Shameless Slashiness

I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But per­haps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That col­lab­or­ator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of break­ing up is when you’re mak­ing up’

Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurn­ing, annoy­ing­ness, and the song is a little bland. But the video suc­ceeds, just about, in bring­ing it alive. Despite the com­plaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of long­ing and intim­acy in the way they look at one another that is almost more con­vin­cing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoof­ing’. Or, to be hon­est, in many gay male relationships.

Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its snig­ger­ing, para­lys­ing fear of any­thing phys­ical – it’s a know­ingly slashy pop promo video: man­love for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gay­ness’ of Take That, who, des­pite the leather har­nesses, disco and baby oil — and the fantas­ies of many of their fans — were prob­ably all straight (more or less), and the fam­ously pas­sion­ate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and strip­ping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly.  And in its way rather less cow­ardly than ‘gay cow­boy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.

But that end­ing to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to ref­er­ence a much older and bet­ter cow­boy romance – the fam­ous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laugh­ingly jump into the river together to escape a pur­su­ing posse.  Butch Cassidy was a favour­ite of early slash­ers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homo­erotic sub­text of main­stream movies, TV shows and bands, and per­haps of male het­ero­sexu­al­ity itself, and make them the text, some­times with eye-popping illustrations.

Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illus­trate how main­stream and accep­ted slash itself has become in pop culture.

Tip: William Godwin

Why doesn’t America love Robbie Williams?

robbie williams story Why doesnt America love Robbie Williams?

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon.com, April 2003)

It’s tough grow­ing up British. Not just for all the obvi­ous Austin Powers-esque reas­ons, such as our medi­eval dentistry, endemic mold prob­lems and epi­demic dandruff, but for some­thing much more exist­en­tial. The British are great and enthu­si­astic believ­ers in Original Sin. In Britain, would you Adam and Eve it, we devoutly accept that we are all Fallen, all doomed before we are born, that no child how­ever lovely and chuckly and pink-skinned is born innocent.

Of course, since we lib­er­ated the mon­as­ter­ies, Coalition-style, back in Henry VIII’s time, and became nom­in­ally Protestant for tax reas­ons, we don’t call it Original Sin any­more. We call it the class sys­tem (though in New Labor Britain you will be repor­ted to the police if you men­tion it). And we don’t talk about sin­ners any more, just wank­ers. You see, whichever class you hap­pen to be born into in Britain, it will be the wrong one. Granted, some are wronger than oth­ers, but even the most priv­ileged classes are the wrong ones — to every­one else. Moreover, whatever class you are born into, your des­tiny, your hap­pi­ness, your sal­va­tion, is not your prop­erty and cer­tainly not your right. If you try to escape your British birth­right by becom­ing some­thing you’re not, then you will be Found Out, and every­one will point and laugh and call you a wanker.

Probably the biggest wanker in Britain today is cheeky chap­pie pop­ster Robbie Williams, or simply “Robbie,” as we like to call him here in that affec­tion­ate, famil­iar way we handle toss­ers (another word for wanker; we have as many as the Inuits have for snow — and “Robbie” is fast becom­ing another). Robbie is the biggest onan­ist in Britain, mostly because he’s one of the biggest suc­cess stor­ies. Since going solo in 1996 after leav­ing Brit boy-band Take That, Robbie, who was expec­ted at best to become a kids’ TV presenter, has had 15 solo U.K. top-10 singles, 13 Brit Awards — more than any­one else in the award’s his­tory — and has sold 15 mil­lion albums world­wide. Robbie is British pop today. He is also the brag­ging, self-publicizing, self-flagellating, self-loathing sym­bol of the life­style every young per­son in Britain is sup­posed to aspire to and des­pise at the same time. As he puts it with char­ac­ter­istic mod­esty on his new album, he’s “the one who put the Brit in celebrity.”

