One night in early Autumn I woke from a dream of wolves, and through a chain of association that the dream provoked in my half-awake state (wolves, a page of A Thousand Plateaus, plurality, identities, time, loss, grief) found myself thinking about Kylie Minogue who I had seen crying on TV the previous night while she was being interviewed by Molly Meldrum.
I share a house with three Kylie devotees so June is shaping up as the Month of Kylie, as she hits the country on her Aphrodite tour. It’s surprising to remember how long Kylie has been around. Impossible Princess, the album that contains the Kylie-standards ‘Breathe’ and ‘Cowboy Style’ was released in 1997, colliding with the death of Diana, and she was already a star then. In fact it’s just over twenty years since Kylie’s first live gig, in Brisbane in 1990.
In 2005, as half the world knows, Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer and what became obvious under Meldrum’s relentless and inept questioning was that Kylie came face-to-face with the fact that she, the Impossible Princess, may very possibly die. All of a sudden the Kylie Project was disintegrating before her eyes and it was revealed under the chemo that she wasn’t a goddess after all, but something unfortunately more prosaic, a human being who was going to die and die unpleasantly, as most of us do. The Kylie Project, the endless reinvention of her own kind of superstardom, a Kylie desired by a heterosexuality that find its expression through sleazy tabloid wolf-whistling and by a gay sexuality that has adored her, is in both senses a project held by a male gaze. All of a sudden looking at Kylie’s breasts became a cause for uneasiness.
Meldrum’s interview of Kylie was disturbing in another way, too. While I was lying awake in the dark of a moonless night listening to the weird rainforest clatterings and chitterings on the roof, sounds that always make me feel that the night is another universe, I started thinking that Kylie, in her guarded polished way, reminded me of no-one so much as Marilyn. There is the radiant charm, high-wattage and skilfully unaffected, and behind the mask of the Goddess a hyper-vigilant mind watching herself watching you watching her, a mind that can no doubt be utterly ruthless at times. And yet behind that there is something more fragile, more shadowy and elusive, gone as soon as you catch a glimpse of it.
The incident that caused Kylie to break down on national TV (watching herself watching us watching her) and in fact to exit the interview for a time, leaving Meldrum comically open-mouthed, went like this:
Kylie: I was talking to some parents across the other side of a bed, and so their child was there and I was saying things that I would normally say in that situation, making conversation with the child, with the parents giving them some support as well, and then they really caught me off-guard and eyeballed me and said ‘How are you? We hope you get through it.’
At this point Kylie left the studio in tears, returning a minute or two later, moments measured for the viewer by repeated close-ups of Meldrum’s dumbfounded face.
Kylie: And let me just tell you the reason that gets me is I think the greatest part of my job, of what I do, is the humanity of it, and there are certain moments when that really gets through. I’m sorry… [and then briefly to the cameraman] You can keep rolling…
Because Goddesses don’t get cancer, I’m guessing that what Kylie meant by ‘the humanity’ of what she does, what keeps ‘getting through’ returning like a stubborn haunting, is that inescapable realisation that Kylie-Aphrodite is actually an ordinary human being. ‘I know that I will die in the biological sense,’ wrote the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro in his Last Writings, ‘but my existential sense of my own mortality is something else.’ I’d bet that when you continually reside in celestial realms of stardom, and are perpetually an object of desire and rarely a subject of desire, any moment of ordinariness that penetrates your armour of fame could hit you like a ton of bricks. The ordinariness can either derail you – you wake up in rehab – or become something of an epiphany, but it may well say to you, ‘my ordinariness is special’. Even under the shock of ordinariness I could still be watching myself watching every one else watching me. You can keep rolling.
I also wonder if to be famous at the stratospheric level of Kylie-fame is to feel as though you are inhabiting a ghost of yourself, and you only begin to feel solid when being visibly adored by thousands. That would explain a statement that Cate Blanchett once made abut how she only really feels alive in the dressing room just before she goes on-set or on stage. In the Kylie interview, it was obvious that the moment Kylie lives for is what she calls ‘The Walk’, the walk to the stage toward the deafening noise of the crowd, dressed in her finery, with escorts, minders, courtiers, photographers, twitterers and so on in tow. It might also explain why actors like Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger and Blanchett all seem to have the scary capacity to utterly disappear into their roles, as if they’ve finally found a way of being real. ‘We’re actors,’ says The Player King in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. ‘We’re the opposite of people’. Why these particular actors are all Australians is another question entirely, but I wonder about our historical sense that we are in the wrong place, about what is absent in our thought, about all the things we pretend haven’t happened And I wonder about the vacant space at the centre of the Anglo-Australian psyche – our need to pretend that we’ve always been here and aren’t just recent disastrous intruders, and the conjunction that might have with the disconnected narcissistic world of celebrity stardom, a terra nullius where nothing has ever happened but Me.
Whatever. As with Marilyn, no-one could ever find out who she really was and there was a sense that though she sometimes knew herself, what she knew was unacceptable, almost repugnant to her. Like everyone else on Marilyn, I’m just speculating. That’s become her nature. Watching Kylie talked at by the strange head of Molly Meldrum, all I could think of was the (almost) unspeakable fear of loneliness. If I am always watching myself watching you watching me, what happens when there is no-one watching, and I have no-one to watch? Do I disappear completely?
In the film Meeting People Is Easy, the documentary on Radiohead’s OK Computer world tour, the one that made them transnational megastars, Thom Yorke is nearly driven mad by the adulation. At one point he writes ‘I am not here and this is not happening’ on a scrap of paper and sticks it on a window pane. At their first Glastonbury appearance, Yorke has the stage lights turned onto the sea of faces before him. ‘I don’t know what I felt,’ he says, ‘But it wasn’t a human feeling.’
The thing about Kylie, as opposed to someone with an equivalent level of fame like Thom Yorke, is that in her interviews it is so hard to get any sense of who is really there. It’s slightly unnerving, even worrying, as though you’ve seen something out of the corner of your eye and, turning to name it, find it vanished. I’m not arguing that Yorke is somehow more authentic or saner or more likeable, or that Kylie is mad or fake, or that Radiohead are musically superior to Kylie, merely that with Yorke it’s easier to get an ordinary sense of a definite someone being there.
As it’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever spend any time with Kylie, or Thom Yorke for that matter, I’ll never know for sure. There are many ways to unhappiness though, and neoliberal capitalism seems to invent them endlessly. Becoming a Goddess, even Aphrodite, could be one of them, an unhappiness reserved for a select few but difficult to bear nonetheless.