Robbie Williams: The Great British Pop Star Who Will Never Go Away
He has been on 'Eastenders'. He has a road and tourist trail named after him in Stoke-on-Trent. He, quite simply, just won't leave.
Members of boy bands have historically never been able to present any image other than one of extreme health, hygiene and togetherness. In a way, it's quite a Faustian trade-off. A name is signed on a letter-headed piece of paper from one of the big management companies – where, it can be presupposed, everything from skin-care regimes, apologetic coiffures and the authenticity of a personality are placed in control of suited moneymen – and in return some innocent lad from a market town or a bakery is promised access to unrivalled riches, first-class air travel, unlimited glass bottles of sparkling water and international fame.
From Westlife to Boyzone to JLS to One Direction, Britain's most popular boy band members have rarely strayed too far from a script that adheres to complete and utter wholesomeness in the eyes of the common high-street consumer. Thus, Robbie Williams sits in a league of his own. Like those aforementioned pop stars, he too has enjoyed placing his buttocks on the comforting leather of a private jet airplane and amassed a fortune to the sum of £145 million, but he's done so in a way that's refused to play by the rules of how record labels expect their pop stars to act. He once released an (admittedly unforgivingly bad) song called "Dickhead"; another time he trundled around Glastonbury with a haircut that can only be best described as a substance-fuelled reinterpretation of Sick Boy in Trainspotting while also missing one of his front teeth.
Through Williams' unforgivable approach to the media-trained music machine, which he's implemented for over two decades now – and saw him receive his 18th Brit Award last year, more than any other artist – he's provided male-fronted British pop music with what it needed and continues to need the most: an unrestrained and eccentric entertainer. A man who would turn up to an interview in the 90s still running on the fumes of cocaine; and a newly sober man who still can, in the late 2010s, give an interview only comparable to that of the Gallagher brothers or a well-practiced and sharp-witted comedian. Olly Murs – Olly fucking phlegmatic Murs in his Burton polo shirts and damp patter – he is not. Williams is nothing but himself, and himself is a being that possesses the whole gamut of oddity and magnetism and talent that seeps through the blood of Britain's best loved stars.
Of course, there are the criticisms against him: sitting comfortably next to other less-favourable releases like Rudebox is a B-side called "I Am The Res-Erection", which is clearly scented with the fart-joke fragrance of immature male humour; comments he's made regarding his own sexuality (and through those comments, his perspective on the spectrum of sexual orientation) have been ill-phrased to say the least; "Party Like a Russian" is upsetting; he's actually good friends with Olly Murs. But though these components of Williams' career can't really be forgiven, the fact he often knows and understands this is part of what makes him an authentic artist. "I do have limited creative skills and I find myself saying things that, at later inspection and later dates, I probably wouldn't have said," he told NME earlier this week. He's a pop star whose mouth has a horsepower that streams past his brain – one of the most entertaining kinds – yet he can also be painfully aware of how culpable he is for his mistakes. He is real in a way, say, Paul Cattermole from S Club 7 could never be, even if he managed to attain a similar level of charisma.
In the Williams' biography Somebody, Someday readers are given a candid insight into his addictions, anxieties, depression and vulnerabilities. In a way, these aspects of Williams' life has been publicly documented in a way unparalleled of any other pop star at his level of fame. He's been an alcoholic; he's been addicted to cocaine; he's battled with obesity and fluctuated between what he describes as the "fat pop star" with "droopy eyes" and the chiselled lad who graduated from a council estate in Stoke-on-Trent and into the wet dreams of men and women the world over. "My brain idles at neuroses and worry and panic", he told Chris Evans in a radio interview last year. There's a difference, Somebody, Someday says, between Robbie the performer and Rob – the self-doubting, anxious man who still can't believe he won the golden ticket to fame and sometimes spends nights alone in his room trying to stay sober, playing Uno, hoping he won't be sent back home to live with his mother in Staffordshire.
This difference between the two characters – of Rob and Robbie – and how they combine to present an image of a living, breathing pop star (warts and all) is perhaps best described by the man himself. In an interview with The Guardian last October he said: "I have a way of making trauma look confident on stage, and that's my talent. My main talent is turning trauma into something that looks showbizzy. Something happens once I put my foot on a stage and very rarely does the mask slip. I don't go up on stage alone, I go there with Robbie Williams. He turns up. Sometimes he doesn't and I have to do it myself and that's when the trauma of backstage plays itself out on stage. But most of the time he turns up."
A pathological over-sharer, obsessed to the point of being neurotic, as self-doubting as he is confident and charismatic Williams is the opposite of what a pop star should be – media trained; unfaltering; clean; censored; sober – while also possessing qualities necessary in the world's best pop stars. Alongside the charm, the talkativeness, the bold and brash determination are the songs. The fucking songs. "Millennium", "Angels", "She's the One", "Kids", "Let Me Entertain You", "Feel", "Strong", "Old Before I Die", even – with its absolute barrage of nonsense lyrics; "me with the floor show, kicking with your torso… Babylon's back in business, can I get a witness" – "Rock DJ". This is a shit-kicking resume, not just in the upper-echelon of any wedding party playlist but also of life, itself. If you are willing to deny yourself the beauty of these songs then you must also be willing to investigate the psychological reasons why, since it is most likely a problem with you and not these consummate pieces of art.
As time has gone on, Williams has never changed or held back parts of his personality – in the late 90s, he cussed his manager in a television interview; in the late 2000s, he headed into the desert with Jon Ronson to look for UFOs. As my colleague Angus Harrison once argued, "he has been monkeying around for time immemorial" and will continue to do so, perhaps until he is lowered into the grave and "Angels" plays out on every day time radio station with an even higher frequency than it already does. A morbid thought, but one to ponder when considering whether Robbie has a strong, cultural legacy or if you're on the other side of the fence – as old men like Alan McGee (and young ones like Joel Golby) are – and see him as little more than a talentless or embarrassing insignia of the worst parts of British music culture. The main point is: Robbie Williams will tonight perform, as proud owner of his 18th Brit Award – for British Icon – and no one will be able to change this. It has happened. Like Marmite or Brexit or any other number of British things he will continue to divide us, yet will continue to remain cemented into our culture for far longer than any of us will be alive.
He has been on Eastenders. He has a road and tourist trail named after him in Stoke-on-Trent. He has had as many number 1 albums in the UK as Madonna. Name anyone else who has done these things and released as many chart-topping songs as he has in the last 20 years. You can't, because it's impossible. Robbie Williams is the great British pop star and he's never going to go away.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.
(Lead image by John Marshall via PR, second image by Henry Bond via Wikimedia)