The perfect storm of a popstar, Robbie Williams is a legacy act that progressive millennials can embrace with little hesitation in an age of cancellation, writes Moya Lothian McLean.
Two weeks ago, I stood amongst a horde of mums and cried my eyes out as Robbie Williams played Eternity. “I don’t usually do this one but I’m thinking of re-introducing it to my sets,” he said teasingly, before sparse opening piano chords gave the game away.
Having spent the entire sweaty tube journey to BST Hyde Park - where Robbie was appearing as the closer to four weekends of legacy acts, including Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder - talking myself out of the possibility of hearing “Eternity”, an aching mediation on the ephemerality of love and youth, I was awash as soon as it kicked in. “Youth is wasted on the young; before you know, it’s come and gone” sang Robbie. I wept harder and the mum beside me shot me a sympathetic glance my way.
I wasn’t sad per se; it was just all so overwhelming. Seeing Robbie felt a bit like a fever dream, fourteen years in the making. My admiration for Robbie had become a cornerstone of my personality; at first, a sort of tongue-in-cheek nostalgic fondness that calcified into something real and meaningful. I’ve crow-barred Robbie references into articles, said them on the radio, included them on dating app profiles. I’ve attended club nights that only play his greatest hits. Robbie took pride of place on the magazine cover presented to me when I left my last staff writing job. Being a Robbie fan snuck up on me but it’s one of the ways I now choose to self-define. Make of that what you will.
Robbie Williams is the perfect storm of a popstar. He exists at the intersection of a venn diagram that brings together Nineties nostalgia, a survival narrative, supreme charisma and, of course, a catalogue of anthemic yet utterly cathartic bangers that pair stadium-filling melodies with surprisingly insightful lyrics (even if those bangers are sometimes nefariously ripped from other artists).
Sure, many of the specific troubles reference in Robbie’s songs - like grappling with a celebrity status that led to substance abuse and sex addiction (at one point during his BST slot he jokes that former vices of “cocaine and strippers” have been superseded by pots of hummous) - may not be commonplace. But the themes transcend. Oscillating between self-loathing and self-obsession, at turns spelling out his fear of being swallowed by the void that is Real Life before pivoting to defiant, peacocking ebullience at just being a living, breathing human being who can shout and shit and sing, Robbie is fully fleshed out.
"Robbie is such an endemically British export with his lack of filter and love of sharp sarcasm, his continued commitment to a very specific style of shithousery, his forays into deeply embarrassing novelty pop, that it seems bizarre to think any other nation could fully understand and embrace him without understanding the cultural context that has produced such a person"
This isn’t exactly a new revelation. The alchemy of Robbie Williams has long been in effect; his status as the best-selling Britsh male solo artist of all-time is testimony to that. One of my favourite anecdotes to reel off in the kitchen at parties, is the intel that Robbie Williams is actually, properly global; he’s the number one non-Latino musician in Latin America. It’s a fact always received with surprise; Robbie is such an endemically British export with his lack of filter and love of sharp sarcasm, his continued commitment to a very specific style of shithousery, his forays into deeply embarrassing novelty pop, that it seems bizarre to think any other nation could fully understand and embrace him without understanding the cultural context that has produced such a person. But they do, and they adore him for it across the world - except America, and Robbie was never going to make it there. He has too much about him. Coldplay, could crack the US with bland, inoffensive stadium rock but Robbie, with his demons and his tattoos and his hedonism? Absolutely not and it’s their loss.
But that’s by-the-by now because Robbie is no longer in the ‘cracking’ stage of his musical career. Fresh-faced boyband member? Completed it, mate. Wild, reckless, shag-anything-that-moves rebellious solo artist? Just about survived. After some hinterland years which saw him release tracks (cough, "Party Like a Russian") best confined to the footnotes of his Wikipedia page, Robbie - now 45-years-old - is beginning the transition into fully-recognised musical icon.