Unfortunately for the British pop industry as a whole, Robbie is also a sym­bol of its pathetic fail­ure, in the post-Spice Girls era, to export much more than Kylie’s bot­tom and Coldplay’s runny noses across the Atlantic. EMI, the ail­ing British record giant fam­ously swindled by the Sex Pistols (and prob­ably look­ing back fondly now to those hal­cyon days), recently paid a sweaty-palmed sum repor­ted to be as high as $120 mil­lion for Williams’ next six albums — at approx­im­ately the same time as the com­pany was lay­ing off 1,200 employ­ees. A sum that could only be earned out by Yank-side suc­cess. Oh dear. Best string out those final install­ments on that advance: Robbie’s new album, “Escapology,” deb­uted in mid-April at num­ber 43 on the Billboard charts, selling an anaemic 21,000 cop­ies in its first week. (By the end of the month, Amazon was already selling the album at a “Super Saver” price of $9.98.). For a record industry wal­low­ing in deep water after its worst year in memory, this was noth­ing short of a Titanic dis­aster. Robbie could be the cheeky ice­berg that finally sinks the British record busi­ness. Now that’s quite a wanker.

RobbieWilliams Robbie 1030515 Why doesnt America love Robbie Williams?

One reason why Robbie is such a pop­u­lar wanker over here is that he was born chuckly and lovely and pink-skinned in Stoke-on-Trent, an ugly post-industrial nowhere place in the Midlands, a part of the coun­try that every­one in the north and south of Britain can safely look down on, a place that might be described as the arse-end of the U.K. except that this would sug­gest (a) that there was a point or at least some kind of func­tion to Stoke and (b) that you might if you were that way inclined, or just very drunk and con­fused, have some fun there.

Then there’s the fact that in Take That Robbie used to wear leather chaps and slap his arse end while singing cov­ers of disco hits such as “Relight My Fire” for the amuse­ment of early teen­age girls, 40-year-old gay men and Lulu. There are no more humble ori­gins than that.

As for his per­form­ance style today, I could say that he thinks he’s David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust but just ends up being Norman Wisdom (a 1950s British equi­val­ent of Jerry Lewis, though more pathetic). Or, if I wanted to be crueller, I could say that his stage per­form­ance and chat­ter are like Tourette’s syn­drome with pan­to­mime move­ments. Or simply that he’s a selfish, self-pitying, self-seeking fool who has no opin­ions on any­thing other than him­self — and they’re all ter­rible. But if I did, I’d merely be repeat­ing what Robbie has already said about him­self on national TV, beat­ing me, the British tabloids, and Man in Pub to the punch. Robbie has told us many times that he’s “bored” with Robbie Williams and wants to “kill him off.” But Robbie’s eager­ness to beat him­self up for his pub­lic, although it is appre­ci­ated, is just another reason why he’s a — you guessed it — wanker.

You can prob­ably under­stand, then, why our Robbie is so keen to make it in America. Why, in fact, he already spends most of his time and his European roy­al­ties in America, relax­ing American-style in his big American house in L.A., sun­bathing by his big American pool pulling fuck-off/come-to-bed faces at the British tabloid heli­copters cease­lessly hov­er­ing over him. Why the U.S. and L.A. are men­tioned — nay, incan­ted — often in a charm­ing faux-American drawl, on sev­eral tracks on his new, American-targeted album, and sev­eral times in one song in the case of “Hot Fudge”: “I’m mov­ing to L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.!” — a place where suc­cess really can save you and where no one is ever Found Out, just found over­dosed and badly decom­posed at the bot­tom of their pool.

All this might also help you under­stand why his album is called “Escapology,” why the art­work for the album fea­tures disturbing-absurd pic­tures of our Robbie trapped at the bot­tom of giant tubes of water or sus­pen­ded upside down hun­dreds of feet in the air, and why the lyr­ics talk rather a lot about self-loathing, espe­cially when they’re brag­ging and crow­ing about his fame.

