After two decades as a one-woman rebuke to U.S. pop culture hegemony, diminutive Aussie diva Kylie Minogue finally consented to visit North America, performing in Los Angeles for the first time as part of a microtour scheduled to end with three shows at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom Oct. 10-13. Her Hollywood Bowl performance did little to explain why her brand of cosmopolitan dance pop has mostly foundered Stateside, nor will it finally sell her to American agnostics, but it nonetheless represented an impressively maximalist display of showmanship that satisfied her rabid, long-neglected fans.
In a domestic music scene where no one questions M.I.A.’s superstar status and Amadou & Mariam open for Coldplay, Minogue is somehow still seen as suspiciously foreign by a large segment of the population. And though her two-hour set was composed almost entirely of massive international hits, few of them ever charted — in fact, some were hardly even released — on these shores. Consequently, the audience for Sunday’s show was a strange hodgepodge of global-minded scenesters, transplanted Europeans and, most notably, fashionable male couples.
Free of the irony and contrived confrontation of a Madonna performance or the Olympian ambition of a Beyonce, Minogue’s show was charmingly unprepossessing in its aim to provide a surplus of spectacle. To that effect, the singer first descended onto the stage from the rafters riding a giant metallic skull, crowned with a hat that resembled a child’s Styrofoam model of the solar system, and flanked by an octet of dancers decked out like a Daft Punk-staffed riot squad. And things only got weirder from there.
The main set was loosely divided into five acts, demarcated by elaborate and expensive-looking costume and set changes. Of these acts, the most arresting combined “Like a Drug” and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” two songs that share ominous, minor-pentatonic grooves and undercurrents of desperation and loathing. Mainstream disco hits don’t come much darker than these, yet Minogue tackled them with the same chipper energy with which she approached her sunnier material; it’s difficult to tell if she fully grasps the subtext of what she’s performing, and that tension was somehow key to the songs’ appeal.
To describe the rest of Minogue’s material is to confront a series of contradictions: Her music is relentlessly superficial yet never middlebrow, stylistically heterogeneous but not exactly diverse, sexy but rarely sexual. Her voice tends toward tinniness and lacks depth, yet she’s obviously proficient and can hit some very big notes when required — and unlike many of her backing-track-assisted contemporaries, Minogue’s vocals seemed to be entirely live.
Though the show was dominated by her sleeker recent material, the 41-year-old seemed unembarrassed to reprise a few tunes from her past as a prefab teen idol, and this lack of self-consciousness helped carry her through some of the evening’s potentially more risible numbers.
There were certainly missteps, however. An aggressively energetic cabaret-style take on “Wow” late in the show finally crossed the line into cruise-ship chintziness, and the preceding setpiece, in which Minogue sang atop a pommel horse while half-naked male dancers in sequin-studded football shoulder pads cavorted quasi-pornographically around her, was uncomfortably bizarre.
All the same, “In My Arms” and “Love at First Sight,” which closed the main set and the show, respectively, were irresistible. Both songs may be little more than empty calories, but they also represent the giddy apex of millennial dance pop, and the enthusiasm with which Minogue and the Bowl crowd belted them out suggests that the rest of America may not know what it’s missing.