According to the New World Encyclopedia, pop music ‘generally uses a simple, memorable melody’ before being ‘stripped down to a basic riff or loop which repeats throughout much of the song’. This definition checks out when the subject is boiled down to its fundamental elements, but we all know that pop music can be far more than just simple and repetitive. Pop can be moving, powerful or even transcendent, and subsequently, pop stars can be formidable and awe-inspiring.
Within the fog of personal disarray or amidst the grip of social turmoil, songs and their messengers can affect change. Think Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun or Tears For Fears with Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
In more recent times we have seen a tremendous call to arms from American women in music. In the mid-2000s, a slew of iconic females used their platforms to pledge allegiance with the Democrats during the reign of America’s 43rd president.
Pink threw a punch with her 2006 album I’m Not Dead, in her open letter to George W Bush, Dear Mr President. The track lays down a scathing critique of the administration through a series of questions aimed at the Commander in Chief: ‘What kind of father would take his own daughter’s rights away? What kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay?’
Pink was widely celebrated for her activism in this musical protest but a few years earlier country music stars the Dixie Chicks were punished for flexing their free speech muscle in what has now become a defining moment in pop culture history. During a live concert in London, the Texan trio spoke candidly about the president and America’s involvement in the Iraq war: ‘We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.’
The fallout from this brazen act was staggering and has plagued the Dixie Chicks since. Radio stations boycotted their songs and public protests saw their albums being destroyed, all meticulously captured in the documentary Shut up and Sing (2006).
More than a decade earlier, Madonna, a performer who has danced beside controversy her entire career, turned to an audience at the Sydney Cricket Ground and spoke to a community that was reeling from the AIDS crisis – a move that generously articulated her solidarity with her LGBTQ fans:
This next song I wrote about two very dear friends of mine who died of AIDS. And though you don’t know my friends, I’m sure that each and every one of you here tonight knows someone, or will know someone, who’s suffering from AIDS; the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
Madonna’s bravery in this moment should not go unrecognised. She understood the power of her position and seized the opportunity, further establishing herself as an entertainer who not only gave zero fucks, but who was also committed to railing against injustice. In this ‘take no prisoners’ situation she also forged an unshakable bond with the gay men who had been tracking her rising star – an investment that is still paying dividends.
Earlier this year Adele took home Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. She turned to Beyoncé during her emotional acceptance speech and thanked her for the impact she was creating through her artistry: ‘The Lemonade album was just so monumental … and the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel is empowering and you make them stand up for themselves!’
Lemonade undoubtedly positioned the superstar as a major feminist icon, if there was any doubt about this previously. Formation, the first single, dropped with an accompanying video laced with politicised imagery including flooded post-hurricane streetscapes and hooded youths breakdancing in front of riot police in states of surrender; a powerful salute to the ongoing plight of African Americans and a call to arms amidst the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many American artists, it seems, have no issue with raising their voices and exercising their right to an opinion during tough times. But what about their Australian counterparts? What about our Kylie? Where are Dannii and Marcia? At a time when queer communities are fighting for equality we need an anthem, but a tweet, update or post might have to do.
In the weeks following the announcement of the postal vote on same-sex marriage, social media platforms were heavily populated with shared articles, updates and information on the proposal. LGBTQI communities and their supporters were, and are, visibly distressed, frustrated and ultimately fatigued at this senseless decision. Adding insult to injury, the APS has issued a timely warning to public servants who ‘could breach tough new social media rules if they criticise the government by “liking” posts on Facebook or Twitter or by sharing negative information or comments in private emails’ (Canberra Times), and it has been reported that ABC staff are ‘gagged’ from voicing their opinions regarding same-sex marriage. So where can we turn?
Comedians, it seems, are our bastions of hope, as they continue to stand tall and call out vile bigotry for what it is. Entertainment veteran Magda Szubanski is working tirelessly across social media platforms in her advocacy for this issue and has literally run her voice hoarse during recent television appearances. But as necessary as it is for queer media personalities to step up to the plate in this moment (thank you Joel Creasy, Hannah Gadsby, Rhys Nicholson and Jordan Raskopoulos), it is just as vital that Australians have their much-loved and respected heterosexual heroes in their sight lines.
Our high priestess of pop, Kylie, was applauded when she joined her then fiancé Joshua Sasse as he headed the ‘Say “I Do” Down Under’ campaign, ahead of the proposed public vote on same-sex marriage, back in February 2017. Kylie retweeted in support of the cause and openly sporting the campaign t-shirt along with other public figures like Rose Byrne and Margot Robbie. At the time, Australian author Kathy Lette spoke on the BBC regarding the political stance that Minogue and Sasse had taken, stating, ‘Kylie’s a gay icon! And also, she’s all for free love, she’s all for people being able to express their love and their affection to whomever they feel drawn to, as it should be. So she’s a great spokeswoman. A great advocate … ’
An advocate yes, but a ‘spokeswoman’ is a stretch. Kylie has never actually ‘spoken’ in support of same-sex marriage, beyond a handful of tweets and Instagram shout-outs. Since her relationship with Sasse ended it seems her (and his) enthusiasm for the issue has waned. On 24 August, the cut-off date for Australians to update their electoral enrolment details, Kylie tweeted, ‘Aussies! #loveislove & it’s for everyone. Today is the final day to make sure you’re enrolled. Don’t wait!’ But scroll a little further and you’re more likely to see Kylie wishing songs from her own back catalogue a happy birthday, (‘#ConfideInMe 23!’) than make declarations that could move votes.
Why should responsibility fall on the shoulders of our Kylie? Because it is Kylie who found her audience in gay men way back when, and we deserve better.
Kylie has unflinchingly borrowed from gay culture in almost every step she’s taken. She was flanked by glistening Muscle Marys (sporting pink feathers) during her Intimate and Live tour (1998) and her merchandise has included t-shirts with phallic bananas in states of un-peel and tank tops with ‘CAMP KYLIE’ emblazoned across their fronts. She has been dressed, photographed, filmed and fussed over by legendary gay men throughout the course of her sensational career: Dolce & Gabbana, David La Chapelle, Jean Paul Gaultier, William Baker and Pierre & Gilles. The list is endless.
It was also Kylie who found herself surrounded by bronzed, speedo-clad men in her film clip for ‘Slow’ – a homoerotic fantasy that more often resembled softcore porn than it did a music video. No complaints here. Kylie has dressed up as a cowboy and a cop, sported feathers, been bound in leather, descended from the ceiling on an anchor, found inspiration in Greek mythology, and payed homage to Judy Garland whilst singing ‘Over the rainbow’. Kylie has appropriated queer culture to her advantage, and we have loved it. Why shouldn’t we? Her carefully curated smorgasbord of queer cultural motifs has tickled our collective fancies for decades. And there is a rumour that her new album will attempt to ‘cover issues’ like LGBTQI rights. Kylie speaks our language. But at a critical time, sadly, she hasn’t said much.
As we brace ourselves for the endurance test of what is set to be another shocking chapter for the LGBTQ community, we need people of influence to stand with us in solidarity, unflinchingly. We need the support, love and bravery of allies, not through tokenistic messages and throwaway hash tags (#lovers), but through heartfelt compassionate declarations and grandiose gestures. While the Jezables and Sarah Blasko have headlined Unity: The Equality Campaign Concert, an event that demonstrated support and advocacy surrounding marriage equality whilst raising funds, we will wait patiently for our beloved Kylie and co to take to their platforms, or their hydraulic fuelled podiums as it may be. Actions speak louder than tweets and the time is now.
Your disco needs you.
Image: Album cover of Macho Man, by the Village People.