While Robbie clearly needs the U.S., it’s by no means clear why the U.S. needs Robbie. In the U.K. Robbie is the king of karaōke pop, when the charts full of karaōke pop acts, but in his adop­ted home of L.A. every schmuck wait­ing their turn in a karaōke bar on a Tuesday even­ing is a bet­ter singer. In Britain his lack of great tal­ent is seen as demo­cratic and reas­sur­ing; in America it’s prob­ably just unin­spir­ing. It’s a shame, because as Robbie tells us on the AOR power-ballad “Feel,” prob­ably the best track on this album, “There’s a hole in my soul/ You can see it in my face/ It’s a real big place.” Well, we know America’s a real big place, and since Britain is appar­ently no longer touch­ing the sides, maybe the Big Country will oblige and fill Robbie’s aching chasm?

The prob­lem for us Brits is that as Anglican lapsed Catholics we still believe we’re all Fallen, but we no longer believe that we can be redeemed. Oh yes, now we have to pay lip ser­vice to the American reli­gion of suc­cess — thanks very much for that, by the way — but we don’t really believe in it. We may, like much of the rest of the world, be crap-Americans now, but we’re agnostic crap-Americans; we still have hun­dreds of years of feud­al­ism to nego­ti­ate. It’s why our tabloids, which exist solely to tor­ment our celebrit­ies, fre­quently with flat­tery, sell mil­lions every day. It’s why our boy Robbie is so “ironic,” why he goes on and on and on about His Fame Hell.

For all his transat­lantic suck­face on this album, I sus­pect that tabloid-fodder Robbie, who is very crap-American (and also Catholic: “I’ve slept with girls on the game/ I’ve got my Catholic shame”), doesn’t really believe America can redeem him, either. He’s pay­ing lip ser­vice, too, though it’s not the kind of lip ser­vice you might enjoy. (Note: “On the game” is British slang for being a prostitute.)

One of the reas­ons “Feel” is the best track here is that Robbie doesn’t delib­er­ately sab­ot­age the pro­fes­sional song writ­ing of his (now former) musical col­lab­or­ator Guy Chambers as he does in prac­tic­ally all the other tracks, pen­ning glib, flip lyr­ics which would be inof­fens­ive and mean­ing­less in a pop-Muzak kind of way except that they are also teeth-gnashingly, eye-gougingly crass. Robbie’s lyr­ics are hyper­act­ive doggerel that won’t lie down, doing any­thing and everything to draw atten­tion to them­selves, includ­ing lick­ing their balls and chew­ing off their own head. “Come Undone,” a big James-ish anthemic num­ber, is utterly undone by the vain, self-obsessing lyr­ics full of mir­rors and razor blades: “Such a saint but such a whore/ So self aware, so full of shit …/ Do another interview/ Sing a bunch of lies/ Tell about celebrit­ies that I des­pise …/ I am scum.”

This per­ver­ted nar­ciss­ism would be almost admir­able in such a crowd-pleasing enter­tainer if it weren’t for the fact that Robbie is appar­ently singing to his drugs and rape coun­selor mom (yes, really) again: “Pray that when I’m com­ing down you’ll be asleep …/ I am scum/ Love, your son.” Robbie gives mat­ri­archy a bad name. Another track, “Nan’s Song,” is ded­ic­ated to his deceased grand­mother. This is the first song he’s penned entirely him­self and he has said, “It’s only appro­pri­ate that my first song should be about someone I love.” In fact, the song is all about how much his Nan loved him.

robbie williams dancing Why doesnt America love Robbie Williams?

Once again, the prob­lem with selling this shtick in the U.S. is that few people apart from some aging gay men in San Francisco have heard of Robbie Williams. So how are Americans expec­ted to relate to his prob­lems with his “massive” fame, which is all his songs are about these days? Robbie is Eminem without the hip-hop, without the wit, and without, finally, the (global) suc­cess. Robbie tried and failed to crack the American mar­ket a few years ago with a com­pil­a­tion album called “The Ego Has Landed” — which once again appears to be put­ting the apo­lo­getic cart before the career horse, “wit­tily” ref­er­en­cing a mediocre 1960s British film, “The Eagle Has Landed,” that his tar­get teen audi­ence has never heard of. As one American critic’s daugh­ter said when Robbie Williams’ face popped up on MTV: “Daddy, why is that guy being so goofy?”

