Why Kylie Minogue studies are ‘more important than ever’

Those focused on dissecting pop culture face hostility from politicians, the media and fellow academics, but their work remains vital, ‘Kylie scholar’ Liz Giuffre tells Rosa Ellis

March 2, 2023
Source: Getty

“This is a whole book about Kylie by Kylie Minogue.” So begins a 137-page study of one album, by one pop star, penned by two self-confessed mega-fans, Liz Giuffre and Adrian Renzo.

In an age of ambivalence about academic outputs that lack immediately obvious “impact”, and when politicians rail against “Harry Potter studies”, can academics justify deep dives into “lowbrow” cultural phenomena? For Giuffre, a senior lecturer in communications at the University of Technology Sydney, the answer is a resounding “yes”. Indeed, such analysis is needed now more than ever, she insists, especially when it comes to her beloved Kylie.

Giuffre’s work has focused on a wide range of popular figures and entities, from the television soap Neighbours to the children’s band the Wiggles and the pop singer Harry Styles (she is an unapologetically enthusiastic fan of all those subjects).

Despite scepticism from many in academia, popular culture is worth studying, maintains Giuffre, whose own Kylie book was published last month, because it is “how we connect with each other in everyday, arguably very ordinary, ways, rather than extraordinary ways. To me, that’s what makes it so important, because it’s the stuff of everyday life.”

Compared with culture deemed “highbrow” (a “horrible label”, Giuffre says), low incomes or levels of education present a much lower access barrier to popular culture, fuelling its wide popularity and huge money-making ability. “I’m not sure what percentage of the British tourist dollar comes in because of the Beatles, but I reckon it’s pretty high,” Giuffre says.

The pandemic also shone a light on the critical link between the arts and mental health, Giuffre notes. “We’re not talking about ballets and operas – although it could have been if that’s what you were accessing, if that’s what you needed to connect you and to give you a sense of what you needed to get through,” she explains. “But for so many people, it was Harry Styles, it was YouTube, it was the most mainstream of mainstream.”

Indeed, some popular culture academics, Giuffre notes, suggest that popular culture’s greater popularity and economic significance makes it a more worthy object of study than “highbrow” arts. But she dismisses such comparisons. “I think we should all have a respect for each other’s disciplines and interests. I’m not going to say that one’s more important than the other,” she says.

Whatever your view on the value of studying modern pop stars, there’s no denying that when the mainstream meets academia, it can spark conflict.

Last October, Andrea Jenkyns, who was then (briefly) the UK’s higher education minister, claimed at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that universities were more interested in getting students to take a “degree in Harry Potter studies” than instilling technical skills – despite there being no identifiable course on Hogwarts in existence. (Durham University did once have a module on Harry Potter, which appears to be the source of the confusion.)

Giuffre sees a tendency for similar rhetoric in Australia. “There’s always somebody on some end that wants to have a go,” she says, pointing out that the same people will also often quote a popular line or lyric when they want to get attention. “So it’s very easy to say ‘this is all superfluous and unnecessary’ – except for when they need it,” she says. “I think it’s just a bit of a throwaway line.”

Popular culture courses are nothing new: pop stars such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, as well as TV shows such as Game of Thrones, have all been the subject of university modules. These courses regularly hit the headlines, usually to illustrate some imagined fall from grace of elite-level higher education. But, for Giuffre, studying popular figures helps to make universities more accessible. “We should do what people are interested in. We don’t want to get locked into ivory towers and just be doing vanity projects.”

She suggests that there is an element of hypocrisy in the criticisms. “Things like the arts might be laughed at: Harry Potter studies or whatever other popular franchise or mainstream popular culture figure you want to pick on.” But it is her perception that similar critiques of studying sport are dismissed because – in Australia, at least – sport is “sacred. We’re allowed to hold sport in very high regard.” (Elsewhere, however, university courses on Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham have also attracted sceptical headlines, it should be noted.)

Is it a gender issue then? Are the academics who study and teach mainstream figures who are more popular with men less likely to be called out? Giuffre won’t say definitively, but she suggests “there’s definitely a legacy there”.

