Dance pop grows up

Kylie Minogue's teasingly tantric "Body Language" and Sophie Ellis-Bextor's icily elegant "Shoot From the Hip" make Britney and Christina's over-the-top gyrations look like child's play.

Published February 10, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Kylie Minogue purrs her way through her new album, "Body Language" (Capitol). Even more than the beats or the blipping electronic riffs that pop up in the songs -- at times the album seems to be an homage to '80s pop in the way that her "Light Years" was the best disco album anyone had made in years -- it's Minogue's voice that you retain from "Body Language." The vocals here are breathy, nasal in a teasing, seductive way (the occasional double tracking heightens the seductiveness). She vibrates and elongates the last syllables of words before she lets them die away, like someone whispering a come-hither in your ear.

"Body Language" is terrifically sexy without resorting to the blatancy that characterizes so much dance pop. When you watch Britney and Christina et al. acting sexy, it all seems like so much heavy lifting. They work so hard at seeming sexy that you wonder how there's any energy left for sex after the performance. If they exhaust you, how frisky can they be? Even when Minogue is at her friskiest (as in "Red Blooded Woman," where she sings "let me keep freakin' around"), she knows how to hold back. You hear that less in the lyrics -- which have been carefully calibrated not to make her seem like just another hot-to-trot cookie ("Nature should explore the physical/ But don't confuse emotions with the pleasure principle") -- than in the determination to entice rather than overwhelm that defines the candy-coated vocals.

The fact that singers' voices are now just another part of the technology open to producers has been used to paint almost all pop singers as cogs who don't inject any sensibility or personality into the music. Typically of Kylie Minogue, there's nothing "personal" about "Body Language." But professionalism this slick has its own rewards, and the pleasure of "Body Language" is in hearing the little girl at play behind the sexy diva. Perhaps reacting to the commercial failure of her intriguing album "Impossible Princess," Kylie Minogue has, since "Light Years," declined to present albums as a radical reworking of persona or a personal statement (a relief, since most pop star statements have about as much distinction as a Barbara Walters interview). "Body Language" is simply Kylie's latest costume party, open to all comers.

Perhaps it's naive to talk about innocence in music this calculated and commercial. But there's no crassness in Minogue's calculation. Sure, she's got her own lingerie line, promoted each year in her official calendar, and each album comes with a little portfolio of sexy new photos. Maybe it's that she is still trying to establish herself as a star in the United States and thus we're not glutted with Kylie gossipy profiles. But the effect of that P.R. drought in the U.S. has been to make Minogue an anomaly among today's pop divas -- one who seems comfortable with rising or falling solely on the music.

She's chosen a great role model for this edition of Kylie's Dance Party: Brigitte Bardot. In the photos that adorn the booklet of "Body Language," Minogue has B.B.'s pile of lush, tangled blond hair (the type that looks like she's just gotten out of bed and is ready to get back in), her kohl-lined eyes and a teasing glimpse of gap-toothed front teeth visible between parted, pouty lips. The French-style striped jersey she wears on the cover accentuates the comparison, as does the photo of Minogue leaning against a Kawasaki that recalls the poster of Bardot in thigh-high boots straddling a Harley.

Aping the look of the greatest sex symbol who ever lived is a smart move. The poutiness and the self-involved playfulness of Bardot aren't equaled by "Body Language" (no one has ever equaled Bardot), but they are echoed. Minogue may play a kitten in the thrall of sex here, but there's always a sense that she's going to pick up her tresses and go home the way a kid will collect her toys after a playground dispute. "I'm going home/ I want my records back," she sings in "Someday," and you can't help feeling there's some honesty in not selling this as the symbol of liberation the lyrics imply but as a celebration of the horny petulance it is. That ties right into the ephemeral pleasures of this sort of pop music. It may not be grown-up music, but it's a lot more fun than Norah Jones' "Music to Eat Brie By," or whatever the hell her album is called.

The best track on "Body Language" is the first. "Slow" is stripped-down, dance-floor music and beguilingly strange. It doesn't provoke the "what the hell is this?" reaction that Kelis' great "Milkshake" does (another example of playground sexiness), but it is the kind of record whose quirks stick out on the first listening and then become the very thing you play it again and again to hear. Over a beat that never seems to escalate but remains steady, like a pot of coffee kept percolating at an exact temperature, Minogue does her best teasing yet. The chorus -- "slow down and dance with me/ yeah/ slow/ skip the beat and move with my body/ yeah/ slow" -- is broken up into breathy, insinuating little exhortations that work their way right into your brain and your body. The fun of the song is the way it doesn't pay off, the way it remains at the same level, the way Minogue keeps drawing you in with a sensual promise only to delay satisfaction again and again. She may have pioneered a new genre here -- tantric dance pop.

