By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Can’t Get You out of My Head’ is one of Kylie Minogue’s best-known and most-played tracks. Taken from the 2001 album Fever, it’s a dancefloor classic and its release as a single, just three days before 9/11 back in September 2001, was accompanied by one of Kylie’s most popular (and raunchy) videos.
‘Can’t Get You out of My Head’: meaning
The meaning of the song is transparent enough. As the title has it, the speaker tells the addressee (possibly her sweetheart – although see below) that she can’t stop thinking about him: she can’t get him out of her head. Specifically, his loving (and lovemaking?) is all she can think about. More than that, it’s more than she dare to think about, presumably because just thinking about it threatens to overwhelm her, so amazing is he.
Such thoughts fill her mind every night, and every day. All she wants is to be held by him. She asks him to stay and ‘lay’ with her, and stay forever.
Later in the song, she confesses that she harbours a dark secret, but what it is, she refuses to tell (of which more below). She begs to be set free by him, and the way to do so is to realise how deeply she needs him, and to stay with her forever. Through love – and being love – she can be freed from her torment.
‘Can’t Get You out of My Head’: analysis
Perhaps no song of the last couple of decades or so has aroused more over-reading and over-interpreting of the lyrics than this Kylie Minogue song. For our money, its music and its lyrics (by the great Cathy Dennis, herself a pop star in the 1990s, in partnership with Rob Davis, once of the glam rock group Mud) are effective in conveying the monomania of the song’s speaker, but they aren’t effective at doing much beyond that. That’s fine: they’re not meant to.
Nor is this by any means the most sophisticated song Kylie has ever recorded. It even makes ‘Hand on Your Heart’, itself by no means an especially profound track, sound like the musings of Sartre or Camus.
But this is to acknowledge the limitations of the song’s scope, rather than the defects of its lyrics per se. It does what it needs to do, which is to convey an almost unhealthy obsession with someone. We needn’t go down the route of seeing it as about vampirism (this song predates the link forged by the Twilight saga between neck-biting and unwholesome twenty-first-century romantic attachments), nor need we entertain the sexual double entendre suggested by the song’s title (exactly which part of her ‘Boy’ can’t she keep out of her ‘head’?), to see that the song harbours something rather darker than is first apparent.
There are several signs that the speaker harbours an intensely unhealthy devotion to her beau.
First, there’s the sheer insistence of the song’s lyrics, which involve repetition upon repetition. This successfully conveys the idea of obsession: the song’s title, ‘Can’t Get You out of My Head’, becomes self-referential as we, too, find an earworm taking root and realise that song’s thudding and almost mind-numbing repetitions are going to prove hard to dislodge from our minds.
Second, there’s that dark secret that lurks within her. This remains a secret: she doesn’t reveal what it is. Is it her obsession itself? Is her lover unaware of just how ‘into’ him she really is? The next line of the song enjoins her lover not to leave her within his heart (technically, the line is tautological: don’t leave me left).
What are we to make of this?
With this particular section of the song (we can consider it a verse, though note the unconventional ordering of the various sections of the track, with the chorus opening the song), about the dark secret, the lyrics actually take a richer, more ambiguous turn.
Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian observed that the addressee could actually be a lover, or a one-night stand the speaker has become obsessed with, or even someone who doesn’t even know she exists. The ‘loving’ that the speaker can’t stop thinking about might be entirely in her head – just as she can’t get him out of her head.
Again, for our money, this is the only satisfactory way of making sense of the song’s lyrics: that she person she addresses this obsessive paean to is not aware that she harbours such feelings. This is the dark secret. She is trapped in his heart not because he cares for her, but because she has convinced herself she can break into his heart and colonise it, making him love her the way she loves (and obsesses over) him.
Her call for him to set her free is a call for her to be freed from her obsession so she may climb down from this unwholesome monomania and forge a normal, healthy relationship with him.