Kylie Minogue is legendary. She’s amassed the kind of career that lesser divas can only dream of. She’s a global pop diva with legions of devoted fans. Yet, in America, she remains relatively niche. Kylie has longevity, rivaling that of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Mariah. Yet, in the United States, her mainstream fame could be roughly reduced to two hits: her 1988 cover of “The Loco-Motion” and the 2001 global smash “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”. Only select American audiences know that Kylie Minogue has been one of the most reliable hitmakers of the past 40 years. Working with some fantastic collaborators, Minogue has amassed an enviable discography studded with some euphoric moments. More so than any of her peers, Kylie Minogue has come to define the concept of the pop diva.
One of Minogue’s greatest strengths as an artist is her ability to suss out exactly what song would work for her particular talents. Possessing a sweet, sparkly trill of a voice, she’s the seemingly perfect pop princess. Finding influences in dance music of the past 50 years, Minogue’s greatest pop moments look to disco, house, dance-pop, and synthpop. All of these influences are scattered throughout her latest release, Tension. There are thrilling highs, and it’s arguably one of the best dance-pop records of the 21st century. It’s not weighed down with moody themes or ponderous affectation. Instead, Minogue understands that the best kind of dance-pop is pure, undiluted joy. With Tension, she’s shown that nobody does it better than her.
Three years ago, Minogue came out with Disco, a dance manifesto to raise her fans from the doldrums of the pandemic and the lockdown. Tension feels like a natural progression from that album as it builds on the uplifting sounds of Disco. It expands on them, getting more ambitious as she finds her adorable coo cushioned on shiny soundscapes of rubbery synths, bouncing beats, pounding keys, and sweetened vocals. As a star pupil of dance music and its most accomplished practitioner, the canny Minogue spins these brilliant three-minute escapes to disco heaven.
Take the brilliant “You Still Get Me High”. As the song starts, we are led to believe we’re listening to an atmospheric, New Romantic synth ballad. For the first minute, we’re swooning to the Depeche Mode-like slow dance. Minogue sings the song with urgent yearning, a keening desire that pushes through the Breakfast Club-inspired melancholy before the drums kick in and the song pivots into a rushing, exhilarating synthpop number. Producers Richard Stannard (a longtime Minogue collaborator), Duck Blackwell, and Jon Green assemble an exciting paean to nostalgia and desire. The trio places its superstar client in luscious, luxurious, cool synths, pulsing synths, and anthemic background vocals, but Minogue doesn’t get lost in the neon-spiked delirium. Her charm shines through the heavy gloss.
Minogue’s inimitable charisma and talent dominate. She’s like the greatest movie star in Hollywood – a pop Marilyn Monroe. Though some may sleep on her vocals, she has developed into a compelling and appealing vocalist. Sure, she’ll never be the vocal powerhouse that Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion are, but she has a distinct tone – an exceedingly pretty tone with just a touch of insouciant nasality. That ballerina-light dexterity works beautifully with the high energy of Tension.
If Disco looked to the 1970s for a lot of its influences, Tension finds inspiration in the gleaming audio landscape of the 1980s. The best moments on the record have the singer embrace the decade in which she first found success, yet her music on this album is far better than anything she recorded in the 1980s. Much of that could be chalked up to her obligations to the songwriting trio of Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), the team responsible for the run of chart hits she enjoyed in the 1980s. Instead of seeing her as a legitimate artist in her own right, she was treated as little more than just a spokeswoman for her records.
When she finally wrested control of her recording career from the Stock Aitken Waterman, she turned to deeper club and house influences to smarten up her sound. Though her work in the 1980s was catchy, it felt like a prefab, assembly-line product. Her time with Stock Aitken Waterman was lucrative commercially, but artistically, Minogue was stifled – her lovely, impish quality submerged in the bland, hi-NRG productions.
So, when listening to a song like the 1988 hit “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi” from her debut album and comparing it to the 2023 song “Things We Do for Love”, we see the apparent growth as an artist. Aside from having a hand in penning the lyrics, the songs differ in both Minogue’s performances and the quality of the music. Stannard, Blackwell, and Green build a swirling, spinning song that positively explodes with emotion; Minogue is one of the most humane pop singers captured on vinyl. That big-hearted joy and life she displays on the driving “Things We Do for Love” was absent for most of her pre-SAW hits.
Though Minogue is most comfortable in neo-synthpop, her forays into house are also fantastic. The title track is reminiscent of the piano-laden house-pop hits of the early 1990s. She flirted with deep house in the early 1990s (interestingly, though she was making great music at that point in her career, she struggled commercially). “Tension” is a loving tribute to 1990s house, yet it sounds modern and fresh. The song also showcases just how accomplished Minogue is as a vocalist. Though that sweet warble is still there, she also adopts several guises throughout the song as if she were cast in various roles. The song’s inherent queerness means that Minogue dials the camp factor way up, and she slides into a stylized, near-scat that shows off a surprisingly supple and impressive range.
