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Michael's Number Ones: "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue



January 19, 2002


Being an American sounds great on paper, but there's always trade-offs. I could go on a political rant after that sentence, but this is supposed to be a music column, so I'll leave that to your imagination (or a perusal of today's New York Times homepage). My point is that in America we're able to consume a lot of great stuff: television, movies, fine art, and of course, music. The problem is that sometimes really great shit gets made overseas and has a hard time breaking into the USA. If you know where to find it, or if you just stumble upon the right place, you can broaden your horizons. I've already talked about how MuchMusic exposed me to Canadian artists and songs before their big breaks in America, if they even made the trip south at all. A couple of those artists, Nelly Furtado and Nickelback, have already been in this column.

But sometimes an artist makes a song that's so undeniable, that you have no choice but to pay attention, regardless of where it's from. In the early 2000s, Kylie Minogue was pretty much a global icon, on a par with Madonna. Everywhere except the United States that is, where she was remembered at best as a one hit wonder. Until she released a song whose title foreshadowed its effect on me and a lot of other people who heard it.

Kylie Ann Minogue was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1968 to English and Welsh parents who had immigrated a decade earlier. Her family moved quite a bit when she was a child, and she spent her time reading and practicing music, eventually taking singing and dancing lessons. Soon she caught the eye of Australian television producers and was given roles in soap operas as a child, eventually leading to a starring role in the series The Henderson Kids. The experience of taking on an important role at such a young age apparently got the better of her, as she would sometimes cry on set when she forgot her lines, and the producers fired her after one season.

The experience didn't break her, however, and before long she was cast in the soap opera Neighbours, a wildly popular show in Australia that still airs to this day. The show catapulted her to stardom in Australia and the UK, such that when her character got married in 1987, 20 million people reportedly tuned in.

All the while, Minogue was recording demos that she hoped would lead to a music career. At a benefit concert in 1987, she performed a cover of Little Eva's 1962 song "The Loco-Motion" She would later record and release the song as a single in Australia, where it sold very well. This caught the attention of the British powerhouse producers Stock Aitken Waterman, the trio known most famously for being behind Rick Astley's rise to stardom in the late 1980s. Together, they recorded her debut album Kylie, which was released in 1988. Six singles were released worldwide from the album, and three of them actually made an impact in the United States. "I Should Be So Lucky" peaked at #28, and "It's No Secret" peaked at #37. But it was "The Loco-Motion", a song that would've already been familiar to American listeners in previous forms, that had the biggest impact, getting as high as #3 in the fall of 1988.

The success of her debut album had made Minogue a superstar in Australia and Europe, but for whatever reason, the United States didn't get on board. Her follow-up album Enjoy Yourself actually did better in the United Kingdom than her native Australia. The album reached #1 in the UK compared to #9 in Australia, and had four top 5 UK singles, two of them reaching #1. But the album appeared to go nowhere in America, possibly due to the Stock Aitken Waterman sound falling out of favor over here as the 90s began. Geffen Records, her American record label, dropped her following the unsuccessful release of the album.

Nonetheless, Minogue kept cranking out albums, and fans around the world gladly ate them up. It got to the point that when her 1991 album Let's Get to It only peaked at #15 in the UK, it was considered a disappointment. She eventually left behind Stock Aitken Waterman, as well as her British record label, and released Kylie Minogue in 1994. That album saw her first Australian #1 in six years with the song "Confide in Me", which also reached #2 on the British charts. In the US, the best the song could muster was reaching #39 on Billboard's dance chart.

Listening to "Confide in Me" for the first time while writing this post, the song may not be an undeniable banger, but it doesn't sound out of place with what Madonna was doing at the time either. I'm trying to understand why there was no audience for Minogue in the US, and I'm really not sure I have an answer. If anything, audiences in the US would've probably recognized her most for her supporting role in the ridiculously stupid 1995 movie Bio-Dome. (Though I admit to watching it somewhat often as a teenager whenever I saw it on cable. It probably should be a rite of passage for teenagers to watch at least one Pauly Shore movie before they graduate high school, for better or worse.)

It wasn't like Americans were completely ignorant of Kylie at the time. When the 2000 Summer Olympics were held in Sydney, Minogue was an easy choice for performing at the closing ceremonies, singing a cover of ABBA's "Dancing Queen". But I don't think you can underestimate the stupidity of American record label executives or radio programmers. If they couldn't hear a song like "Spinning Around", off her 2000 album Light Years, and not think "smash hit", then maybe American audiences didn't deserve Kylie Minogue.

