With Pride Month celebrations in full swing across the United States, the soundtrack for queer partygoers has a noticeable Australian twang.
“I’ll be in your head all weekend … Padam. Padam.”
Just over a week before her 55th birthday, Kylie Minogue unleashed a fresh cultural phenomenon upon the world.
Padam Padam is shaping up to be the sound of summer on both sides of the Atlantic, giving Australia’s pop diva her first truly global success in decades.
The fresh anthem has been embraced by the queer community, which remains Minogue’s biggest fan group even as her hold on the popular imagination has slipped in recent years.
And for those in the US, it could not have come at a better time.
“The single dropped serendiptously at a moment where the queer community in the US is feeling especially beleaguered, attacked, there have been coordinated efforts to attack and demonize LGBTQ people here in the United States,” explains Karen Tongson, who specializes in pop culture and gender studies at the University of Southern California.
The lead-up to mid-term elections in November saw a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ protests across the US, against a backdrop of rising resentment towards the community from the conservative right over the past few years.
In addition to demonstrations and violence against LGBTQ+ Americans, Republican-led states are cracking down on everything from drag performances to access to gender-affirming medical care.
In the 2023 legislative session alone, the American Civil Liberties Union has been tracking more than 400 different bills targeting LGBTQ rights.
“There’s something about the release of Padam Padam that coincided with this sort of moment of despair and conflict,” Tongson says.
“And that reminded us of the kind of intensity, lightness and kind of queer joy, the celebratory nature of queerness.”
Kylie as a gay icon
Before she was crowned as Australia’s queen of pop, Minogue became a household name in the UK as Charlene on the much-loved soap export, Neighbors.
This worked in her favor when she made the transition from TV to music, with the traditionally strong UK market sending her debut single I Should Be So Lucky straight to the top of the charts.
She has released seven UK number 1 singles and eight number 1 albums, spending a combined 30 weeks at the top of the UK charts.
But she has experienced less success across the Atlantic.
Her highest-charting single remains The Loco-Motion, which hit number 3 on the Billboard 100 in November 1988. Fourteen years after that, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head reached number 7.
Minogue found her most loyal audience in the queer community.
She’s performed at Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Party three times, and headlined World Pride earlier this year.
In the 2006 documentary Kylie: Becoming A Gay Icon, Minogue told Molly Meldrum her gay fans “probably adopted me in my most uncool period”, and stuck with her through thick and thin.
“I never was marketed towards that audience, it was very organic,” she said.
Better The Devil You Know, the lead single from her 1990 album Rhythm of Love, is widely regarded as the original Minogue anthem of the queer community.
For years it played at the iconic London GAY nightclub at the stroke of midnight, every Saturday.
Minogue has always found it difficult to explain why her music and performances resonate so deeply with her queer fans, but sums it up as an instantaneous, mutual, organic acceptance.
She has been described as “the gay shorthand for joy”, and an ally who recognizes the challenges faced by the queer community — struggles that have been amplified for young LGBTQ+ people in recent years.
According to the US-based Movement Advancement Project, about a quarter of queer youth live in states that censor discussions of LGBTQ+ people or issues in schools under so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws.
US-based studies have found LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Decades on, a new generation is seeking queer joy wherever they can find it.
A whole new generation is discovering our Kylie on TikTok
Even as a bona fide queer icon, Minogue’s success was by no means guaranteed.
In the UK, where she first became an international sensation back in the 1980s, her latest single was initially shunned by the likes of Radio 1.
But chart-topping success is no longer decided by the traditional powerbrokers of the music industry.
According to a 2022 survey of more than 44,000 music fans from around the world, subscription-based streaming services now account for almost a quarter of music engagement, ahead of radio at 17 per cent.
Discovering new music through short-form video apps such as TikTok is the most popular among the younger demographic. And that’s exactly where Padam Padam hits the mark.
It’s the soundtrack for thousands of lip-syncs, remixes and dance videos, having been so fully embraced by gen Z that Padam has taken on its own meaning in the slang vernacular of the summer.
Tongson says Minogue’s success shows how the music industry has changed.
“People can access music in so many different ways and can run around that kind of middleman or middle brow, arbiters of culture,” he says.
“So I think it’s wonderful that Kylie Minogue is benefiting from that.
“We can’t forget that TikTok started as a music platform. It was supposed to be something that helped sell and market music before it evolved into the kind of video virality machine that it [is].
“TikTok’s roots are in music. And so the fact that it has an impact on popular music is not accidental. It’s there by design.”
Could a new generation take Kylie’s icon status to new heights?
In the UK, Padam Padam has reached number 6 on the singles chart and number 1 on the Big Top 40 — a narrower measure than the traditional charts, based on streams and some radio play.
It has also entered Australia’s ARIA singles chart and the global Daily Viral hits list on Spotify.
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Minogue has found America hard to crack, but she sees this as an opportunity.
It’s already hit number 1 on the electronic dance music chart and she’s doing what she can to get the song heard by an even wider audience.
While the recent success has been driven by TikTok and its millennial cousin, Instagram, Minogue is also pursuing a traditional media campaign, recently performing on the season finale of American Idol.
It’s possible midway through her sixth decade, she could be on the cusp of her biggest career success.
And although that may seem strange, it’s not all that dissimilar to what we saw with Cher or the recently departed Tina Turner.
“I think that dance music, ironically, club music is where people can suspend their disability around age, right? And where people can remain ageless,” Tongson says.
“I think that that’s another way that it interacts with the legacy and impact of queer culture on the broader culture, the sense of age being nothing but a number and that we will continue to thrive and thrive and, you know, experience joy well into our years.”
In many ways, the time is ripe for Kylie Minogue to be fully embraced by Americans.