On Tension, Kylie Minogue’s Post-“Padam” Renaissance Keeps Humming Along
We’re somehow three-quarters of the way into this fast-moving year. Out with the summer jams, in with the fall vibes. And hey, speaking of in with the new: I’m taking over as Stereogum’s pop columnist! You may have read my writing here – most recently on Ariana Grande – or on Pitchfork, Spin, the late, great Village Voice, or the late, great Singles Jukebox. (I’m noticing a trend here, but let’s move past it.) I also, as one does, have a Substack.
We’re going to play around with some format tweaks over the coming months. (Let us know what you’d like to see more of in the comments!) But in the meantime, I’m so excited to be here with you living out my radio-taping, TRL filming-going preteen dreams. It makes my heart go padam.
Kylie Minogue’s Tension wastes no time before giving its millions of listeners the main thing they’re there for: the slinky, hooky, and extremely horny dance track that went unexpectedly supernova this summer. Stans rejoiced (hi, stans). Pride obviously was all over it. The track even got a shoutout in British Parliament. (A note on that: “Padam Padam” so far has been much more inescapable in Britain than in America – well, than in offline/hetero America.) Kylie found herself with her first undeniable hit since 2010’s serviceabley mid “All The Lovers.”
Unsurprisingly, because we live in the most tedious sort of society, this kicked off an extremely boring discourse about ageism. All the usual arguments arrived on formulaic cue, like some op-ed version of the Hero’s Journey. Multiple commentators pointed out that David Guetta regularly climbs the charts despite being, like Kylie, 55 years old (and, unlike Kylie, profoundly personally embarrassing). This is admittedly the perfect anti-hypocrite gotcha – yet only serves to further perpetuate the thing. We already have ways to talk about artists who stage killer comebacks well into their career: veterans, icons, megastars. We’ve got playlists full of them, from Madonna to Janet. We don’t have to do this anymore! How many bangers must bang in vain?
Of course “Padam Padam” became a hit. It’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” condensed and compressed, all euphemism and pretense stripped away alongside all unslutty clothes. The beat throbs with even more ruthless efficiency than the Fever hit. Eight syllables of lustful la-la-la become four of panting Piaf. Kylie elaborates upon her 2001 title, cooing to her conquest-to-be that “I’ll be in your head all weekend” – as if the fated forever limit of infatuation is exactly three (3) days. Crucially, all of this is played completely seriously – as if one weekend of feeling post-hookup dickmatized ranks with the deepest, most heightened emotions of all time. How could it not be a hit?
All is proceeding according to plan. Kylie spent a few years doing genre tourism: on 2018’s Golden with the kind of country music that can only be made by someone not actually from the American South, then on 2020’s DISCO with disco of the extremely literal variety. They were fine and occasionally more than fine, but after five years and many, many looped padams I hope we can all (angry people in my inbox included) agree that these albums were not the pinnacle of Kylie’s career. Kylie certainly thought she had pinnacles ahead of her; Tension is very clearly the work of an artist – and her newish label, BMG – deliberately trying for hits.
How do I know this? Because she hired hitmakers. “Padam Padam” was written by Norwegian songwriter Ina Wroldsen, best known for Calvin Harris’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” The song wasn’t originally meant for Kylie; Wroldsen thought maybe it could be something for Rita Ora, or perhaps some country’s Eurovision track. (It’s not not a Eurovision track.) The titular “padam padam” was Wroldsen’s idea, and it’s not the first time she’s managed to infuse longing feeling into nonsense syllables – check out Jax Jones’ “Breathe.” She’s done this a lot, in other words, and acknowledged that to The Independent via the most modest of metaphors: “Sometimes I get a little herring, sometimes I get a really good salmon. This was a salmon.”
Minogue has co-writing credits for much of the album, but almost every track started life much like this: songwriting-camp chum flung into the pop waters by dozens of workmanlike songwriters, on behalf of hundreds of UK/US chart aspirants, noteworthy and not. They also include frequent Little Mix collaborator Camille Purcell, perpetually bubbling-under (and, I’m told, genuinely hardworking) pop duo Loote, and the hilariously named songwriting team Biffco, responsible for untold pop singles including a little ditty called “Love At First Sight.” I’ll let someone more deranged than me tally up their collective hits, but it’s well into the hundreds – implying that, for every indelible smash, there’s a graveyard beneath it of dogshit songs. And the surest proof that Kylie still has it – and always had it – is that, in 2023, she still commands enough clout that she got none of the dogshit. Kylie got the salmon.
