Advertisement
Music

Is Robbie Williams the UK's Most Embarrassing Export?

Two writers duke it out.

by Joel Golby and Angus Harrison
06 October 2016, 2:10pm

So apparently Robbie Williams has offended Russia with his music. The video for his new song "Party Like a Russian" – which has Robbie performing in what looks like a very high-end library, surrounded by ballerinas – has been criticised by the Russian media for stereotyping the country's culture, with some calling it borderline racist.

This has caused some contention in the office: for some, it's further evidence that Robbie Williams the UK's most embarrassing export. For others, it's yet more proof that Robbie is the King of Banter. Here, look, it's vice.com's Joel Golby and thump.com's Angus Harrison arguing it out:

Joel Golby: Hi Angus. I'd like to put a theory to you, and it's a very simple theory, and the theory is this: Robbie Williams is, undoubtedly, Britain's most embarrassing export. I know you are a Williams apologist, BUT I am going to have to insist that you watch, in full, the video to Robbie Williams' "Party Like a Russian" before you even come at me with a retort.

Angus Harrison: Okay, yes, "Party Like a Russian" might be flawed – if pushed I would struggle to defend this particular offering from the big man. But there's a crucial component of Robbie's character on display here. What you have misinterpreted as "embarrassing" is actually his fearless commitment to – and I can't think of a better way of phrasing this, for better or for worse – "clowning around". Without his constant clowning, he would be Gary Barlow – nothing more than a well behaved Tory who your mum likes. "Party Like a Russian" might not be the best song he's ever released, but it is further proof that he will not go silent into that dark night producing Children in Need singles and judging on the X-Factor. We need this facet of Robbie Williams. It is not embarrassing, rather it is the essential tug of "havin' a bloody laugh mate" – a philosophy I think we can all appreciate.

JG: But Gary Barlow does fulfil a role, and that is producing black-and-white-cover-photo-of-him-looking-half-furiously-at-his-own-hands albums of ballads for people who think Coldplay are "a bit much". I have not understood the function that Robbie Williams has been fulfilling for about 17 years. He did that song about the millennium in 1999. Ever since then, as best I can tell, he has spent the intervening time wearing a succession of outlandish jackets and looking up and off to the right over his shoulder at something, occasionally mugging close to the camera and doing a tight-lipped chimp smile, occasionally popping a quizzical eyebrow up at some backing dancers, and then for a bit he got really into gak and UFOs. What exactly is Robbie Williams doing? Why am I still so frequently forced to look at him?

AH: To quote "Feel", "I've got too much life / running through my veins." Like a child souped-up on fairground candy-floss, his role is to constantly remind us that nothing, including "being serious", can ever be taken too seriously. Barlow is a man of M&S ballads – gloss and precision – whereas Robbie is the flawed but freewheeling embodiment of lived experience. Robbie is for everyone who ever dared to put two fingers up at conventional wisdom and bleach their hair anyway. He is the idiot savant of good times. He is an angel of sorts, and we barely deserve him. Sorry, I've got "She's the One" playing in another tab and I'm nearly in tears – bear with me.

I put it to you that you deny Robbie a role because you are denying a part of yourself. To love Robbie is to love the rogue within us all.

JG: Are you saying I hate Robbie Williams because I hate myself?

AH: Basically

JG: I'm going to need to process this.

Okay, well to nail down into this we do actually need to move away from Robbie Williams possibly being racist to all of Russia and instead focus on, like, his other songs, starting with his only good one ever – "Rock DJ" – the three acceptable ballad ones he does – "Angels", "Feel", "She's the One" – and then move swiftly on from then and on instead to "Rudebox":

"Rudebox" to me is the exact moment 1990s Robbie died and 2000s Robbie was born, and that is significant in a way we won't really know the extent of for another decade or more, after he does three more swing albums and slowly bloats up to the size of a pre-death Brando. The thing is, 90s Robbie (1990–2006) was legitimately cool: he was bottled Cool Britannia, he absolutely dominated Knebworth, he had a no-miss run of good haircuts, he leapt about at a Sony press conference shouting "I'm rich! I'm rich!" He was exactly as scampish and gleeful as you want a former mega-boyband star turned legitimate-on-his-own megastar to be. And then he put on an adidas zip-thru and fastened it right up to the neck and rapped out of the side of his mouth in a lift and called it "Rudebox", and again:

Every moment is near painfully embarrassing for me to watch, and I'm not even Robbie Williams. Like I am trying to imagine Robbie Williams watching this and not flinching so severely his brain dies, and I can't. Despite being made in 2006, this is the most what-the-90s-thinks-the-future-will-be-like video ever: faceless dancers breaking laser beams while Robbie, in near motionless close-up, wears a tux jacket over a vest; languid rapping and joke lines leading into a weak-as-balls chorus. And there's something about Robbie himself that's already cracked: only 32 when this was made but somehow seeing older, so far away from the curve of what cool is, slipping on ice to try and get it back. And then the third thing is he's been trying to make this shit song again and again and again in the ten years since. Who is the song "Rudebox" for, Angus? Is it for young people, avid pop consumers? No. Is it for the mums, who buy his CDs to have the ballads on in the kitchen and car? No – they skip this song as soon as he says "special Olympics". So is there a significant audience of people I am missing, who are voraciously consuming Robbie Williams songs? Or is it just him barking himself mad in a room to no one?

