It is, at this point in 2018, not news that pop stars are pivoting to country music, presumably in the interest of revitalizing and/or saving their careers. Country music is the third-most popular format by number of stations 1, but also in economic terms, it’s better off to appeal to a country fan if you’re an artist that prefers the (somewhat and relatively) larger payouts of physical media sales – country is still tops among people that buy actual physical releases – which means that artists who have seen their physical sales slow down and don’t know how to shore up their streaming business would find it appealing.
So usually, when it happens, it’s not even worthy of comment: it’s a thing that’s happening industry-wide, and any individual who does it, it can be assumed, is after some more dollars and/or a renewed audience. But Kylie Minogue has gone country 2 is different, both practically and philosophically.
Practically speaking, I cannot think of a person whose major radio hits are less country-oriented than Ms. Minogue’s. She’s managed to carve out a somewhat-unique sonic footprint by making music that sounds like it was made by robot traditionalists – the disco influence is real, and she never really gave up on the pop-traditiionalism of her first records, but she also manages to fill her records, made as disco music by a traditionalist, with sounds that sound like they’ve been beamed in from the future. But here she abandons that lane to almost, kind, adopt a completely different set of sounds and signifiers 3. She’s certainly a big enough pop star (in parts of the world that aren’t the United States) that she could very easily just keep doing what she’s doing and making her (extremely devoted) fanbase happy, but she’s elected not to.
Which brings us to the more philosophical concern. Kylie Minogue is Australian, with a mostly-European following, and travelled to Nashville at the suggestion of her label to get “inspiration”, and came back with a desire to work in a genre that is not what you’d call particularly popular where her fans are and that, in fact, her music has basically zero to do with. She would have been hard-pressed to find a genre of music that is a currently-going concern, commercially speaking, that her oeuvre generally has less to do with.
That said, she has (kind of) made the plunge, and the result is Golden, her sixth UK#1, and eleventh Australia #1. So clearly, at least in terms of sales, she’s doing her usual business. But the question remains: who the fuck would listen to it?
This question is compounded by the fact that, for an album where someone’s gone country 4, she hasn’t actually gone particularly country. She hasn’t really even gone the kind of pop-radio country that is on the fringe of country signification either. She’s just added fiddles and banjos to what sound, to me, like regular Kylie Minogue songs 5. Furthermore, about half of the songs on the record don’t even have those things.
That said, the change is perhaps something that can be easily understood in context. Kylie Minogue has recently survived cancer, and now has to deal with being 49 years old, a woman, and famous, which combine to form a very aging- and death-focused mindset 6. The two most effective songs, the not-quite-titular “Golden” and the double-meaning “Dancing” 7, are also the most country-inflected (and aging and death are as country-friendly themes as you could hope for). It’s also useful to note that this is the first record she’s made in twenty years (since a record called Impossible Princess) where she wrote every song, so clearly it comes from an internal place that she’s gone country 8.
The resulting record, however, is a kind of limp hybrid, a simulacrum of someone’s country conversion It’s not “country” enough to get over as country music, but it’s also not Kylie enough to get over as Kylie music 9. As always with these exercises, it’s hard for me not to think of the version of this record that would be good, and in this regard, I think (as I so often do) of Nick Cave.
In 1996, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released Murder Ballads, which is sometimes my favorite Nick Cave album 10, and upon which appears the unlikely duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow” with Kylie Minogue, who also does some singing on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death is not the End” 11 alongside Shane McGowan and PJ Harvey. A better country-inflected Kylie record would find her tapping into whatever brought her to those collaborations in the first place. I’m not sure what form that would have taken, but she does have the voice for it, and her role in “Where the Wild Roses Grow” is as the murdered part of the murder ballad (spoiler alert I guess?), which would also be a fascinating place to be coming from, although I’d imagine that if you’re already death-focused as a songwriter (as Kylie was when writing this record, see above), it might not be the most appealing way to go about it.
But of course, a record can’t be judged by the record that it isn’t, but rather by the record it is. As it is, it’s not bad. As you can probably tell, I’m not a huge Kylie Minogue fan, or even a relatively minor Kylie Minogue fan, but it wasn’t actively terrible or anything 12, but it doesn’t really have anything going for it. I’m sure it meant a lot to Kylie Minogue to get to record it – the songs seem like they’re coming from someplace genuine, even if they’re smothered under the assistance of Nathan Chapman, who also abetted Taylor Swift for a half dozen or so of her records – but there isn’t much there to reward the listener, be they Kylie fan or Country fan.
It’s Taylor Swift – or rather, the inverse of Taylor Swift – that it’s most often compared to, but I think the better comparison is to Kesha’s Rainbow, which also represented a refuge in country music following a difficult life/media situation, and came out as the latter’s finest hour. Although Kylie suffers in either case – she’s gone country 13 in as commercially-oriented a way as possible, and it provides a sturdy-enough marketing hook, even if there is, after all, very little else to it.
So who the fuck listens to this? I guess Kylie fans. Certainly not country fans, although it’s an admirable effort for all that. As with previous WTFLTT subject Shania Twain, I’m glad she got to write the country record she wanted to write to deal with the things she wanted to deal with, but I think there are plenty of people who could be doing otherwise. Although there could be some nifty frission if she went out on tour with Kacey Musgraves, who just moved in the Kylie direction with her country album. Feel free to put me in touch with either lady’s agent or publicist or media booker or whatever. I work cheap.
- for whatever that may be worth in listeners – radio tends to reach people in younger (kids) and older (people that listen to the radio because they’ve always listened to the radio) age brackets ↩
- lookit them boots ↩
- although more on her success in taking on actual country music in a bit here ↩
- back to her roots ↩
- although a review that ran in the Melbourne Herald Sun declares that there’s “no classic Kylie dance moments” so it’s possible I just don’t know what a regular Kylie Minogue song is. ↩
- or so it seems, and so I would imagine. I’ve never been a post-cancer 49-year-old woman who is a pop singer, so I’m not entirely able to adopt the mindset of one I suppose. I’m also significantly taller than Ms. Minogue. ↩
- the double meaning appearing in the couplet “when I go out/I want to go out dancing” ↩
- new kind of suit ↩
- although, again, it went to #1 everywhere you’d expect it to have gone #1, so clearly her fans are into it enough to buy it. ↩
- when it isn’t The Firstborn is Dead or The Boatman’s Call or Henry’s Dream or Live Seeds. I have a lot of favorite Nick Cave albums. I love Nick Cave. ↩
- which is itself a Dylan song from Dylan’s late-eighties swamp, an album that is also country-inflected via weird places (the Grateful Dead and Mark Knopfler), and which also kind of sucks for not actually sounding very much like the person who wrote the songs on it. ↩
- this is a true story: the “Gone Country” runner in this piece actually came from a previous WTFLTT piece that I tried to write for Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods, but it didn’t fit into the schedule really, and it wasn’t very good – there’s only so much “oh my god this record sucks” that I can fit into a piece and still be saying something cogent, but rest assured that it’s one of the worst things I’ve heard awhile, and makes this record look like fucking Red-Headed Stranger. ↩
- here she comes ↩