It’s the moment half way through the set when she arrives, with a swish of the curtain, on stage astride a giant silver skull, wearing a flowing red trouser suit and cap, that we realise we just aren’t in Kansas any more, Toto.
Welcome, then, to the first night of Kylie’s week-long residency at London’s 02 Arena. It is, as you might expect, a shiny world of sequined pop fun – but one that also delves slyly into a more provocative and subversive world of pop art. The merchandise, for instance, is full of sparkly Kylie wear, but look closer and there’s also t-shirts that cheekily play on the Andy Warhol sleeve for the first Velvet Underground album – the banana replaced by a yellow microphone, Warhol’s signature substituted for Kylie’s. There’s badges that lift from the iconic Watchmen smiley face button worn by the Comedian in Alan Moore’s graphic novel, an elaborate “K” in place of the spattering of blood from Dave Gibbons’ original art. It demonstrates, if nothing else, a smart mind at work, something canny and clued up behind the gold hot pants and “La la la”s that might otherwise characterise our journey into the kittenish environs of KylieLand. And which draws a line between her and the thousand other disposable pop singers who’ve come and gone in the 20 years since Kylie launched her singing career.
In fact, it seems that Kylie is playing to several different crowds tonight. There’s a lot of folks here for the pop hits – of which there are plenty – and the attendant thrills of an arena gig. Balloons, lights shows, precision-drilled musical song and dance numbers abound – while the sets themselves, influenced by everything from Helmut Newton photography to Broadway musicals, are extraordinary. And when she disappears off for a lightening fast costume change (of which there are seven), I imagine there’s a phalanx of sartorial engineers in the wings who can tug her out of her dress in 0 – 60 seconds and put her in a new one. In much the same way that highly trained mechanics change the wheels of Formula One cars during a Grand Prix pit stop in less than 10 seconds. Elsewhere, in the Pierre et Gilles images of semi-naked men in briefs, and dancers in sailor suits, you have something that chimes, clearly, with Kylie’s prodigious gay following. But what interests me more, perhaps, are the bits that seem to fall somewhere in between. The strange, Haruki Murakami-esque images, for instance, of a robot Japanese girl in a computerised neon-Tokyo blasted on the giant screens that reminded me of Stephane Sednaoui’s video for Towa Tei’s “German Bold Italic”, with Kylie as a robo-Geisha in New York. Musically, too, there’s a sense of pushing her back catalogue into more subversive territories: the slinky rhythms of “Slow” churn into metal-style riffs while “Come Into My World” assumes the sleek motorik of Tiga and Zyntherius’ “Sunglasses At Night”.
I’ve teasingly suggested to Allan in the past that Kylie’s talent for re-invention can occasionally enter the realms of the Dylanesque. You know: Pop Kylie, Indie Kylie, Dance Kylie… If I really want to stretch the point, I’ll cite her participation in Nick Cave‘s cover of “Death Is Not The End” on the Murder Ballads album. But there is something, however slight, in how she’s successfully managed to define “Kylie” as a brand in the way he is, to the public, more “Dylan” than he is a man called Bob. It’s only towards the end of the set, when she performs “No More Rain” – the one song of the recent X album that acknowledges her fight with breast cancer – that she stands alone on stage, in that Prospero at the end of The Tempest moment, to address her own life. But she does it with such poptastic precision that the key to the song, “Got a second hand chance, gonna do it again, got rainbow colours and no more rain”, is both laid expressly bare but also masked by the delivery; as professional as you can get. It tells you nothing and everything.
The first half of the show is all about the spectacle: the costumes, routines, Barry Manilow covers, with Kylie, arriving on stage on a scaled down version of the London Eye, cast as, variously, an S&M dominatrix, American football quarterback and show jumper. The material leans too heavily on the electro Glam of the X album, with crowd-pleasing moments like “Spinning Around”, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” judiciously dropped in. But the second half, when it’s just her pretty much on a bare stage, in a flowing, feminine blue dress, you see a happy, pretty woman enjoying her craft. This isn’t like Madonna, who these days seems like a cold, sinewy ball of charmless pneumaticism, but someone who’s palpably enjoying the moment. Somehow, she’s still channelling something of Charlene’s goofy guile from Neighbours, via that brilliant spoken word reading of “I Should Be So Lucky” in a pair of tracksuit bottoms at the 1996 Poetry Olympics, up to the impromptu giggles that tonight introduce the Glam stomp of “Two Hearts”. Great fun.