AH: Let's deal with a couple of mistakes you've made. Yes, "Rock DJ" is up there – even if I'm still unable to watch the video – but so is "Let Me Entertain You", so is "Come Undone", so is "Millennium", so is "Kids". The trio you refer as "acceptable ballads" are in fact a triumvirate of paeans so emotional they transcend social division. I like to see them as forming a triangle of life. "Feel", a great song about birth and first sensing the world (sort of, but not really, but run with it); then "She's the One" for your first love; and "Angels" for your death. Imagine an artist so adept at communicating the human experience that he can be played as comfortably as when you're slipping from womb as when you are lowered into the muddy ground.

Yes, there is the "'Rudebox' question". My colleague Josh Baines has in fact written an essay on this very song, in which he described it as "The cheekiest of the cheeky chappy's cheeky back catalogue." I think this bottles why "Rudebox" isn't actually the travesty you think it is. Yes, it's technically a bit crap, and it features some less than desirable references to the special Olympics – a line presumably written by Jim Davidson – but it distills Robbie's refusal to put on a suit, do up his tie and sing the national anthem. People are always having a go at artists who were once youthful and cool for becoming boring with age and losing the joie de vivre that made them such a loveable prospect in the first place. Robbie has never done that; he has been monkeying around for time immemorial, and "Rudebox" is simply the most extreme articulation of his monkiest moment. You ask who "Rudebox" is for, and I answer: it is for Robbie.

I think the reason you are finding him hard to quantify is because he hasn't cracked. He is still as irreverent as he was when he bounded out of the press conference shouting about how rich he was. As safely anti-establishment as he was when he chuffed on the end of a spliff with Liam Gallagher once, or whatever. Robbie Williams is an unbreakable spirit. A world without him would be a dark, cold place, full of faceless balladry and "good" music and nothing more.

Honestly, can you give me an example of a British pop star who has ever behaved, performed or played the game like King Robbie? Anyone else who could drink a pint with you, pinch your mum's bum and then make you cry with a ballad so devastatingly poignant you almost want a relative to die so you can hear it again? No, you can't.

JG: This is irritating because I want to punch Robbie Williams – I can't help it! I want to punch him! Every time I see him wear a vest calculated to show off his weird loping chest tattoo I want to punch him! I want to punch him so hard his hands stop working so he can't do that I-saw-the-rat-pack-once-on-YouTube tie wiggle he does before he sings on The Jonathan Ross Show! I want to punch him until my blood and his morph into one! Until a coroner walks in and sadly goes, "Stoke-born cheeky chappy: adieu" – but now I am warming to your point of view and it is aggravating, frankly.

What you are saying is Robbie Williams is Good Actually because he is sort of failure-proof, because he has this sort of snarling contempt for his own image and career direction, a kind of lackadaisical relationship with post-richness success because he doesn't actually need to succeed any more. Most music stars don't get anywhere near this level of self-contempt until well into their sixties, and Robbie has done it at the tender age of 42. And I respect that.

But I also hate him, I'm sorry. I can't shake it. It's a primal thing, now. It's a deep dark tug in my body, an animal instinct, like the way pigs search for truffles or dogs eat their own shit. You can't train it out of me with logic and repetition. I just hate Robbie Williams. So much.

AH: Now you're getting it – I'm going to count this as a victory for Robbie, and for me. I can't account for why you want to punch him so much, but I suppose it's a bit like how the naughty kid in your class would fluctuate between being really funny or really annoying. I for one think Robbie Williams is the last bastion of Uncool Britannia, an important part of our national identity that likes fags, funny faces and talking about conspiracy theories with your mates after a few pints. That pre-millennial carelessness that has been squashed almost everywhere else during the last decade or so. As we now slip into a period of homogenised culture and social division, I will treasure his stories about hand-jobs on The Graham Norton Show and his Soccer Aid appearances more and more. He's the bloke I wish I was, and the bloke I one day hope to become.

@joelgolby / @a_n_g_u_s

More on VICE:

Some British National Treasures Who Deserve a Blue Plaque

RIP Barry Scott, Bleach Salesman For a Doomed Generation

Analysing Eamonn Holmes' Mid-to-Late Life Crisis