Around that time, Cathy Dennis, a British singer-songwriter who had some notable success in the US in the early 90s, and Rob Davis began collaborating on some music, which led to the sessions that resulted in "Can't Get You Out of My Head". Davis created the iconic drum loop that begins the song, and by the end of the day, a demo of the song was created. They initially pitched the song to teen pop group S Club 7, but were turned down. (S Club 7's only hit on my top 40, 2001's "Never Had a Dream Come True", peaked at #11.) So too did Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who would go on to have some huge hits in the UK in the early 2000s, but never broke through in the US.

When Minogue initially heard the demo, she immediately wanted to record the song. Soon she started performing the song on tour, and it was chosen as the lead single from her next album, Fever. It was released in Australia and the UK in the fall of 2001 where it saw immediate success. Somebody must've decided it was too good to not release it in the US, and by the beginning of 2002, a single and radio release was scheduled.

I remember hearing "Can't Get You Out of My Head" for the first time in December 2001 on WKTU, a pop station that played a lot more dance music than sister station Z100. To say I was hypnotized would be an understatement. Hearing Minogue repeatedly singing "la la la" alone stopped me in my tracks. Lyrically, the song isn't especially deep. Minogue is infatuated with a man and can't get him out of her head. She wants to fuck this dude. I'm sure there were plenty of people around the world at the time for whom the feeling was mutual. And when I got my first look at the video for the song, I was one of them.

The video features a lot of CGI, but make no mistake, Kylie is the center of attention here. Whether she's driving a sportscar, or dancing wearing that white jumpsuit, she commands the screen. It's almost as if she's telling people in America, "I'm a big fucking deal." Honestly, if anyone heard this song or saw the video and didn't think that, well, I'm not sure I would've wanted to know them. And sure, with me being a horny 15-year-old kid, Minogue may not have needed to do much with a video to get my attention. But pairing that song with the looks and moves in that video? Holy shit. It's no wonder the song stayed at #1 on my top 40 for eight straight weeks.

The song proved to be a huge worldwide success, reaching #1 in multiple countries including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, and a bunch of other European countries. In the US, the song only got as high as #7, but I think that would've been counted as a victory in Minogue's camp regardless. It also earned her some equity with the follow up singles from Fever. She placed two other singles from the album on the Hot 100, with "Love at First Sight" reaching #23, and "Come Into My World" peaking at #91. On my chart, "Love at First Sight" proved to be her only other charting song, where it got to #20.

After the Fever album cycle ended, Minogue went back to being international sensation that was out of bounds for most Americans. The 2003 song "Slow" was a #1 hit in Australia and the UK, but only managed to reach #91 in the US. She would get a slew of #1 songs on Billboard's dance chart in the years to come, but the Hot 100 was always out of reach. Of course, none of this probably mattered to Minogue. She continued to release albums and singles that were successful around the world. In 2007, she appeared in the Doctor Who Christmas episode as an ill-fated waitress aboard a doomed intergalactic cruise ship. As someone who was only beginning to discover how great Doctor Who was at the time, seeing her name in the credits opposite David Tennant gave me a fantastic amount of joy. That episode may not go down as one of the classics of the revived Doctor Who, but it's not due to her performance.

Even though she's never been established in the US as a bona fide superstar, I don't think there's any denying her impact on culture. And even in 2023, she's still capable of getting into Americans' ears every now and then. The lead single from her most recent album, "Padam Padam", was a huge international hit that actually made some waves in the States, getting airplay on top 40 radio and reaching #7 on Billboard's dance chart. It didn't make enough of an impression on me to reach my top 40 chart, but I certainly wouldn't mind hearing it in a bar or a club.

All that being said, I can't say with absolute certainty that this is the only time we'll see Minogue in this column. She's only 55, and if "Padam Padam" is any indication, she still knows how to record a great pop song. Truthfully, I'm not dedicated enough to go seeking out her international releases, so maybe there's a song in the future that could be a #1 hit if geography weren't a factor. The United States probably didn't deserve to witness a career like Kylie's, and we're the worse for it.


Here's fellow Australian musician Amy Shark's indie pop cover of "Can't Get You Out of My Head", which was released earlier this month.

(Amy Shark's biggest hit on my top 40, 2017's "Adore", peaked at #12.)

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