The Rules of Spinning or What Kylie Minogue Taught Me About Embracing Your Past

Late in 1993, I took part in a boot camp designed to find writers for Aotearoa New Zealand’s first American-style sitcom. I had always dreamed of writing for television, for US TV in particular, and so I hoped getting local comedy credits would be enough to get a US agent, obtain work over there, with an eventual move to Los Angeles, followed by an illustrious career creating great television—and maybe even the occasional film.

The intense week-long bootcamp whittled down hundreds of hopefuls Hunger-Games-Survivor-style to dozens. That was then pared down over months of hard slog to a final six whose projects were made into three pilots, one of which would make it to air. I outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted my way to that final stage and a pilot I co-created, Citizen Jane, was produced.

Melody Rues

The final sitcom that made it to air was not Citizen Jane. It was a show called Melody Rules. It’s infamous here for being this country’s worst sitcom. And yes, it wasn’t great. There was a lot of failure to go around and we writers copped our fair share of it. We had been writing setups and punchlines but it turned out we were the real jokes.

I had dreamed about writing sitcoms for a long time. I had a lot of my self-esteem invested in Melody Rules. I had poured my heart and soul into the scripts and endured an at-times toxic work environment. I cared about it, deeply. So, even though it wasn’t my show, I took its failure, and the shunning and shaming everyone attached to it, very personally. I wasn’t alone. Some of the cast even left New Zealand to escape the ridicule.

Melody Rules went off the air in 1995 and it cast a long shadow. It didn’t make finding new work easy. That said, I’d been judicious with my earnings and between series development work and part-time jobs I managed to make a living as a writer for the next few years. 

But everywhere I went, the failure of Melody Rules followed me, both on my CV and in my head. Like a regretful tattoo, I did my best to hide it. If it came up, I scoffed at its awfulness. Inside, however, I knew the truth. I had loved doing it, finally realising my dream. I’d invested my hopes and esteem in it, only to end up wishing I’d never seen that ad for the bootcamp.

I Should Be So Unlucky

In 1997 my first published novel Finding Home won a national book award which, given the circumstances, should have been a good thing. But it turns out success can be just as stressful as failure. How do you follow up a novel judged that year’s Best First Book of Fiction? In my case you spend the next twelve years starting novels and not finishing themI realise now that it was self-doubt making me constantly second-guess myself, a wound inflicted by the bomb that was Melody Rules.

Meanwhile, while my TV writing was bringing in some money, something was missing. I was doing what I loved but I didn’t love it.

It affected every part of my life and possibly how others saw me. In 1998 I was told by my publisher that they weren’t interested in any follow-up novel from me. Their literal words to me were “We’re only working with our favourite writers”. Direct quote.

By the end of the 1990s my self-confidence as a writer was running on empty. I could have been mired there forever but I finally regained my mojo and that’s because of one person: Kylie Minogue.

Even The Caged Budgie Sings

The late 1990s were not kind to Kylie. She had become an overnight megastar in the late 1980s, but it was for what critics considered disposable pop. She was popular, but viewed by many as a nothing but a puppet of her superstar producers Stock Aitken Waterman. The press dubbed her the “singing budgie”. She wasn’t even a person, she was a pet. A bird in a cage.

In the mid-1990s, Kylie cut the strings to SAW and released a couple of records, working with new writers and producers. Different sounds. Altered images. The first album did well. Not quite SAW-level well, but it was well-received.

Kylie’s second post-SAW album—Impossible Princess—is respected now but at the time it was regarded by many as a failure. There was no major hit single. She was dropped by her record company. Many people thought her career was over.

Woman O' War

The second single off Impossible Prince was Did It Again. In that video Kylie plays four of her personas—labelled Cute Kylie, Dance Kylie, Sex Kitten Kylie, and Indie Kylie. The quartet line up for mugshots – as though accused of a crime against music – then literally do battle for the spotlight.

