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How ‘I’m Too Sexy’ Foretold The All-Too Sexy Future

by Mark Simpson 

1991’s big, busty novelty hit ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was as zeitgeisty and bitchily funny as it was ear-wormingly annoying.

I remember it playing everywhere in London that summer: builders’ vans, barber’s shops, caffs, pubs, nightclubs, funeral parlours. OK, I didn’t actually hear it in funeral parlours but I’m sure that even the dead didn’t escape it’s strutting beat and croaking vocal. A perfect trashy radio song for a then still trashy London that was, back then, all mouth and no trousers. Of course, today it’s all oligarch trousers and hipster mouth.

Cruelly, Right Said Fred – who were all leather trousers – saw their cheeky, giggly song about self-love cheated of the No.1 spot in the UK. They were pinned down at No.2 for six weeks by Bryan Adam’s heavyweight paean to his own altruism: ‘Everything I Do I Do It For You’. A ballad to end all ballads which selflessly hogged the top spot for sixteen weeks that felt like years of Canadian winter.

‘I’m Too Sexy’ was the camp, saucy music-hall dance pop counterpoint to the naff north American mawkishness of EIDIDIFY. Though in truth we Brits deserved Mr Adam as much as anyone could deserve that fate: the UK pop music scene, like the UK economy, was in a right post-80s, post acid-house state. Right Said Fred were the only living British act in the top five top-selling UK singles that year. At No.1 was EIDIDIFY (natch), No.2 a reissue of Queen’s 1975 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (after Freddie Mercury’s death that year from Aids-related illness), at No.3 Cher’s ‘It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)’, at No.4 ‘I’m Too Sexy’, and at No.5 ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons.

Even a cartoon American managed to sell sold more records in the UK that year than any British act that wasn’t wearing just leather trousers. Britpop, which got underway a couple of years later, in large part as a reaction to a US-dominated UK hit parade, was of course all about cartoon Mancunians.

Right Said Fred are back in the news after Taylor Swift’s recent acknowledged use of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ baseline in her latest single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Everyone it seems likes a bit of ‘I’m Too Sexy’: the Guardian, along with many others, recently ran an interview with Richard Fairbrass, lead singer (middle in photo) about the hit.

There’s some interesting background: I didn’t realise that it got to No.1 in the US (in 1992). I also enjoyed the anecdote Richard Fairbrass relates: ‘In Texas, there was a fight in a bar because some girls played the video for eight hours, and when a guy tried to turn it off, they attacked him.’ I wonder though whether after eight hours of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ anyone would have been capable of doing much more than drooling insensately. I also didn’t realise Right Said Fred were still performing and recording.

But it was the (slightly edited) pull-quote at the top of the article that grabbed my attention.

‘Everyone thought we were sad gym queens… but we were proper musicians’

Now, I have nothing to say about the Fairbrass brothers’ musical prowess. But I do want to mention that out bisexual Richard and his slightly shorter straight brother Fred (left in the pic and on guitar in the vid) were gym queens, and as Richard mentions in the article, actually owned one – which is where part of the inspiration for the song apparently came from: watching people interact with the gym mirrors.

Their own gym queeniness though was very much part of the novelty of their very gay looking novelty act – you had to hire muscle by the hour in London in 1991: pub culture not gym culture ruled back then, even in the gay world. London had not yet turned into a rainy version of Southern California with no parking spaces. Everyone smoked. Everyone drank like fishes. No one ate anything except crisps and chips and the occasional kebab. And no one had seen the inside of a gym since school – except for escorts and bouncers. The Fairbrass brothers looked like both, but even gayer. It’s why if they wore anything on stage apart from leather trousers it was just waistcoats. Really awful waistcoats.

