Skin Deep and Proud of It

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Kylie minogue is a woman who likesto sing fluffy pop songs and dance around in her knickers. She is not shy about the knickers part, either; in fact, it's hard to find a picture of her fully clothed. For a recent spread in an English magazine, Minogue straddled a cardboard rocket, wearing nothing but a tank top and a pair of frilly underwear-her own Love Kylie brand. Her evident joy at being an object of titillation explains-but only partly-her massive popularity across Europe and in her native Australia, where Kylie is as synonymous with good times, dance beats and, of course, sex as Madonna and Britney are in the U.S.

Minogue, 33, had a previous moment in the U.S. back in 1988, when she reached the Top 10 with a synth-pop cover of Little Eva's The Loco-Motion. It is a singularly unmemorable cover, the kind that gets resurrected a decade later with a visit from VH1's Where Are They Now? camera crew. But Minogue never actually went away. She continued recording in Europe, and 14 years later America has spun back around to discover Kylie just where she was. Her new single, Can't Get You out of My Head, has a chorus that goes, "La la la, la la la la la, la la la"; the video shows Kylie, nearly naked, grooving through a gauzy soft-core cityscape. As of last week, the song was No. 7 on Billboard's Top 100 singles chart, with a bullet.

Sex and a pop hook have always been a lethal combination. But Minogue has been doing a variation of her current skimpy act for the past decade (excepting a one-off duet with dour artiste Nick Cave), and U.S. audiences have roundly ignored her. Her new album, Fever, sold more copies in its first week of release than all of Minogue's previous albums had over the past 11 years. What makes her breakthrough even more confusing is that it comes just as America is closing the window on a four-year period of relentless teen pop. So why Kylie, and why now?

Mostly it's the song. Can't Get You out of My Head, written by former teen queen Cathy Dennis, is one of those weird pop miracles that piles on the hooks and dares you not to listen-it's catchier than Ebola. The rest of Fever is not unlistenable, just unremarkable.

Unfortunately for Minogue, one single is not likely to make her a permanent sensation in the U.S. American and European audiences have vastly different expectations of their female pop stars. Europeans want butterflies in a bell jar, pop-culture toys who can be counted on every few years for a danceable single, a low neckline and a naughty video or public scandal. Americans want those things too, but they demand that their pop stars also make a show of evolving into something more. They require at least the appearance of artistic ambition to leaven the guilt of a cheap thrill.

Madonna-she of the blond ambition-is the American pop paradigm. She debuted with prefab, coquettish tunes such as Borderline and Like a Virgin, then experimented with her own songwriting, as well as Latin and dance-club influences, while never forgetting to deliver at least a smidge of sex (usually more) in her songs and videos. Of the new generation, Britney Spears is the most precocious student. On her most recent album, Britney, Spears messes around with hip-hop rhythm-the white girl's stock assertion of musical growth-and sings I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, giving listeners a coy, up-to-the-minute account of her mental and physical development.

Growth isn't Kylie's strong suit. She has moved from mere product to producer during her career. But in Europe, when you're sexy and can dance a little, your image doesn't need much nurturing. Fever has the syncopation necessary for modern radio, but the songs themselves-Love at First Sight, Give It to Me, Your Love-are gloriously empty, profoundly superficial.

At this past year's mtv Europe Music Awards, Madonna took the stage in a glittery kylie T shirt. Perhaps the tribute was tongue in cheek-a huge star defining herself by what she is not. More likely, it was heartfelt. Not everyone can carry the weight of the world. Kylie Minogue is a pop star, nothing less and nothing more. Perhaps, sometime in the near future, American audiences will be willing to accept her as is.

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