Notes on pop diva Kylie Minogue’s conquest of the art of good sex.
There’s a photo of Kylie Minogue by photographer Stephane Sednaoui that I think about often when she rolls out a new album cycle. She’s on a bed, body lithely arranged like her lover has just left frame to capture the moment. A light illuminates her from above, her face half obscured in shadow, and one hand lazily reaches towards it. In the dim ambiance of her hotel room, a kittenish look of pleasure seems to stretch out across her face, flickering in and out of view from under the fluorescent lamp.
Never has the connection we share felt clearer to me than in that single shot. There we are, Minogue and myself, caught between pleasure and fulfillment, perpetually stretched out in the half-glow.
Pleasure, as it were, is something Minogue has been sonically preoccupied with during her nearly 40-year music career. It’s the thread that binds most of her albums together, stitching them across the decades as the industry changes all around her. Her recent viral hit “Padam Padam,” off the upcoming album Tension, is no exception. It’s a track that, like most of her singles, begins with a dance floor encounter. The amorphous other in the auditory dreamscape locks eyes with Minogue from across the way; their heartbeats form a sexual link between them. “I hear it and I know,” she declares to her partner for the night. “I know you want to take me home.”
It’s her first true global breakthrough since the release of her most easily recognizable run of singles on 2001’s Fever, which saw tracks like “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “Love at First Sight” make a genuine splash stateside. This doesn’t downplay the deep well of groundbreaking music she’s released since, like 2020’s Disco. Unlike the shimmering Disco however, “Padam Padam” pulses with an electronic edge not quite heard since 2010’s Aphrodite. That’s an album so chock full of instantaneous gay club classics, there was a time I might consider the night a bust if I didn’t cruise a guy in the darkroom while the DJ spun “All The Lovers.” In fact, it’s the darkroom where I feel Minogue’s artistry most. Not in any literal sense, although her catalog does reverberate off the ceramic wall tiles at a particular pitch I know quite well.
Moreso, her preoccupation with discovery through sex has been a navigational chart for this diva-addled transsexual. While not a particularly novel topic for women in pop music, Minogue sings of pleasure in a liberatory, self-possessed voice not often heard amongst her immediate peers. Perhaps therein is the root of the link I feel between us; two women who’ve carved out sexual gratification for ourselves on the great big obelisk of modern human connection. I’m not the only one to feel this way, should I look around at the numerous others on the dancefloor lost in “Padam Padam.” All of us, together in the long shadow she casts across the dancefloor.
As should be obvious by now, queer people at large were the first to latch onto “Padam Padam” as it climbed the Billboard dance charts. Pride month soon descended, and it was the singular song one could rely on no matter city, state, venue, or latest form of institutional violence against queer people. It was a global declaration of free love and pleasure. The Supreme Court found yet another way to legalize homophobia, and still nothing could stop anyone from touching bodies and exchanging fluids.
But despite the tendency to extract a broader message from its impact on queer people in the last few months, Minogue likely did not construct the song with such ambitions. It feels liberatory in this moment, yes, because most things that spark against the increasing hegemonic control of fascist zealots will stand in stark contrast to the world they aspire to. Many have simply re-joined Minogue in the other world she’s made music from since the 1990 album Rhythm of Love.
Nineties club music cemented Minogue’s status as a fixture of the gay party scene, through which “Padam Padam” carries on the storied tradition. On “Better the Devil You Know,” the lead single from Rhythm of Love, a triumphant piano dances over a grinding house beat as Minogue’s vocals dominate both. The following singles “Step Back in Time” and “What Do I Have to Do” both follow suit, but it’s “What Do I Have to Do” where the Minogue of more contemporary times is most prominent. “There ain’t a single night/ When I haven’t held you tight/ But it’s always inside my head/ Never inside my bed.” While somewhat euphemistic in its direct confessions of love, the song’s sexual undertones are obvious in its music video, wherein the songstress channels various starlets on the dance floor and bedroom, body wrapped in silk, hair tousled about at the mere thought of her lover’s smoldering gaze.
My first proper fling had never properly listened to Kylie Minogue, although “fling” might be a stretch for a man who was eight years older than me and mostly hovered over me at the local watering hole the few times he felt confident we wouldn’t run into another of his late night lovers. Mostly we’d have sex on my floor in the sticky light of the early afternoon sun, which I thought was chic at 18. (The futon I slept on had a hole in it that I’d occasionally fall through during sex, so floor it was.) Chic and intimate, like the Kylie Minogue vinyls I’d spin during his various excursions to my tiny apartment.
TOMMY X SIMON MILLER BLACKOUT PLATFORM
OUR BEST-SELLING LIGHTWEIGHT TOMMY X SIMON MILLER COLLAB IN CLASSON SIMON MILLER SILHOUETTES. SOFT VEGAN LINING FOR COMFORTABLE FIT.