Montage of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue in Neighbours, Harry Styles, Kylie and Lady Gaga as mentioned in the article
Getty/Alamy montage
Suitable cases for study? from far left: Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue in Neighbours, Harry Styles, Kylie and Lady Gaga

Attacks on subjects or figures from popular culture are often thinly veiled attacks on their fans, Giuffre believes. Critics deem them to have “the wrong audience”, she says, which brings us to the central thesis of her book, Kylie Minogue’s Kylie.

When the singer's debut album Kylie was released in 1988, it went six times platinum in the UK, achieved huge success in Australia and crossed over to the US market, making Minogue one of the few solo Australian female artists to do so. The biggest single from the album, The Loco-Motion, went to number one in Australia, the UK, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong and South Africa and to number three in the US.

And yet Minogue was relentlessly ridiculed in the media. At the time, she was best known as an actor in children’s television and, especially, in Neighbours. As the book’s blurb puts it, when she “crossed over to music with hit writer/producers SAW [Stock, Aitken and Waterman] the shamelessly commercial approach of all involved saw the ‘real’ music industry get its back up”. Merchants sold “I hate Kylie” T-shirts, and radio stations refused to play her music, instead playing mocking versions of her first UK single, I Should Be So Lucky, with titles such as I Could Be a Yuppy and I’m a Lucky Duckie.

The legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel interviewed a cardboard cut-out of Kylie, claiming that it had more personality than Minogue herself. A journalist for the Daily Mail said Kylie looked like she had “just crawled out of a kangaroo’s pouch”. A writer for the Sydney Morning Herald covering her return to Australia after a successful European tour called her a “singing budgie” and quipped that while “all she wanted to do was kiss the tarmac on her return…some lovers of fine music have cruelly suggested that she do so in the path of a descending jumbo”.

“Often they [the press] just talked over her rather than talking to her,” Giuffre says. “I’ve got some clips from 1980s Australia which are just so embarrassing.” One depicts an interviewer erroneously “correcting” Kylie about details of her own acting career. “They made fun of the fact that she recorded quickly,” which merely reflected her professionalism and a decade’s experience of learning lines, according to Giuffre. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought she had it going on, but she just was not respected.”

“In 1987 and 1988 being critical of Kylie Minogue was a national sport. It wasn’t enough to just ignore Minogue and her music if you didn’t like it; you had to demonstrate your disdain loudly,” write Giuffre and Renzo, the latter a lecturer in the department of media, communications, creative arts, language and literature at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

The authors go on to explore why that might be – because she was creating commercial music? Because she was young? Because she was a soap star? They compare her with Jason Donovan, who was all those things as well, but find that the reaction to him from critics and the media “was not nearly as vicious”.

Kylie fans were “the wrong audience”, they conclude. She was beloved by young girls (including the young Giuffre: “I remember [the album] vividly. I was eight. I loved it”). The theme of many of her songs, unrequited love, also struck a note with Australia’s gay community, at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in some Australian states. “To be seen as a Kylie Minogue fan had a specific cultural meaning at this time – as did being seen to not be a Kylie Minogue fan,” the authors write.

“Young girls in particular have always been looked down upon. That idea [is] that they’re uncritical, that they’re hysterical, that they’re impressionable,” Giuffre says.

Kylie is far from the only figure in popular culture to feel the effects of this cultural prejudice. The Beatles, too, were initially dismissed “vigorously” because of their young female fan base, Giuffre points out. “Once they grew their hair a bit longer and – I could be a bit crude and say they started to look a bit more like the journalists who were reviewing them – then all of a sudden the [critics and journalists] went, ‘Oh yeah, there’s probably something in this.’”

Are things any better today? Giuffre notes the broadly positive reception of young female stars such as Billie Eilish. However, she points out that in 2019 Eilish was subjected to ridicule from TV chat show host Jimmy Kimmel when he quizzed her on her 1980s music knowledge (a few years later Eilish got her own back by quizzing him on famous TikTok stars, perhaps implying a power shift).

Another modern star who is looked down on for having a certain type of fan is Styles. Although he enjoys a little more respect from critics these days, Giuffre points out that even when including his 2019 album Fine Line in its list of the 500 best albums of all time, Rolling Stone “spent more time basically making fun of his fans, rather than talking about his music”. For his part, Styles refuses to make fun of young girls even though “the press has baited him, baited and baited him a lot and continue to do so. And he just won’t budge on that.”