And why I’m pretty sure I tried chatting one of them up in a gay pub in West London not long before their hit. The straight one of course. Fred or someone the spitting, salivating image of him actually was a bouncer back then, working on the door of the Penny Farthing in Hammersmith at the time. As I recall he was very patient and indulgent with me. And soon he would have a much bigger fan-base, some of whom would be even more annoying than me. I think he may have told me about being in a band and having recorded a single, but I can’t be sure because of the passage of time – and because I was anyway mightily distracted by his biceps.

The early nineties was an era when metropolitan male vanity – something celebrated and mocked but mostly, in spite of the lyrics, celebrated with ‘I’m Too Sexy’ – was just beginning to get into its stride in the UK. It was almost a soundtrack to my book about male narcissism and homoeroticism in a mediated world, Male Impersonators (which I wrote 92-93). ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was probably still ear-worming in my head in 1994 when I predicted, after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’, that the future was metrosexual.

True, the model of the song (‘I’m a model, you know what I mean’) and their little tush they shake on the catwalk, who is ‘too sexy for Milan’, their car, their cat, their hat, their love, their shirt and even the song, is gender non-specific at a time when models were generally assumed to be women. And the official story about the lyrics is that my short-lived imaginary boyfriend Fred was dating an American female model when the song was written. But the song was performed by the Fairbrass brothers. In leather trousers (sorry, I can’t stop mentioning them). And in 1991 London’s idea of a Chippendale body that was too sexy for their shirts.

In the promo the boys sashay topless on the catwalk and down the street followed by female pappers – a reversal of Duran Duran’s early 80s ‘Girls On Film’ moment, and also of course the usual clichés about the ‘male gaze’ (which wasn’t entirely new then, but a quarter of a century on some still think they are the first to subvert).

‘I’m Too Sexy’ started out satirising the fashion industry, but ended up massaging the muscles of male exhibitionism and narcissism – a noble cause the boy band Take That were to eagerly further evangelise later in the 1990s with their leather harness rent boy aesthetic. But ‘I’m Too Sexy’ for all its apparent silliness also turned out to be strangely prophetic about our 21st Century shirtless selfie-obsessed culture and the e-catwalk of Instagram – before most people even had a mobile phone, let alone one that could take really cool, app-filtered photos of their favourite gym changing room mirror. We’re all now way too sexy for not just our shirts but real life.

Which reminds me. Although they were kind of proto-spornos, the Fairbrass brothers’ bodies, which were glad-handled and devoured by the great British public’s eyes at the time as if we’d only just come off the meat ration, don’t look terribly ‘shredded’ to our much more jaded and judgey 2017 eyes. After all those back issues of Men’s Health/Fitness, and the ever-increasing refinement of what is supposed to be a ‘sexy’ male body, they look somewhat ‘watery’ – to use a technical term that only a handful of keen bodybuilders knew back then but probably your granny knows now. Were they eating clean? Were they doing enough cardio? Planking? And where’s the ink, bro?

But then, as someone who used to spend too much time hanging around gyms in London then, ‘watery’ was very much the look. I channelled it myself.

Brighton, 1990 (Photo credit M Blighton)

And yes, I did work as a bouncer for a while – just one of the so many things Fred and I had to talk about.

This month also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the surprise 1997 hit UK movie The Full Monty, about laid-off working class men in the (largely former) steel-making city of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who decide to put together a male strip troupe to entertain the women that they used to provide for.

It was a serious (possibly overly-didactic) ‘crisis of masculinity’ movie which used male stripping as a visual metaphor for changing gender roles, particularly in the wake of 80s de-industrialisation. But it was also about male ‘sexiness’ as a kind of salvation. The whole point is that most of the guys are not vain, or conventionally sexy, or much wanted at all – and in fact have been dumped on the scrapheap of the late 20th Century.

But in learning how to act as if they were ‘too sexy’ – and move their hips to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ – they have somehow re-skilled themselves for the brazen new world and century bearing down on them.

 

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.

Larry StylinsonLarry 2

They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.

Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:

“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate…. It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”

Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.