“One More Time” and “Vegas High” are veritable time capsules of 2015 and 2011 dancepop, respectively (you can sort of hear the echoes of Katy Perry’s “Firework” staccatos in the latter). “Hands” drops a timely Barbie shoutout into its sassy spoken-word chorus. The ballroom-inspired “10 Out Of 10” comes toward the end, wrapping the album up with the only music criticism many listeners desire: “Body, 10, touch, 10, energy, 10 – 10 out of 10.”
“10 Out Of 10” has another distinction: being a song on a Kylie Minogue album that’s nevertheless credited as “featuring Kylie Minogue.” (Oliver Heldens is the lead artist.) That’s the risk with going this hard into songwriting-camp material: We easily could have gotten an album with lots of hooks, lots of confidence, but not a lot of Kylie. The remarkable thing about Tension is how, with few exceptions, that doesn’t happen. Strewn throughout the album are little reminders that yes, these are specifically Kylie songs. “Green Light” drops a quick “Spinning Around” nod (and I’d be remiss not to mention the full-on sax solo), and among the delightfully stoopid lyrics of “Tension,” Kylie lets loose with the totally unironic, but again kinda great namedrop “Call me Kylie-lie-lie, don’t imitate-tate-tate.”
But those are the little things. Kylie’s gift isn’t so much being a singular, vocally fixed singer, but in her ability to morph into exactly what the song needs: to disappear into the feelings, and in doing so heighten them. Despite the flagrant silliness of “Tension”‘s lyrics (seriously, look them up, they’re probably goofier than whatever you heard), the song does create genuine tension and release – because of the drop, yes, but also because of Kylie’s vocal. She sings the pre-chorus as an almost impossibly eager flirtation, wide eyes and glazed-over smile, with a cooed refrain that sounds like pleasure distilled into four notes. “One More Time” is not a particularly great song, but Kylie’s lascivious breathe-singing and little whoop at the end of the chorus does so much more than the material calls from. Surefire club bait “Padam Padam” would nevertheless be lesser without Kylie’s pleading vocal, the way it swoops up and shudders on the word “heart.”
Kylie brings something more ineffable to Tension, too. This comes out best on the midtempo tracks and ballads: the ABBA-esque “Story”; the almost Jim Steinman-like intro to “Things I Do For Love”; or the album’s second track and freely offered heart, “Hold On To Now.” Like “Padam Padam,” the song is the surest of bets: an arpeggiated, shimmering crescendo of a pop tune about making it through hardship, one instant after another. Top-shelf material, in other words; “Hold On To Now” would be a near-perfect eleventh-hour album track in anyone’s hands. On paper, that is. But tracks like these only work if you believe them: whether you’re convinced in your heart that the person assuring you that you’ll survive has themselves survived, has felt the things you have felt, and commands enough force to pull you through.
Kylie has this, as her diehard fans know, and she imbues “Hold On To Now” with her decades of experience, a voice that trades technical firepower for earnestness, and a benevolent, embracing presence. Call it confirmation bias – would we be saying this if “Hold On To Now” did end up as, like, an Anne-Marie album track? – or call it parasocial projection onto a pop star who might be thinking any number of things, perhaps related to having absurd amounts of money. But those who know, know. It’s undeniable. It’s gravitas. It’s Kylie.
yeule - "cyber meat"
Singaporean artist yeule’s softscars is the week’s big buzzy album, and rightly so: a huge, kaleidoscopic, experimental, confrontational opus, and aesthetically of the now in its cyberpunk, hyperpop and glitch aesthetics. All of this undeniably reminds you a lot of Grimes. But yeule – who discovered Grimes during their Tumblr-alt era and was inspired to make music by her – actually understands her. They understand that Art Angels, while ~*aesthetic*~ and all, wasn’t afraid to make a lot of idiosyncratic dorky choices. And they demonstrate this understanding by building a track around a bridge that sounds more like Avril Lavigne than that other big album that sounds like Avril Lavigne. These days, that isn’t even dorky anymore.