Of course, the song getting the most attention is the album’s first single, “Padam Padam”. It became her first top-ten hit in the UK in 12 years. It’s a song that perfectly encapsulates Minogue’s pop career at the moment: a long-standing affection for and from the queer community, an audience that has nurtured and carried her storied career. The tune’s success also highlights the interesting place that pop divas like Kylie Minogue occupy, contending with aging or loyal audiences while simultaneously working to appeal to younger listeners.
Minogue doesn’t get judged by her last hit record; she’s more than just her last hit. She’s a legacy artist at this point (confirmed by her much-beloved performance at 2019’s Glastonbury in the Legends slot), but she’s also a vibrant performer who isn’t content to rest on her laurels. That makes “Padam Padam” and its success all the more satisfying. Written and produced by Peter Rycroft (who’s known as Lostboy), along with Ina Wroldsen, “Padam Padam” is just the kind of ear-worm pop hit that “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was. Just like that song had the iconic “la-la-la-la” chorus, this song works its way and lodges itself into the brains of its listeners with the hypnotic refrain, which mimics a heartbeat.
Choosing “Padam Padam” as Tension‘s first single was a smart decision by whoever made that call. It will remind listeners of her biggest hits because it’s eccentric and weird enough to stand out (just as “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” did). Minogue’s also proven that her career’s got legs. In interviews, she’s expressed delight and surprise at the public’s affection for the song. In an interview with Ana Monroy Yglesias from the Recording Academy, Minogue makes her connection between “Padam Padam” and her biggest global hit, commenting, “The closest it would remind me of is “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, where it just took off like a rocket… It’s utterly enthralling to watch that unfold in front of my eyes from day one to day two, and still happening now.” She says she failed to predict the song’s massive success, admitting, “Honestly, it took all of us by surprise.”
Though Minogue tried to suggest that “Padam Padam” and its success are seemingly born out of spontaneity, we all know that pop music is rarely spontaneous, especially when it comes to a superstar of Minogue’s caliber. You cannot become a megastar like Kylie Minogue without calculation. Yes, her public persona is flirty and fun, but there has to be a steely ambition behind all of that glittery pop. “Padam Padam” feels very deliberate – like a purposeful sequel to “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (this doesn’t take away from the apparent excellence of both singles).
But that calculatedness explains Minogue and her producers’ approach in putting together Tension. It’s as if Minogue and Company want to ensure they’ve ticked off every item on their list of how to make the perfect modern dance-pop record. They made the wise choice of eschewing any grand or dewy ballads. And the song choices lean into Minogue’s strengths and satisfy the wants and desires of her core audience. Like the savviest politician, she knows how to speak to her base. “One More Time” hits the disco-funk she excelled at on Disco (it also bears an uncanny resemblance to her 2002 classic “Come into My World”) and sends her listeners to a roller disco.
Tension also incorporates Minogue’s relationship with DJ culture, which resulted in several EPs and collaborations with some of the industry’s most popular DJs. Though nowhere near underground or alternative, “10 Out of 10”, a collaboration with Oliver Heldens, points to the more club-centric side of Minogue’s work. The song’s title cleverly alludes to the drag balls when a competitor scores “tens across the board” for her looks and performance. Heldens’ work is often tuneful deep-house, yet Minogue’s mainstream pop instincts sweeten the song.
As if to remind her listeners that she can find a place on current pop radio, Minogue struts through the funky dance-pop of “Hands”, which sounds right at home with what’s happening in pop music at the moment. (In fact, “Hands” would have fit seamlessly on the Barbie soundtrack, with the Mattel doll getting a shout-out on the sparky lyric “Barbie, I’m that cherry on top of the cake.”) “Green Light” also similarly mines the current pop trend of fusing 1970s-era disco with 2020s electropop.
Though “Padam Padam” is the song’s biggest hit (so far), the best track is saved for the end. “Story” is a beautiful way to end the album. It’s Kylie Minogue at her best. It’s a moving and loving return to Minogue’s specific genius for 1980s synth-driven power pop. On the fist-pumping chorus, Minogue chirps with conviction and passion. The lyrics captured the kind of chaotic hopelessness of 1980s synthpop. The throbbing beat conjures spinning with abandon on the dance floor.
It’s a poignant way to end the record, a song about losing one’s shit over love. Minogue and her collaborators infuse warmth and emotion into music constructed solely with synthetic elements. Yet, they pierce listeners’ hearts with the kind of heart-stopping euphoria of the best dance song (the crescendo on this tune after a brief silence sends chills).
That is the genius of Kylie Minogue and why she’s lasted as long as she did. More than any other artist, she appreciates the power of dance and dance music. Unsurprisingly, the largest and most ardent faction of Minogue’s fan base is queer people. In an interview, GLAAD’s Anthony Allen Ramos perfectly encapsulated Minogue’s power as a gay icon by saying to her, “I’m glad we’re talking about queer joy. So many of my friends that love you, like myself, think you inspire joy, happiness, and hope.” Tension is a record that seems all the more necessary and urgent now, as LGBTQ trauma and angst seem to dominate conversations about the community. It’s powerful, empowering, and, most importantly, fun.