly in American pop music sung by women, but only if there’s a big personality looming behind the relatable choruses of love and heartbreak. When it comes to modern pop divas, we like to have a vague idea of who the songs might be about. The everyman appeal of an anthem like Katy Perry’s “Roar” is matched by the fact that we know it’s a reaction to Perry’s painful divorce from Russell Brand. See also: nearly every Taylor Swift crossover hit.

I recently asked some friends — musically aware but not obsessives — what they know about Kylie Minogue, besides the fact that she makes dance-pop. “The one time I went to a gay bar, they played a lot of her. Like, A LOT,” one straight male pal offered. Did they know she battled breast cancer roughly ten years ago, a few years after her stateside second coming? Nope. What about her romance with INXS’s Michael Hutchence at the beginning of her career? Definitely not. Her co-sign from Nick Cave in the mid-1990s, which to me gives her a Robyn-esque credibility? Their response: Huh?

In an editorial penned late last year, Bill Werde, the former editorial director at Billboard, made a call to action: we must focus on the music when it comes to pop, because the genre has become too driven by scandal and cult of personality. He’s right, and from where I stand, Kylie suffers because of this. She’s never been involved in a major controversy, and there’s no one defining quality about her that’s known to the public.

The thing is, though, when you go to her performances, Kylie shows a lot of personality. These are over-the-top affairs in which fans pay upwards of $100 to see her dress up like a Greek goddess, parading around a faux coliseum surrounded by beefy back-up dancers in tiny togas and hot pants. Or she’ll emerge as a salsa dancer, opposite a beefy back-up dancer playing her bull-fighting boyfriend. Whatever the character is, you can rest assured there are beefy back-up dancers flanking Kylie.

While this may be personality-driven performance at its finest, it’s also camp. Minogue is cheeky as hell — look no further than her new album Kiss Me Once (out this week, and her first since 2010’s Aphrodite), which contains a collaboration with Sia called “Sexercise.” (There are also tracks called “Sexy Love” and “Les Sex.”)

Kylie also mentions a desire to dance in roughly 40 percent of her songs. All this is to say, on the most basic level, I understand why she’s an icon in the gay community. Like Madonna, Minogue’s ties to the gay world have grown as she’s publicly acknowledged her role, becoming more and more theatrical in her live shows.

In more ways than one, you can draw a parallel between Kylie and Madonna — Minogue has referred to Madonna as the Queen of Pop, calling herself the Princess, and both women both make pop that’s typically more dance-oriented and sexually driven than the rest of their peers. Madonna has, of course, eclipsed Minogue stateside as an icon, thanks to her knack for controversy and reinvention. Worldwide, it’s less of a comprehensive victory for Madonna — but in any case, rather than thinking of Minogue as a Madonna wannabe, I encourage you to return to the light and dark dynamic I described regarding “Into the Blue.”

Madonna is at her best when she aims to ruffle some feathers and Say Something. Kylie, on the other hand, will always sing uplifting music. She wants to have fun and, above all, to dance. She isn’t shoving her beliefs or her personal life in our face. But that isn’t to say she doesn’t have something to add to the conversation.