(G)I-DLE - "I DO"
K-pop girl (G)I-DLE’s “I DO” came out a few months ago but is just now trickling onto US Top 40 playlists. There’s a reason for that. (G)I-DLE is noteworthy in the K-Pop world for largely producing their own music, but “I DO” was given to them by US pop jobbers Rogét Chahayed and Imad Roya, the kind of non-household names who produce a good third of the pop hits you’d remember if you heard them in Walgreens. Unsurprisingly, “I DO” is thus a little divisive among (G)-IDLE fans, but taken as its own thing, it stands up. Those synth stabs on the chorus do sound a little like a deconstructed version of “Every Breath You Take,” right? Because the chorus itself has more than a little of Pink’s “Please Don’t Leave Me” or maybe Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend“: a crying, clinging lunge for your ex’s door, jealous instability wrapped in a perfect pop chorus, that makes you realize why “I DO” is in all caps.
Samantha Urbani - "Isolation"
Samantha Urbani’s been floating around the alt-R&B scene for almost a decade now, but her new album Showing Up is a triumph. “Isolation” is my pick: a “Rapture” interpolation; vocals that alternate from sludge-soaked and guttural to melting into air; and a work-your-body chorus with emotional stakes, one born of clawing your way out of heartbreak. Like the chilliest ice cube melting in the frostiest lowball glass in the darkest ’90s lounge you’ve ever found yourself reluctantly single in.
Timbaland - "Keep Going Up" (Feat. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake)
Thick with cynicism – I heard you’re just aching for the mid-2000s to be back, when Timbaland had all those hits with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, so how about both of them on the same track? Generation Z has already scrolled past this. But “Keep Going Up” has, in fact, kept going up the pop charts – it’s already lapped “Maneater” – and that can’t all be coming from cheap nostalgia (or spendy payola). Tim pulls a characteristically sinuous sample off some long-forgotten hard drive, Nelly Furtado radiates her usual underrated charm, and Justin Timberlake is the best he’s been in about a decade (faint praise, yes).
Usher - "Good Good" (Feat. Summer Walker & 21 Savage)
It is 2023. Timbaland and Usher are on pop radio, and Usher in particular sounds like his voice has not aged in 20 years. What is happening? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked. Usher is a man of multitudes: Super Bowl headliner, Vegas performer, Keke Palmer meme object, and an artist whose imperial era isn’t a few big years of fame, but more like some recurring astrological phenomenon where every 10 years his music peaks again. We’re in Usher retrograde.
Peggy Gou - “(It Goes Like) Nanana”
Peggy Gou – critically beloved German-Korean DJ, but until recently not a mainstream hitmaker – has a worldwide smash that’s now cracked US pop radio too. I’m gonna do a very scientifically accurate breakdown and argue that the reason is 60% because of her recent signing to XL Recordings and subsequent label push and 35% because of the undeniable yet accessible ‘90s house revival that gives way to a wordless Eurodance hook – which means, and only kinda shitposting here, 5% because of “Planet Of The Bass.”
Sabrina Carpenter - "Feather"
Sabrina Carpenter’s never quite been able to step out of other artists’ shadows. She’s an opener for Taylor Swift’s ERAS tour, and the alleged subject of various Olivia Rodrigo songs and associated dramas. And that’s not really fair to Carpenter – though her creating more beef with diss tracks like “Skin” certainly didn’t change the situation – because her music has ranged from basically decent to actually quite good. Remarkably, “Feather” stays lightweight, unbothered, and moisturized even though the arrangement is doing so much in a way that could easily sound overproduced. And in that (over?)production are so many gems: trance piano cascades, Sarah McLachlan-y vocal samples, giggly spoken word.
Kanii - "Sins (Let Me In)"
Eighteen-year-old artist Kanii took his TikTok hit “Attachment” to a Warner signing recently. That track, like this, is the work of someone who’s definitely listened to the Weeknd and possibly listened to Dawn Richard. Like a lot of post-TikTok singles, “Sins” sounds like it started as the loop, repeated and slightly elaborated upon until it reached song length. But that’s a compositional style with legit roots (MUSIC THEORY THINKPIECE OMITTED). And with the obsessive chorus and spiraling backing trills here, it works.
Chappell Roan - "Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl"
Pop music for people who love POP MUSIC. For people who wear leg warmers and star sunglasses and body glitter, who do Grease choreo and get Libby Lu makeovers, who write in pink exclamation points and text in heart-eyes emoji. For people who instantly spot the nods to “Footloose” and “Express Yourself,” plus the general vibe of Gaga. For people whose highest, purest joy is a loud sapphic chorus and deliriously unfiltered belt: “WE’RE HOT! WE’RE DRUNK!” For anyone who has ever liked serotonin.