A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. Apparently the response was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

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

Manlove for Ladies

Mark Simpson on the crossover of slash into the mainstream – or fashslash

(‘The Year In Ideas’, The London Times, December 29, 2007)

When Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of the hit BBC comedy The Mighty Boosh snogged on air the other week, it may have looked as if they were pandering, tongues literally in cheeks, to gay male fans. At first glance the swarm of comments on the YouTube clip (now removed) of the clinch seemed to confirm this: “The hottest thing I’ve ever seen!” and “Oh sweet baby Jesus!”, being typical examples.

Until you get to: “I broked my ovaries!!” – and then you realise that most if not all the posters perving shamelessly over this man-on-man action are actually female.

Welcome to the wonderful, if sometimes slightly perplexing world of ladies who love men loving men. Once, this scene was confined to obscure online groups of fanfic “slashers” – women who subversively outed a homoerotic subtext within the “buddy” genre for one another. So Starsky played with Hutch’s clutch, and Sam fingered Master Frodo’s ring.

But as we’ve increasingly seen, virtual day-dreaming has a way of infiltrating traditional media. In a sign of the crossover of slash – fashslash if you will – that Mighty Boosh snog seems to have been directly inspired by the online frenzied feminine fantasising about this male comedy duo’s close friendship.

Meanwhile, the semi-secret reason so many, from Desperate Housewives to Coronation Street, have boy-on-boy romances now is not so much political correctness, but a growing awareness that a large segment of their mostly female audience rather like seeing pretty boys getting it on.

This, after all, has been the implicit erotic dynamic of all those screamingly successful gay-managed, gay-flirty boybands from the Beatles to Wham to Take That. The huge success of Queer As Folk on both sides of the Atlantic was in part down to it’s slashy ‘Take That on Canal Street’ feel. Brokeback Mountain was essentially posh slash fiction that became a massively successful fashslash movie.

Sometimes though, today’s ladies’ overt and sometimes over-eager interest in manlove – the Queer Eye of the Straight Gal – can make men rather… shy. Earlier this year, a gay bar in Melbourne had to go to court to get an order banning women. Apparently they were descending on the club en masse to ogle the canoodling men.

Read what the slashers themselves have to say about this article.

A Little Bit of Give & Take

Mark Simpson sees Take That eaten alive at Wembley Arena

Originally appeared in Attitude magazine, October 1994 and collected in It’s a Queer World

IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Maenads were “frenzied women worshippers of Bacchus” who were inclined to “rend to pieces” unfortunate men who passed their way. They were known by their unearthly shrieking howl and wail – often the last thing a man might hear. Tonight the ancient noise floods the auditorium and makes my knees knock. Tonight a cyclone of screaming, whistling, whirling teen-girl frenzy is surging around me and quite unmanning me.

Tonight Take That play Wembley Arena.

The entrance of the ‘lads’ is still some time away, but that doesn’t stop the girls exercising their vocal cords and advertising their appetite. They are hungry for masculine meat. Their banners proclaim their ravenous intentions: GIVE US A SNOG, ROB, and A QUICKIE IN THE DARKIE, MARKIE. To quote someone else from Manchester: They want it now and they will not wait, for they are too lovely and too delicate. I sink even lower into my seat. But I flatter myself – these girls aren’t interested in stringy old steak like mine; they want prime, pumped, waxed, tanned, moisturised boy-flesh.

Nevertheless I can’t help looking around for another male to cling to.  I spot a middle-aged steward guarding one of the exit doors. ‘I’m too seasoned to be scared, ‘ he says. (I think he means ‘experienced’ rather than ‘flavoured.’) ‘I’ve seen it all before with The Beatles. Now that was real hysteria. You had to stretcher out hundreds of fainting girls in those days.  We hardly get any now.’