Afterwards he would comment on the heels that spilled out of my closet, and ask if I was a drag queen. I’d laugh, and wipe myself off. Once, when I let him set the mood, he brought over warm beer and a Kill Bill DVD. He climaxed with my face pressed into the carpet as Lucy Liu shouted, “Tear the bitch apart!” I remember thinking he had maybe misunderstood the film’s themes.
While the lyrical ambitions of Rhythm of Love read submissive at first glance, in hindsight, her yearning on “What Do I Have to Do” showed a skillful command of her need for intimacy; her willingness to do whatever she felt like to capture the feeling. Beyond the girlish proclivities of her first two albums, Kylie and Enjoy Yourself, Minogue had constructed a stage solely for herself on her third outing. It was one she would continue to innovate from as the nineties upended the social order of established pop music stardom. Commercialism boomed, music was more accessible than ever, and gay people entered mainstream conversation against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, which affected those who were most likely to hear her music stateside. People who — as it turned out — became the foundation of her enduring devotees, like those of her contemporaries, Madonna and Janet Jackson.
In 1994 she would drop “Confide in Me,” the music video for which would position her as a series of pseudo-call girls, ready to provide in any way necessary. “Where Is the Feeling,” from the same self-titled album, calls back to “What Do I Have to Do,” but rather than beg a lover for guidance, she declares that “there ain’t nothing I wouldn’t do to make you happy.” It’s no mystery why the more seasoned fans of Minogue frequently joke she makes “music for bottoms,” or at least those in command of another’s physical attention.
I’d been on gray market hormones infrequently during my time with the aforementioned Kill Bill fan, somewhere between 2013 and 2014. My eventual doctor had a year-long wait list for new patients, and I had time to kill. The last time we hooked up, he pulled my face close to his from on top of him, and told me how handsome and sexy I looked in the filtered light of a Thursday in August. He never saw me naked again. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to make men like him happy, if only I could do the same for myself.
The sexual overtones to her music were present throughout her run of aforementioned albums in the ‘90s, but they were never so explicitly homoerotic as on 1997’s Impossible Princess. Sheathed in a nude slip for the “Breathe” single’s promotional images, Minogue opens the track with the selfsame confidence later heard on “Padam Padam,” telling the listener: “Don’t blame me just because I am bored. I’m needy, I need to taste it all.” Broadly, the whispering vocals on the track tell a story of emotional exploration between new lovers, Minogue hesitant to open up the inner workings of herself to another. That explanation is a satisfying summary of events until the chorus, where she sings that “the pull is in my muscle, the ache is in my bones.”
The chorus builds, and she contorts herself in empty space, the camera lingering on her clavicle, bare legs, outstretched torso. “Breathe, breathe, it won’t be long now, breathe, breathe.”
That aforementioned photo of Minogue on a bed was, coincidentally, shot during her Impossible Princess era by the aforementioned Sednaoui, whom she briefly dated. Like the album itself, photos for both the promotional run and its behind-the-scenes development show a more masculine, vulnerable, naked Kylie Minogue. The folklore of Impossible Princess’s creative development asserts that it was Minogue’s most personally involved album yet, with her ramping up collaboration with producer duo Dave Seaman and Steve Anderson. These more intimate ambitions may have hindered its wider appeal, but Impossible Princess stands as one of her most textually queer albums to date.
The homoerotic overtones heard on “Breathe” climax on the album’s final single, “Cowboy Style,” so wonderfully on the nose it shrugs off explanation. For the single cover, she smirks into the camera as a leather bra clings to her skin, her cropped hair a sunburst from out from under a cowboy hat. Over a startling country melody, Minogue gently coos: “Shed my skin since you came in, where do you end and I begin?” It’s an admission that could easily be said from the bedroom or the steam room, whispered in the dark between any combination of people. “I’m frightened, I’m aroused, I’m enlightened to the now,” she admits. “Peace and terror all in one, my future life has just begun.”
Over the next 25 years, that sound would continue to evolve, but her seemingly infinite capacity for sexual expression would endure. It would forge deeper connections with gay fans on Fever, and Aphrodite, even the oft-overlooked Body Language and X. On Disco, I wrote at the time that the backdrop of the pandemic made her search for sexual pleasure a fully fledged politic, the gay community at large never more disconnected than when she broke onto the scene in the ‘80s. It captured the lust of a woman who had, just then, gained the ability to yearn and demand, and know the importance of both. She appeared to be in total command of her sexual needs and body, evolved to not beg for gratification on the dance floor but demand it; she would shape it, control it, share and express it with herself and others.
Here is a woman who believes that intimate connection could unite just about anyone. Even that 18-year-old girl who’d fallen through the couch and the woman who, 10 years later, would find her own way out of the carpeted pit, guided along by the ecstasy of a piper’s song.
An impossible princess in my own right.
Yet still, touch between strangers becomes an endangered reality. The spaces we all jointly inhabit shrink, and press us closer together yet farther away from each other. On “Padam Padam” she makes a simple request. If only just for the night, let me know you’d like to take me home. I’ll figure the rest out when my clothes come off.