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.
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 karaoke pop, when the charts full of karaoke pop acts, but in his adopted home of L.A. every schmuck waiting their turn in a karaoke 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.
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 karaoke pop performer (his last album, “Swing When You’re Winning,” was a bunch of covers of Frank Sinatra songs), he’s a karaoke 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?
Copyright Mark Simpson 2006