Between its two writers and its performer, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is the sound of over seven decades’ pop experience. It’s better heard as distillation than prediction. Maybe its bright, brisk pop-dance sensibility comes from Cathy Denis. Maybe its moreish chunkiness, the crunchy stomp of its beats, comes from Mud’s Rob Davis. Its obvious comparison point, as a mantric, obsessive disco song, is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. But “I Feel Love” risks goofiness in placing a wager on the future – I bet this isn’t a novelty record – while there is no risk of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” being anything other than a classic. As Kylie Minogue knew, the second she heard the demo.
“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is still sleek and clean, impeccably designed, full of beautiful textures. If “I Feel Love” was a kiss blown to an imagined future, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is an engineer’s fond response now that the imaginary has come true, more pragmatic but just as heartfelt. Moroder and Summer’s song was a jet pack. Dennis, Davis and Minogue’s is a map of flight plans. It’s a crystal of a record, an omnihedron revolving gently at the centre of pop, refracting and reflecting the 20th century’s music. In a context of Atomic Kitten, DJ Otzi and Blue, you might weep for joy on hearing it. It’s so well-arranged, so uncluttered, so satisfying. But the joy is partly one of familiarity. Ever since “Telstar”, people imagined 21st century pop would sound a bit like this. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” isn’t futuristic, it’s the fulfillment of a promised future.
But these were hard times for promised futures. Between the song’s release to radio and its reaching number one, another 21st century was cancelled, just as we were getting used to it. It crumpled into ash and smoke and broken glass, live on every television. In Grant Morrison’s Zenith, from 1993, an acid house robot announced that “Kylie is Vera Lynn for Third World War!”. One of Morrison’s glibly perfect one-liners, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It stuck there like a song’s hook until one day I realised it had come true.
How does pop react to history? There’s a respectable way: the path of overt commentary, song as a response to events. Protest music. Charity records. “Ghost Town”. “Candle In The Wind”. But the world doesn’t pause for the appropriate song to come along and you find resonance where you can. So there’s a less respectable way too, where history meets pop furtively, leaves lovebites or punctures on its neck. It’s the way where once you listen enough you can start turning every hit from the late 60s into a song about Vietnam, where critical alchemists can draw mischievous connections, trace aetheric lines of influence between the turning wheels of history and the minutiae of pop.
September 11th stymied pop on the first, more formal level. “Who the fuck knocked our buildings down?” yelled Ghostface Killah on the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Rules” that November – but such blurts of early, honest confusion were quickly forgotten exceptions. Even when more sombre, measured responses emerged, they carried most weight in their makers’ histories: here’s Springsteen’s take on things. Here’s Green Day’s.
But on the second level, where pop threads itself into events unconsciously, the game was more open. It may seem ludicrous to talk about Kylie in the context of 9/11, but within a day or two of the attacks, people I know had groped their way to a response, that response being “let’s put on a club night to raise money.” And on that night, the UK’s number one single was played at least three different times, even though if you’re not Kylie it’s a slightly clumpy song to dance to. So Kylie was there, part of the context, swallowed by faraway events like everyone else. But also something normal, something to agree on while the world tilted: a great pop record. So why was it great?
Kylie’s voice had worked on the PWL records, a cheerful squeak, thin enough to flatten itself against the tinfoil production and slice through the radio. But as her material turned more to pastiche – the opulent pop of mid-90s Kylie, the model disco of Light Years – I found her voice a nagging weak spot, whose reediness the painstaking production only emphasised. Those tracks were houses too big for her to live in. Her voice isn’t exactly stronger on “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, but it’s far more versatile, clucking the opening lines, rising to the big “set me free” moment, and finding a breathy register for “forever and ever and ever” that’s half-bewitching, half-bewitched. This is not a song designed for a singer to dominate, more to explore, and marvel at as it unfolds: Kylie is perfect for it, singing the “la la la” hook like she’s just thought of it.
The song she’s wandering through is a stately home of disco: half palace, half museum. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is never overdone – it chooses its sounds sparingly and each has a role. The string line accentuates the singer’s yearning. An electric piano wanders through the mix, quizzical and playful, a counter to the track’s unflappable rhythmic glide. And then there are the song’s keyboard lines, rigid to the point of being comical: stiffly ascending, tick-tocking away for a few beats then just as precisely descending. It’s alienating and comforting at the same time, like Kraftwerk robots playing “The Grand Old Duke Of York”. And it makes me think of one of the song’s antecedents, Daft Punk’s temple to repetition, “Around The World”.
Michel Gondry’s video for “Around The World” took the ‘dance’ in ‘dance music’ and smuggled ‘interpretive’ in, turning the abstraction of techno into figurative delight. The clockwork busywork of its costumed performers found a beauty in routine and an odd joy in loops. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is that song’s cousin, its surreal phalanxes of dancers making Daft Punk’s bewildering abstract representational. Now the loops are about something – the unceasing lock-groove of obsession. Now the dance revolves around someone – impossible princess Kylie. But the loops and the dance are still beautiful – charming and soothing.
As a song about obsession, though, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is deceptive. It threatens to take an easy but effective route, obsession as an undertow pulling you down to madness. “There’s a dark secret in me” – but this also seems like the song’s biggest lie. Where is the darkness? Nowhere you can hear. The song is a labyrinth with no centre and no minotaur. “Set me free” sings Kylie. In its maze of loops, the song inverts itself. “Stay forever and ever” sings Kylie. The obsessive stops being the singer, starts being the listener, the hooks swirling round their head. The substitution hardly feels unpleasant.
Outside Kylie’s dream city, George W. Bush was issuing pop culture with its draft papers. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he implored American families, “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed”. The pleasurable was now political. After shuddering for a few weeks, the world economy took Dubya’s hint. The next few years of Popular, the fever years of a false boom, see pop at its most giddy and glitzy, its most shirt-rending and sanctimonious, its most cynical, and often its most divisive. From reality TV to blogosphere feuds, pop was a zone of argument. But “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” stands apart from all that, everybody’s sweetheart and nobody’s cause. At once seductive, enigmatic and cosy, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” was a hit people could get lost in, complete in itself. An unshaken kaleidoscope.