Stints on shows like The X Factor have positioned him as a grizzled industry veteran who - with a healthy helping of maverick - is able to dish out advice to young hopefuls so they can enjoy the longevity he has (true to his word, at BST Robbie brought out contestants he’d mentored while on the show to sing a rousing choral rendition of Take That’s ‘Never Forget’). 2019 saw him kick off his first Las Vegas residency, extended by nine further dates after an initial sell-out run in March with rumours abounding that he’s about to be booked for a further year.
Within five years, I’m willing to put money that "Let Me Entertain You" will be blaring out over Worthy Farm as 100,000 anxiously wait for the big man to strut onto stage for the Legends slot.
Yet it takes more than appearances on judging panels and shows at the Wynn to cement someone as an icon. Take Jennifer Lopez for example; A List artist, respected - but not an icon.
Icon status comes from the grassroots - the fans. To become a true icon a la Kylie or Madonna, an artist needs to be able to span generations and transcend musical tastes. They have to appeal to a much wider audience than the fans who were first to adore them, in this case the once-young women (and a few men) who had Take That posters leaving blu-tack stains on their bedroom wall. Because although mums will always ride for Robbie, age shall weary them, and the years condemn. They alone are not enough to bump his public perception from ‘faded one-time heartthrob’ to ‘national treasure who might just be the greatest British entertainer of the last twenty years’.
"This is the thing about Robbie Williams, a popstar forged in the white heat of Nineties bubblegum boybands and then re-made anew via some blonde spikes and a cocaine addiction: young people fucking love him"
Robbie, however, has managed to somehow cultivate an entirely new generation of fans who are willing to overlook all the music he’s made since 2012 and the Rudebox-era, in order to harbour a sincere and fervent affection for him, one that translates into ticket sales and continued relevance. A Rob-naissance, if you will. This is the thing about Robbie Williams, a popstar forged in the white heat of Nineties bubblegum boybands and then re-made anew via some blonde spikes and a cocaine addiction: young people fucking love him.
Personally, I realised the warmth I harboured for Robbie was turning into full-blown fandom somewhere around 2016. It started as semi-ironic - not unusual, I’ve discovered from testimony given by millennial Robbie fans - but tipped into sincerity, perhaps at the point when I discovered at least three of my close friends felt the same. Suddenly, my enjoyment of Robbie was reinforced; I didn’t have to defend listening to his music as a cheesy, guilty pleasure. I could just love him, wholeheartedly.
What I didn’t realise was that so many of my agemates were going through the same process. Robbie is becoming somewhat of a beloved cultural touchstone amongst my generation; I’ve never received such a deluge of messages in my entire career as when I posted a brief sentence asking Robbie fans to get in touch. I’ve read multiple thinkpieces by young music journalists dedicated to him; Robbie tunes bring disparate groups together at karaoke, "Rock DJ" always gets the roof shaking at house parties, no matter what’s preceded it (that inspired Barry White sample!) and the success of Robbie dedicated club night No Regrets in December 2018 was such that it spawned subsequent repeats of the event across the UK, including stops in Manchester and Liverpool.
Obviously, nostalgia has a leading role to play. We were the generation weaned on solo Robbie; who sat up in front of MTV waiting to see him rip his skin off in censored music videos or wailed along to Escapology on long car journeys to Easter holidays spent in Wales. Many of those I spoke to said early memories of Robbie are inextricably linked to family. I’m no different; the roots of my Robbie Williams fandom lie with my aunt who would blast him through the speakers of her Alfa Romeo when caring for my sister and I, while my mother was away at weekends, studying for a qualification. “He’s not the best singer, Moya,” she would impart, sagely as I listened wide-eyed from the cream leather backseat. “But by god can he entertain.”
“I grew up with Robbie,” said Vicky, one of the many who got in touch with me to express her love for him. “My mum was always listening to his music and that was passed onto me.”
