I mean, where to even start? For anyone even faintly aware of music in the 80’s the idea that “indie Kylie” could be A Thing was so ludicrous as to be simply laughable. Kylie (rarely even gifted with a surname back in those days) was just another pathetic consequence of manufactured pop, another actor-turned-pop-star and a bit of musical sausage for the Stock, Aitken And Waterman meat grinder, capable of churning out a few disposable singles before fading back to obscurity. Ordinary voice, pretty-but-none-more-80’s looks, predicable dance move and bland songs. Come on. It’s Kylie (sometimes Minogue, occasionally “& Jason”)! She’s not ever going to amount to anything. Thus went the orthodoxy but it turned out Ms Minogue had other ideas.
And “Confide In Me” is the first expression of those other ideas. Out went Stock, Aitken and Waterman and their missing-an-s hit factory. In came seriously cred-worthy Deconstruction Records and Brothers In Rhythm as the writing and production team. In advance of the single being released this looked like a cynical move, a calculated attempt to do little more than paint an already-fading pop star with an indie/alternative brush and hope it might extend her career a bit. The cynics were, in this case, completely wrong.
One of the things which has become abundantly clear with the passing of time is that Kylie Minogue is an extremely intelligent person, light-years away from the empty-headed pop star phase that constituted the start of her career, and the “indie” chapter that followed shows just how wide of the mark the critics were in the early days, and how smart she was in what she chose to do next. Not that the music from the SAW phase of her career is good – it definitely isn’t – but the person behind that music was just so much more. “Confide In Me” is not simply a complete and utter repudiation of the disposability of Kylie Minogue, it’s straight up one of the best singles of the 90’s. This isn’t some pop chanteuse half-heartedly trying on a new style to juice up fading chart success, it’s obvious just how invested Kylie Minogue is in this, and the thing that makes that clearest of all is her voice.
Because, really, it’s amazing what a difference a good producer can make, and Kylie had never sounded better than she does here – her performance is outstanding and the production supports here completely. This does not sound like the person who blandly recited “The Loco-motion” with competence but little apparent enthusiasm. Nor does it sound like the same person who was able to put a little personality into “I Should Be So Lucky” but couldn’t quite overcome the intrinsic naffness of the song itself (to be fair, nobody could have achieved that feat – it’s terrible). What the first part of Kylie’s career shows is that, for all the commercial success of those early singles, Stock, Aitken and Waterman didn’t know (or more probably didn’t care) what a talent they had on their hands. Kylie’s voice on those songs sounds processed and flat – interchangeable with just about any other singer in the charts at that time.
“Confide In Me”, by contrast, isn’t just Kylie singing, it’s Kylie singing. She had never given a vocal performance like this before and that’s why it was such a jolt on its release – in one move Kylie Minogue proved her worth as a performer while simultaneously proving her critics wrong. The scope of her voice here is just so far away from anything even hinted at before that it beggars belief. There’s a whole range of styles she goes through, from sultry temptress breathily entreating the listener to “stick or twist, the choice is yours” though to the soaring, note-defying high points at the end of the song. But throughout the whole song, both the lyric and the vocal make one thing abundantly clear – Kylie is in control. That’s really where the power of the song lies, matching an absolutely stellar vocal performance with the controlled seduction of the lyric, the two combining to produce a mesmerising performance and one which, as little as six months earlier, would have been simply impossible to imagine. This is the talent Stock, Aitken and Waterman had at their disposal? And they had her singing fucking “Especially For You?” Idiots.
But that jolt of “wait, what?” can only take any song so far. Yes, it was vastly improbable – shocking, even – that Kylie Minogue could produce that kind of material and there’s no doubt that made people sit up and take notice. So, to an extent, did the video, which features six different Kylies (Army Combat Kylie, Indie Kylie, Innocent Kylie, Drug Kylie, Pop Kyle and, um, Kylie In Front Of A Fried Egg Kylie) in what looks like a standard phone-sex advert but which step by step gets more and more aggressive and disconcerting. It starts off with familiar phrases like “Call Now” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and gradually moves to “Lonely?”, “Anxious?”, “Lost?”, “Depressed?” and eventually – ominously – “weak?” while the captions start to slip into different languages. It’s an excellent conceit.
But to underpin all the vocal pyrotechnics and well-produced video the song really needs to stand on its own, so it’s a testament to songwriters Steve Anderson, Dave Seaman and Owain Barton that is absolutely does. Owain Barton is in fact a nom de plume for Edward Barton – he’d written the deeply disturbing a capella track “It’s a Fine Day” in 1983 and the main, cyclical riff of “Confide In Me” is a part of the melody from that song. But even before we reach that compelling, discomfiting string refrain we have a woozy, swirling piano and violin introduction that seduces the listener into the song before we even reach the main riff. It takes almost a minute and a half before we even get to Kylie (bar some wordless backing vocals over the vertiginous opening).