There's another kind of holding back going on on "Shoot From the Hip" (Polydor UK), the second album from the British singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, whose first album yielded the huge British hit "Murder on the Dance Floor." "Shoot From the Hip" has not been released in the U.S., though the big record-store chains are stocking it and you can easily order it online. It's a thoroughly pleasurable pop record, and clocking in at a blessed 39 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Ellis-Bextor is a stronger singer than Minogue. Her vocals are mixed right upfront here, backed by the music instead of being folded into it. Their differences are immediately visible in their booklet photos. Ellis-Bextor's have the icy elegance of a Vogue layout instead of the immediacy of Minogue's sexy pinups. That iciness creeps into the vocals, too. Ellis-Bextor may be the most explicitly British pop singer to emerge in some time -- not just because she sings with an unmistakable accent. Her clipped, almost brittle phrasing denotes someone for whom even Minogue's good-natured tease would be going too far. Even when she's supposed to be at her most vulnerable, as in "Nowhere Without You" ("Have I told you how I want to breathe you in?"), you hear someone concerned with keeping up appearances instead of going to pieces or appearing emotionally naked. (An electronic simulation of a harpsichord, its notes sounding like glittering icicles, provides the perfect accompaniment.)

Which is not to say that "Shoot From the Hip" is an unemotional record and Ellis-Bextor the pop equivalent of Greer Garson's Mrs. Miniver. There's too much life here to put "Shoot From the Hip" in the stiff-upper-lip tradition of something like "Brief Encounter." And too much humor, as well. "You're selfish/ like me," she sings on "You Get Yours," "It's why we get along famously/ We're English as well/ So we're a/ we're a/ We're a little bit ashamed of ourselves." It's a bit closer to the mark to say that she's the Jean Shrimpton of pop music, and, like that great model of the '60s, she's beautiful and cool and unapproachable. The emotion on "Shoot From the Hip" is all below the surface, implied rather than stated, and often deflected by the wit in both the lyrics and Ellis-Bextor's exquisitely dry delivery. The title "Party in My Head" (the wittiest of the album's cuts) perfectly sums up Ellis-Bextor's method on "Shoot From the Hip": The record is the sound of a chic young lady strolling down the street with an iPod providing her private soundtrack rather than cutting loose on the dance floor.

Though the sound of "Shoot From the Hip" is clearly derived from dance pop ("You Get Yours," though, is the sort of great kiss-off that Deborah Harry might have performed during her Blondie heyday), there's something about it that reminds me of '60s pop. Perhaps it's the way the record honors the three-minute pop-song form. And maybe because, in my head, '60s pop is inescapably English.

Whatever causes that feeling, I feel it most strongly on the album's best cut, "I Am Not Good at Not Getting What I Want." The di-doo-doo chorus and lush string backing are right out of '60s pop, and the lyrics ("For a young thing my world is not too bad/ Got a window, a place with a pillow and a friend or two"), courting a kind of wan, pretty-girl self-pity, wouldn't have been out of place coming from the young Marianne Faithfull or Lulu. But where they would have played up the potential for quivering heartache, Ellis-Bextor keeps herself from giving into that, and it's that restraint that makes the song so affecting. The singer is brooding over a young man she's seen. He may not be right for her, he seems to not even know she exists, but she wants him.

Instead of singing this song in the way that would have put it in the lineage of girl pop singers suffering from unrequited love, Ellis-Bextor sings it as a woman owning up to her own selfishness without either bragging or regret. This is a woman who has spent life in selfish pursuit of pleasure and who will be damned if she'll apologize for it, even as the returns are diminishing. You can hear this woman used to getting everything facing the possibility that she may not get this man. Ellis-Bextor tries to shrug off the possibility as casually as if she'd been handed a flat glass of champagne. It's a minor annoyance because she knows a fresh bottle always awaits her whim. But some sliver of self-knowledge has slid beneath her skin and she tries to frost over the melancholy as if she were misting a cocktail glass.

To get at the mood that Ellis-Bextor's performance conjures here, you have to reach past pop music, to the sadness beneath the bright dialogue in Noel Coward's "Private Lives," or to the devastation that Jeanne Moreau's devious, philandering bourgeois shows in the final scenes of Roger Vadim's film of "Les liaisons dangereuses." "I Am Not Good at Not Getting What I Want" is a classic pop ballad, and not what we expect from the form, substituting a sad, chilly self-awareness for the warm romantic bath we usually get from pop. Today, adult-oriented pop has come to mean tired, predictable stars reviving their careers with wan albums of standards, or stars who never were very interesting to begin with churning out the kind of middle-of-the-road pap that lands them a place performing on awards shows. Sophie Ellis-Bextor has, in the midst of a solid album, given an irreducible example of what it means to sing for grown-ups -- and to sing like one.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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