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Kylie’s Impossible Princess turns 20: how Australia’s Princess of Pop came of age

Pop idols have been reinventing their images, personas and sounds for as long as there have been pop idols.

Some reinventions are calculated to achieve commercial goals: to ensure an artist stays in-step with the latest trends, to avoid any sense of staleness, and to reach a broader audience. But others are much more organic, reflecting the natural evolution of a person and artist as they age.

It’s unsurprising that this happens so frequently given the young age at which we tend to make “stars” out of pop singers: it’s understandable that, say, 20-year-old Miley Cyrus might choose to reject the sweet-as-pie persona cut out for her as a young teenager with a boldly sexual and defiantly adult image. And it’s understandable that record executives would choose to embrace this provocative, headline-grabbing expression of Miley.

But one of the most rewarding pop star reinventions happened 20 years ago with very little oversight from a record label’s A&R department.

“Minogue insisted on using her demo vocals for several tracks on the album to capture the spontaneity and raw quality of her initial performances of the new material.”

Kylie Minogue had long since brushed off her squeaky clean pop image by the time she came around to recording Impossible Princess, the fan favourite album which surfaced 20 years ago this week. She’d sexed up her image with Better The Devil You Know in 1990, and ventured into slightly darker territory with Confide in Me in 1994. She’d also had relationship with “bad boy” rockstar Michael Hutchence and an association with Nick Cave that saw her venturing outside the confines of bubbly dance-pop.

Cave was famously intrigued by Minogue’s career and output, and was desperate to collaborate with her when the pair joined together on 1995’s Where the Wild Roses Grow.

But he also held up an intriguing mirror to Minogue at a time when she was in her late 20s and grappling with her identity as the “singing budgie”, dubbed by the Australian media. While her music career seemed, to most of Australia, made up largely of mindless compositions and performances, Cave saw something different.

In a 1999 lecture, he said that Better The Devil You Know is “one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics”.

He continued, rather colourfully:

“Like Prometheus chained to his rock, so that the eagle can eat his liver each night, Kylie becomes love’s sacrificial lamb bleating an earnest invitation to the drooling, ravenous wolf that he may devour her time and time again, all to a groovy techno beat. ‘I’ll take you back. I’ll take you back again’. Indeed. Here the Love Song becomes a vehicle for a harrowing portrait of humanity not dissimilar to that of the Old Testament Psalms. Both are messages to God that cry out into the yawning void, in anguish and self-loathing, for deliverance.”

“While her music career had seemed, to most of Australia, made up largely of mindless compositions and performances, Cave saw something different.”

This more subversive and critical look at pop music had a great influence on the way she chose to explore her artistic identity at this point in her life.

In 1996, Cave had invited Minogue to perform a dramatic reading of I Should Be So Lucky at a massive and quite serious poetry event at Royal Albert Hall. She won praise at the time for her sense of irony and playfulness.

But the best expression of this subversion would come in the album she was recording at the time.

At the time of Impossible Princess’s development, Minogue was signed to British dance label Deconstruction. The label’s A&R department, which would usually keep a close eye on an album’s development, was mostly absent, due to the illness of label director Pete Hadfield.

Minogue collaborated with artists such as the Welsh alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers, and long-time producer Steve Anderson, to find a sound that was unmistakably dance and electronic-driven, but drew in influences from the grungier rock and alternative movement that was happening at the time. Minogue insisted on using her demo vocals for several tracks on the album to capture the spontaneity and raw quality of her initial performances of the new material.

The album has, without a doubt, the best lyrics of any Kylie Minogue album. It also has the biggest lyrical contribution from Minogue herself of any Kylie Minogue album.

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The opening track, Too Faris a solo composition and a frantic expression of fear and frustration, opening with an evocative, percussive and moody spoken verse: “Caught up in this house / Trapped my very own self in the snare of my mind / No more space than a slither / What I’d give for a deep breath inside / Where the chaos has me captive / Where there’s no exit sign / Where I fuel the stupid fire with these feelings of mine.”

It’s a rather significant departure from “I should be so lucky / Lucky, lucky, lucky / I should be so lucky in love.”

The album also features the country-infused Cowboy Style and the pop-rock track Did it Again, accompanied by a music video which saw Minogue in a battle with her various identities.

Then there’s the contemplative Breathe — which was sped up to a less contemplative tempo for radio — the dark techno track Drunk, and the effortlessly cool groove of Say Hey.

The final track on the album, Dreams, is a sweeping pop ballad with a gorgeous string arrangement. It addresses the contradictions in her own perspectives and evolving sense of identity, and includes the refrain: “These are the dreams of an impossible princess”.

The lyrical idea comes from the 1994 Billy Childish book, Poems to Break the Harts of Impossible Princesses, which was actually given to Minogue by Cave.

Both Impossible Princess and Madonna’s Ray of Light, released the next year in 1998, share a similar musical outlook and evolution in style. But where the general public went along with Madonna’s evolution, they were more reluctant to get onboard with the new Kylie. Impossible Princess fared relatively well in Australia, where it debuted at number four on the albums chart, but failed commercially UK and Europe.

There are a number of reasons for this failure that extend beyond the radical departure from her pop work.

Firstly, the choice of lead single was a mistake: Some Kind of Bliss is a song with a great swagger, but one that has little forward momentum. Secondly, the album was due to be released not long after the death of Princess Diana, but Kylie’s label decided the release of an album called “Impossible Princess” would be insensitive at the time. The release was delayed significantly in European markets until early 1998, when it was renamed simply “Kylie Minogue”, the same title as her previous 1994 album.

The album also received a bit of a critical walloping in some UK outlets, including NME which labelled her a “total fraud” for the musical evolution. By contrast, Billboard described the album as “stunning” and many Australian critics were impressed.

“Dreams is a sweeping pop ballad with a gorgeous string arrangement. It addresses the contradictions in her own perspectives and evolving sense of identity…”

Very soon after Impossible Princess, Minogue dove back into the world of pure pop, with 2000’s Light Years. Where Impossible Princess was sincere, stripped back and personal, Light Years was an exercise in high camp: glossy, theatrical, and character-driven.

It’s the kind of pop that Kylie is the absolute master of, and the kind of performance that caused Rufus Wainwright to label her as “the gay shorthand for joy“.

Minogue seemed to quickly fall back in love with pure pop expression, and her fans adored her for it, with Light Years and its follow-up Fever (2001) becoming massive smash hits in Australia and the UK.

She’d proven with Impossible Princess that she was capable of real depth and versatility. She was ready to return to the one thing she does better than just about anybody: pop music driven by unencumbered lightness and love.

The Impossible Princess Kylie may never be what Minogue is remembered for, but it stands as the most intriguing chapter of her career, and the only significant glimpse at who this pop icon might be when stripped of the showgirl feathers, gold hot-pants, and other glorious facades.

2 responses to “Kylie’s Impossible Princess turns 20: how Australia’s Princess of Pop came of age

  1. ‘Better the devil you know’ has a ‘groovy techno beat’, Nick Cave?

    With the release of ‘Impossible Princess’ in 1997, and ‘Ray of Light’ the next year, Madonna has been a follower of trends as far back as 1998?

  2. no Ben. it’s not what you want to think it is. just a misguided nonsense that nevertheless allowed some people to make some dough. “total fraud” is a bit silly, but she was hardly doing anything original, or very good. C’mon dude.

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