How do you tell a diva from a D-cup? Less succinctly, what separates our buxom, banal American pop stars from the rest of the world's icy femme fatales? Here we get Britney Spears thinking Pat Benatar sang "I Love Rock and Roll" and barfing up a bloodless cover to prove it; in England they get Kylie Minogue doing racy soft-porn spreads in horny men's magazines and acknowledging her soft spot for New Order on bloated awards shows. Sure, we've got Madonna, the avatar of womanly, art-directed cool, but everyone knows she's British now (plus no one in the United States bought her last record), so we can't really count her as our own.
Yet with the domestic release of her eighth album we Yanks are finally taking steps toward embracing Minogue--for the first time since her late-'80s cover of "The Locomotion," anyway--thanks to a ridiculously great lead single called "Can't Get You Out of My Head" that you've no doubt heard on some radio station or in some shoe store or at some dance club by this point. The song is in many ways representative of this distinctly un-American sensibility: As understated and subliminal as the dreams you can't quite remember minutes after waking up, it just sort of slinks into the room and skulks around, unspooling its maddeningly catchy chorus and beats that box your ears like tiny velvet hammers. Kylie's singing about being obsessed with someone, but it's clear she's not even in the market; her disinterest is what fuels the song, in the opposite way that we appreciate Britney for being not that far removed from her life as a semi-regular Louisiana teen-ager. All of Fever is like that--Kylie playing at pop personae while chewy disco textures, propulsive melodies and kid-gloved rhythm tracks actually provide it. Do we in the States, fed up with Mandy Moore's insulting, self-aggrandizing sincerity, get it at last? Do we get Noel Coward?
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Or did we ever get Britpop? Probably not, since Blur didn't make a dent here till "Song 2" accidentally became a throwback for grunge fans unwilling to let go. On her solo debut, former theaudience singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor carries Britpop's tabloid-y preoccupation with English society through to disco songs that can't sound enough like RuPaul. Like Minogue, Ellis-Bextor is a gifted performer capable of remarkable nuance: She's able to sell her material in a transparent way that somehow doesn't detract from its fabulosity, resisting the urge to give in to the music without ever really holding back. But it's doubtful Ellis-Bextor could woo American audiences (if her album got a U.S. release, that is) the same way Minogue has if only because the pair of perfect singles here--"Take Me Home" and "Murder on the Dancefloor"--are as deliciously and unrepentantly campy as prime Pet Shop Boys, who still have yet to tap into that lucrative wedge of Stateside listeners looking for music that pairs buttoned-up English propriety with licentious dance-pop. Back to waiting for the new Christina Aguilera, then.