It could be argued that there is a parallel between the denigration of the fans of some stars and the denigration of popular culture scholars such as Giuffre. Is she the “wrong kind” of researcher because she studies Kylie rather than a celebrated composer such as Mozart?

She has certainly felt criticism from fellow academics for her choice of subjects. Feedback on her publications from peer reviewers has sometimes focused on the topic rather than her treatment of it. Giuffre has no time for this. “I don’t think it’s very good professional practice,” she says, although she accepts that challenges can be useful. “I think it’s important to ask yourself those questions and think about why you think it’s important [to study certain subjects].”

When it comes to Mozart, some would argue that his level of achievement and his furthering of the art of composition mean that he is more worthy of study than Kylie. For Giuffre, the question of whether Mozart is better than Kylie is “highly subjective” and contextual. “They’re apples and oranges. It’s what people want to use them for, what value they want to place on them. It would be kind of ridiculous to try and understand Kylie using the same tools that you use to try and understand Mozart. For starters, we have never heard Mozart perform his own work. And a big part of Kylie’s appeal is the way she performs. I’ve got no idea whether or not Mozart looked good in hot pants.”

Giuffre also wonders why people feel the need to make such comparisons. “Why would they feel Kylie may be a threat to him?” she asks, “We’re not taping over Mozart or erasing all of him in order to put in new popular music.”

Even within popular culture studies, Giuffre has chosen topics that have surprised her peers. The children’s band the Wiggles are an incredibly successful children’s music group from Australia who, since the early 1990s, have raked in about A$20 million (£11.5 million) a year in tours, merchandise and sponsorships. Yet Giuffre’s colleagues still struggled to grasp why she wanted to study them. Popular music studies is “quite obsessed with youth culture, but youth tends to mean tweens and up. They don’t think about kids’ music in that way,” she says. For example, no one would study the theme tune to the cartoon Hey Duggee, “but they really should, because it’s a banging tune”.

The best children’s entertainment, moreover, appeals to both young people and their parents, she notes. “How awesome is that? The Rolling Stones only have to worry about one audience.”

But doesn’t she find it frustrating to have to endlessly defend her choice of research topics? Yes, she says, but she accepts it as part of the job and notes that, these days, she is far from the only academic whose whole field can be dismissed by sceptics.

“We’re having to argue that science is real, and medicines are real, and vaccines are real,” she says. “We’re all having to fight a bit at the moment.”



Print headline: Can’t get her out of your head? You shouldn’t

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Reader's comments (4)

Great article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! As a massive Kylie fan and self-professed biggest North American fan, this brought a smile to my face. However, there seems to be a concerning tendency to dismiss women as insignificant and unimportant. This misogynistic practice simply must end. Britney Spears was treated similarly in the early 2000s. We all really should learn to accept and respect people's likes as well as dislikes. It's okay NOT to have an opinion on something/someone. Silence is golden, after all. Cheers from Chicago!
Do we want to study the world as it is or as we would like it to be? If you want to look at the real world, both Mozart and Minogue have their place and are worthy of study. However much you may prefer one rather than the other, you cannot deny that the other exists and has an influence on the world. Even if you choose to centre your studies on whichever catches your interest (and we all do that, research whatever it is that we are passionate about!) it doesn't eliminate the other. I may be a Computer Scientist... but that does not deny the existance of say, Chemistry, does it? Even if a failed A-level is as far as my studies of Chemistry ever got :)
This reads like a vanity project and cannot be compared to serious research such as in the sciences where the aims are to benefit humanity: seeking cures for cancer, dealing with climate change. This type of 'research' merely gives more credence to over-rated celebrities. The statement "I’ve got no idea whether or not Mozart looked good in hot pants.” is too to ridiculous for words and an insult to a musical genius. Mozart and his music remain renowned. It is doubtful anyone will have heard of Minogue or any of the current celebrities in a hundred, let alone hundreds of years from now. Andrea Jenkyns struck the right chord.
Never mind Kylie, here's the best modern music related dystopian near vision future, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMz7P3hAMAM