It’s a hugely bold and daring approach for someone who’s mostly been about cheap pop hooks up until now. And yet that main riff is as compelling as any hook Kylie’s had across her career. It’s powerful and driving and it’s the battery that charges the whole song. Over that we have a mix of middle-eastern instruments (including a plucked sitar just before “we all get hurt by love”) and dance beats, rendered in bang-up-to-the-minute 90’s style that would have been at home in any club. The production of the song by Brothers In Rhythm is simply astounding, demonstrates a complete control of the song – Kylie might not be listed as one of the songwriters here but it’s also clear that her approach and aesthetic is shot through the material and the production works to support that. The end result is breathtaking.
But while “Confide In Me” was a solid hit that made people appreciate Kylie Minogue in a different light it’s also a song which has a certain limit to it, simply because of the direction of her career. Because in the end while “indie Kylie” was an artistic success this isn’t the dominant force in her career – that will always be pop and disco. “Confide In Me” is an excellent single – her best, in fact – but faced with the global success of something like “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” it’s not hard to see why, having successfully reinvented herself during the mid-90’s, she went back to the pop success that’s always been at the core of what she does. That latter-day pop success will turn out to be better, more interesting and more successful than the initial pop phase of her career in the 80’s, at least in part because of the lessons learned during “indie Kylie”.
But it’s worth mourning the side of Kylie that didn’t get expanded upon, the altogether more interesting artist that did more than just disco hits, however good they might turn out to be. The album “Confide In Me” is taken from – the eponymous Kylie Minogue – is a good album and it’s follow-up, Impossible Princess, is genuinely great, easily the most interesting and unusual of her career and one which deserves considerably more respect that it gets. Kylie herself has stated she never plans to do another album like that, but that’s a great shame because it’s a compelling, challenging and far more personal piece of work than we’re used to seeing from her. But even if she never returns to this phase of her career it will always stand as ambitiously defiant to the Orthodoxy Of Kylie, a statement that shows she’s more than capable of holding her own as and when she needs to. And “defiant” is exactly what “Confide In Me” is. Gloriously, wonderfully defiant. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see this side of her again.
What Else Happened In 1994?
Kurt Cobain kills himself, first and foremost, ending Nirvana and the grunge era in general, though the latter part of the year sees Unplugged In New York released, as triumphant an outro as the band could wish for. In an ominous portent of times to come Korn release their debut, so Nu Metal is on its way. Blur release their breakthrough, Parklife, Oasis debut with Definitely Maybe, and Pulp edge nearer mainstream success with His’n’Hers. Marilyn Manson releases his first album with Portrait Of An American Family and R.E.M. release the unfairly-consigned-to-the-bargain-bin Monster. The Cranberries find commercial success with No Need To Argue and Portishead release their classic Dummy. Nine Inch Nails come of age on The Downward Spiral, and Morrissey releases his best solo album, Vauxhall And I. Woodstock ’94 is held, and irrelevant, and George Michael fails to break his contract with Sony. The big singles news is “Streets Of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen, but the rest of the biggest-selling singles are straight-up dreadful, including “All For Love” by Bryan Adams & Rod Stewart & Sting, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” by Rednex and “I Swear” by All-4-One. And that’s not even mentioning Wet Wet Wet’s stomach-churning cover of “Love Is All Around”, which was at Number 1 in the UK for fifteen fucking weeks. Yuk. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony release their debut EP, and Green Day break through with Dookie, heralding the arrival of a whole host of new US punk bands (it says here). The Spice Girls are formed and Deacon Blue and Level 42 call it quits.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
There’s some minor Stone Roses (“Love Spreads”), which is fine but little more, and Crash Test Dummies have their brief flirtation with success when “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” struggles its pretentious way to Number 2 in spring. “Streets Of Philadelphia” gets to Number 2 in the UK and so qualifies, despite being the biggest seller globally of the year, and both Ace Of Bass (“The Sign”, or as it’s otherwise known, “their other hit”) and Corona get there too, the latter with “The Rhythm Of The Night”. Madonna is one of the few artists to peak at Number 2 in America during 1994, with the thoroughly unspecial “I’ll Remember”, though Janet Jackson does the same with “Any Time, Any Place / And On And On” (both songs unable to unseat All-4-One). And Sheryl Crow makes a late-in-the-year bid for our attention with “All I Wanna Do”. And fails.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
12. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
13. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
14. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
15. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
16. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
17. James – “Sit Down”
18. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
19. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
20. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
21. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
22. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
23. Queen, “Killer Queen”
24. Blondie, “Denis”
25. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
26. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
27. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
28. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
29. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
30. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
31. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
32. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
33. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
34. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
35. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
36. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”