But isn’t that just it?  Isn’t that exactly why we should be really, really scared? I mean, these girls are ball-busters; they’re in control. They’re not keeling over – they know what they want and they’re gonna stop at nothing to get it. It’s the men who are fainting now. ‘Well, some of their banners can be a bit explicit,’ admits the steward. ‘Some of them are too obscene to allow into the auditorium and we have to confiscate them.’ What sort of things do they say? He flushes red. ‘I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid’ he demurs hurriedly. ‘You’ll have to use your imagination.’

Unfortunately my imagination is already working overtime. From my lofty vantage point in the gallery, the arena looks just like the inside of the wrecked spaceship in Alien. Those rows of teeny-boppers look like the cute pods in the vast cargo bay that John Hurt got a little too close to. Lurking within each one of those diminutive schoolgirls is a ruthless appetite to consume the world just waiting to burst out. These girls – with their flashing red plastic horns (symbol of the ’94 tour), TT scarves, key-rings and slurpees – know that the teenybopper juggernaut of boy bands is just a lipsmacking taste of things to come.

The multimillion pound Take That road-show, bringing joy to thousands of young girls, is the prototype future economy of the Western World. Making these girls happy will become the economic imperative of the Twenty First Century. They are the consumer queens of tomorrow and capitalism will organise men, material and technology to pleasure them as long as they have cash to spend. These are girls who are becoming women in a world whose only use for men who don’t sing, dance, and flash their pert buns is lifting the amps on and off stage.

Lucy, Jane, Trish, and Caroline are demure sixteen-year-olds who have travelled from Swindon to see their heroes. They are chaperoned by Samantha, Lucy’s mum. ‘I can’t wait to see them get their kit off – PHWOOAAARRRRRRRRR!’ shouts Lucy into my ear. ‘What I wouldn’t do to them if I could get my hands on them!’ What about the other boy bands?  What’s so special about TT? ‘They’re just the best,’ yells Trish. ‘They really know how to make you feel good; they really try. Plus none of the others have got their sex appeal. They can dance, wiggle their bums, and sing – plus they’re VERY SHAGGABLE!’

Who’s your favourite?  ‘HOWARD!’ ‘ROBBIE!’ ‘MARK!’ ‘JASON!’ they all scream at once. ‘Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im.’ ‘Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s gorgeous, ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, an’ ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE – ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!’ How do you know? ‘You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!’ they hoot. ‘It just about pokes yer eye out!,’ adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that Mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? ‘I am shocked,’ admits Samantha. ‘I expected them to get their kit off!!’ And what does your husband think of all this? ‘Oh, he’s quite into it. He does TT numbers in a thong after the pub on a Sunday.’

But the key question has to be, what do TT have that Swindon boys don’t? ‘MONEY!’ shouts one lass. ‘TALENT!’ another. Meanwhile Mum offers: ‘All the good-looking boys round our way are either married or gay.’

At last the boys make their much-anticipated entrance and the crowd ululates, trills and whoops, rising to a maelstrom of sound matched only by a squadron of Concorde’s taking off and exploding. The boys rise up from beneath the stage on a platform, clad in tech-noir army uniform – boots, grey tunics, and silver helmets – singing ‘We’re gonna make you feel so good.’ Toy soldiers played by toy boys. Perfect. A salvo of cuddly toys lands on stage, beginning a bombardment that lasts all night. (I can’t decide whether this is a sign of the girls’ initiation into womanhood, a putting away of childish things – or merely an exchange of one fluffy comforter for another.)

Like the troopers they are, the munchkins from Manchester skip, jump, and shuffle their way through their back-catalogue. The air is heavy with sweat, oestrogen, and Lily of the Valley. Girls are ignoring official exhortations not to stand on their seats, bopping their backsides off with a determination and energy that makes you wonder how much TT have to do with it. Yes, the boys are nice little movers, they do have some very catchy numbers, and they promise to ‘make you feel so good,’ but it looks like these girls are the sort who can take care of their own orgasm, thank you very much.

takethat.jpg

Halfway through the show the boys leave the stage for a costume change. A giant metal walkway covered in flashing lights descends. The boys re-enter in powder blue Sgt Pepper suits. The salute to the Beatles shows the boys’ determination never to disappoint their audience and grow up. They wont make the mistakes the Beatles made – they won’t desert pop for rock; they wont take drugs; they won’t get political and expect to be taken seriously; they won’t get married (OK, so Gary might run off with Elton John). TT are the Beatles as your Nan would like to remember them – all McCartneys and no Lennons.