In truth, “Escapology” is a kind of 21st cen­tury Brit Band Aid album, a “Do They Know It’s Christmas in Stoke-on-Trent?” where the needy con­tin­ent is Robbie’s self-esteem (and EMI’s bank bal­ance), but where Robbie is imper­son­at­ing almost every Brit artist who has made it to drive-time radio in the U.S. In “Something Beautiful” he’s Marty Pellow of Wet, Wet, Wet, pre-heroin; in “Monsoon” he’s post-mustache, pre-AIDS Freddie Mercury (even the tune owes more than a little to “Radio Ga Ga”); “Love Somebody” is pre-wig Elton; “Revolution” is post-Wham, pre-men’s-room George Michael (Robbie’s first solo single was a cover ver­sion of “Freedom”). “Sexed Up” could be Oasis, post-talent. There’s some Rod Stewart in here as well, but I can’t be bothered to find out where. For good meas­ure, and to show how ver­sat­ile and deserving of a green card he is, Robbie also throws in some Steve Tyler, some retro-soul and some col­lege radio rawk.

No, I lied. “Escapology” isn’t Band Aid. It’s an entire sea­son of “American Idol,” where Robbie is the only con­test­ant and also plays the part of Simon Cowell. Somehow, though, he man­ages not to win.

Robbie may be a wanker, and he may be doomed, but he’s not an ori­ginal sin­ner. Not only is he a karaōke pop per­former (his last album, “Swing When You’re Winning,” was a bunch of cov­ers of Frank Sinatra songs), he’s a karaōke human being. After leav­ing Take That he thought he was Oliver Reed for a while. Then he thought he was Liam Gallagher. Dressed as Frank Sinatra on the cover of “Swing When You’re Winning” (which includes a duet with Nicole Kidman on “Somethin’ Stupid”), or as James Bond in the video for “Millennium,” he looks like an uncon­vin­cing if alarm­ingly hir­sute drag king. By the same token, per­sist­ent rumors that secretly he’s “really gay” miss the point that Robbie isn’t really anything.

Where Sinatra was radio, Robbie is a radio. Robbie’s voice, although ver­sat­ile, is strangely con­stric­ted, nasal and dis­tant — as if he has a cheap tran­sistor radio stuck some­where up his nose. Frankie had a voice that, if radio didn’t exist, would have willed it into exist­ence. Robbie has a voice that is merely an echo of broad­casts that dis­sip­ated into the ether long before he was born.

On “Escapology,” Robbie des­per­ately wants us to believe that he has prob­lems. Perhaps because he thinks this will make him likable. Or inter­est­ing. Or human. And per­haps because it will make people for­give or for­get the fact that he’s a wanker. Actually, Robbie’s prob­lem is much more ser­i­ous than his wank­er­dom, more ser­i­ous even than being British. Robbie’s prob­lem is that he’s a ghost. A ghost that has no story of his own, no life to com­mem­or­ate or haunt, and no point — other than draw­ing atten­tion to him­self and the pan­to­mime of life that he has become. We’re sup­posed to listen to the clank­ing chains because they’re “really pro­fes­sion­ally put together” and harken to the moan­ing because it’s “so ironic.”

Mind you, Robbie’s insub­stan­ti­al­ity may be the most mod­ern, most sym­path­etic thing about him. As he sings on “Feel”:

Come hold my hand
I wanna con­tact the liv­ing
Not sure I under­stand
The role I’ve been given

Is there an exor­cist in the house?

298117ac Why doesnt America love Robbie Williams?

 

Copyright Mark Simpson 2006