It was like a glimpse into Minogue’s psyche, into the internal struggle to find the real her, her past and present punching and bludgeoning each other raw.

I recognised that struggle. That embarrassment of your past that was so bad you wanted to destroy it, kill it. That anguish of being seen as one thing when you were so much more.

Seeing The Light

Just before Impossible Princess, Kylie had appeared at an international poetry event. Among all the “serious” poets she stood up and read out the first verses and chorus of I Should Be So Lucky. At the time I had thought she was ridiculing her past, emphasising its emptiness, disowning it. But as I watched Did It Again I realised that the poetry event had been Kylie taking the first steps to accepting it. 

For her follow up to Impossible Princess, 2000’s Light Years, Minogue went back to what had given her the most success. Dance pop. Back to basics.

Except, while it was familiar, it wasn’t basic. It was confident. Slick. Empowered.

Spinning Around, Kylie’s “comeback” single was originally intended for Paula Abdul, another pop star who’d seen her star fade as the 1990s rolled on. Abdul is a co-writer of the song and you can hear some of her journey in the lyrics.

Traded in some sorrow
For some joy that I borrowed
From back in the day.
Threw away my old clothes
Got myself a better wardrobe
I got something to say.

Even though Kylie didn’t write the song, she is very clearly channeling her own experience through the lyrics. Hearing those opening lines for the first time, seeing Minogue’s new self-assured attitude, the grown-up Kylie in the video looking confident and powerful, was a revelation. This Kylie knew where she’d been. And where she was going.

I’m through with the past
Ain’t no point in looking back
The future will be.
And did I forget to mention
That I found a new direction?
And it leads back to me.

Skeleton Key

It was around this time that I stumbled across a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Immaturity—“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance”. As a gay man, I knew a lot about closets and the power of fear for what lay within.

Between that quote and Spinning Around, it was as though the universe was pointing me to a path through my Melody blues. I realised that I was allowing failure, and fear of failure, to rule me. In fact, it went further back than Melody Rules. For my whole life I had tried to please people. I had tried to be what I thought I should be. Far too often I put the weight of the world on my shoulders, being responsible, taking responsibility, taking blame.

I took any lack of success personally, making it mean that I was a failure, not that I had simply failed. There was a part of me that fought against Mr People Pleaser, a part that simply wanted to be. But it’s hard to be yourself when you have a skeleton as loud as the “world’s worst sitcom” rattling in the background, when you’re dragging behind you a lifetime of regret for every single misstep.

Just like Kylie, the various Dominics had been at war with each other and the failure of Melody Rules had turned that war nuclear. It was time to embrace all those different parts of me and all of my past—good and bad. 

It was time to step forward, armed with the knowledge of what I had learned. I took control of my future by embracing everything that I had been and questioning for the first time in my life who I could be. “I’m spinning around, move out of my way” sings Kylie in the chorus. If I couldn’t get rid of that Melody Rules skeleton, and I couldn’t, then I’d make it boogie.

Turn, Turn, Turn

I used the howls of derision that people expressed when they learned I’d written on Melody Rules as drive to prove I was nothing to laugh about. I worked harder to get other television credits. It’s no surprise it was around this time that I landed scripts on respected local drama series The Strip. I was backing myself and that showed to the world.

I hustled to get a well-received newspaper humour column slot that definitively proved I knew how to be funny. I decided to quit writing for television, realising that my own new direction lay away from that world.

I sought help. I broke free from a long-term relationship that had stifled me. I continued to try to finish that second novel, taking a breather on that quest but never truly abandoning it. Ultimately, I found my way there also.

Transformation can take time. I’ve watched Kylie continue to grow, usually—but not always—finding favour. Another thing I learned from watching her and other pop star survivors is that success will come and go. Failure also. That’s not a rule, but it’s inevitable. All you can do is keep dancing. 

I’m through with the past
Ain’t no point in looking back
The future will be.
And did I forget to mention
That I found a new direction?
And it leads back to me.