Time is the greatest threat to passion and to boyhood. So the next number, ‘Babe,’ underlines TT’s postmodern mastery of it. A projection screen shows black-and-white film of VE Day celebrations and returning troops. Little Markie steps out of the screen (through an ingenious slit) wearing an RAF greatcoat with a kit bag slung over his shoulder, singing ‘Babe, I’m back again.’ Doesn’t it just make you want to hug him really, really hard till his little ribs crack and puncture his lungs? The message is clear: TT were always here, are always here, will always be here to ‘make you feel so good’.

Sentimentality dealt with, the boys turn their attentions to ‘sex’ in the second half of the show, changing in to black net shirts and hot pants – well, everyone except Gary, who’s still wearing trousers. What’s the matter with his legs? Are they just fat or do they betray signs of – God forbid! – secondary sexual characteristics?, i.e. hair? Can’t he shave them like Howard? Alas, Gary’s shyness about showing a bit of legs spoils the effect of the black net shirts. Less ‘sexy,’ more a carefully contrived compromise that allows you to glimpse Gary’s flesh but breaks up the lines enough to prevent you deciding whether he really is a pudding or not.

That the lyric they’re singing is ‘Give good feeling to me’ is not without significance. Now that ‘sex’ has replaced romance, the boys sing a passive version of their initial promise to ‘make you feel so good’. The girls do their best to satisfy the boys. They gasp like a cracked steam piston as TT offer themselves. They roar like Niagara in flood when TT thrown themselves down on the stage. They thunder their feet like stampeding buffalo as the boys slowly crawl to its edge and wail like a missile attack when TT stand up and thrust their hips at the crowd. When Howard takes of his shirt the screaming melts my earplugs.

As an encore, the boys perform ‘Pray’ in white smocks, looking very angelic with their hands pressed together and heads bowed. But after the song finishes they are dragged into ‘Hell’ by little devils. Then out of the pit comes Lulu in red, followed by the boys who have now been Satanised, wearing red horns – and, everyone except Gary, very little else – for ‘Relight My Fire.’ Howard is ‘wearing’ a black leather jockstrap and a pair of red chaps with his bum poking out the back, which he generously sticks out at the audience and slaps repeatedly. Gary, meanwhile, is clad in a blazer and flannels. Thus TT negotiate all the key dilemmas of girl teendom: virtue and sin, love and sex, rough trade or rich fat boys in blazers.

The grins on the faces of the TT boys are convincing and suggest that they might be enjoying themselves even more than the fans.  ‘Ree-light my fi-yer/Your love is my only dee-zeyr/I need your lurve/I need your lurve!’ They croon sincerely to Lulu, cavorting around her like kinky acrobats. It’s only fitting that the nearest thing to heterosexuality that these future mothers of our nation have witnessed all evening is pretty boys in bondage gear singing a gay disco classic to a middle aged camp icon.

So what do the Swindon mob make of the rumours that TT are gay?  ‘That’s just bollocks,’ they all agree. ‘People are just jealous of their success and want to bring them down,’ says Caroline.

And, hypothetically speaking of course, if they were gay, would it stop you chasing them?

‘No’,’ she replies, unphased, and looking at me levelly. ‘I’m into gay men.’

Download It’s a Queer World

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Why Doesn’t America Love Robbie Williams? When He Love-Hates Himself So?

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.

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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 Iggy Pop 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.

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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?

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