Joey Bradbury, one half of The Rhythm Method, backed her up: “At its core, I suppose [my admiration for Robbie] is because his music was ubiquitous throughout my childhood,” he told me, via Twitter. “There’s that safety we seek in nostalgia.”
"We were the generation weaned on solo Robbie; who sat up in front of MTV waiting to see him rip his skin off in censored music videos or wailed along to Escapology on long car journeys to Easter holidays spent in Wales"
Joey, 29, also pointed to Robbie’s backstory; his working class roots and very public phoenix narrative.
“He came from a poor background, made it, made it even more, almost lost it due to addiction and then came back,” he said. “And he still maintains an incredibly entertaining personality. He’s a hero - and a criminally underrated songwriter.”
It’s not just Robbie’s journey itself that endears him to us. To my mind it was also the winking knowing with which he undertook the trip to the lofty heights of fame. He never surrendered to the polish expected of him, always stuck two fingers up at the circus of celebrity, while simultaneously acknowledging his enjoyment of the ride (who can forget Robbie uttering the immortal words: “I’m RICH! Beyond my wildest dreams!” upon signing a record-breaking deal with EMI in 2001?).
Once in the public eye, Robbie combined a level of clownery, matched only by the Gallagher brothers, with an unusually vulnerable and fluid form of masculinity that neither Noel or Liam were able, or willing, to touch with a bargepole. Robbie alternated familiar ‘lad about town’ cockiness with emotional admissions about his mental health and relationships. Add to that an openness about sexual experimentation that was rare for a popstar marketed as a straight heartthrob type and you’ve got a legacy act that progressive millennials - who pair a taste for shithousing, sardonic humour with strong social consciences and a love of the unfiltered - can embrace with little hesitation in an age of cancellation. Robbie offers something for everyone; one queer male fan told me he’d been their first crush because of the confidence with which he carried himself, while simultaneously being charmed by his reputation as a ‘useless womaniser’.
Plus, he’s just a whirling vortex of charisma, of a type only possessed by the most memorable entertainers.
“I think he’s the closest thing people of my age group have to Freddie Mercury,” says Nick, 29. “He’s charming, funny, very open when it comes to his fluid sexuality, doesn’t take himself too seriously when it comes to his flaws and his past and he holds a crowd in the palm of his hand like no-one else I’ve ever seen live.”
I can certainly attest to that; watching Robbie at BST was to attend a masterclass in old-school Saturday night variety entertainment. He bantered with the crowd, led mass singalongs of "Sweet Caroline," for which he wheeled out his own father (also a performer) and for a rendition of Something Stupid, lay across the lap of a thrilled Scottish mum called Leslie (who emitted such powerful maternal energy she told Robbie ‘I’m happy you’re happy’ at the conclusion of the song).
But rather than Freddie Mercury, I think Robbie perhaps has more in common with another UK music legend who’s also currently enjoying a renewed profile: Elton John. There’s the glaring similarities: their shared working-class backgrounds, the long-term partnership with songwriters (Guy Chambers in Robbie’s case), the love of showmanship, same demons, same struggle to reconcile on-stage personas with crippling off-stage anxiety and an overriding desire for love. But they also have a commitment to authenticity in common, a say-what-I-want, do-what-I-like attitude that is prized by my generation who want our popstars - and influential figures - to be more like Cardi B and Rihanna in attitude than the smooth, bland, media-trained perfection of a Shawn Mendes.
So what now? Well the Rob-naissance has a while to run yet. We haven’t even reached peak Robbie nostalgia. Right now it’s burgeoning; a ripple threatening to become a wave. And we’re still three years off the two-decade anniversary of Escapology, which marked a dramatic shift in Robbie’s songwriting, so will doubtless be treated to endless retrospectives. More club nights are coming, more mass singalongs, maybe even a viral acoustic cover or two (god forbid). A floating cruise has just been launched. But bring it on; is there a more heady feeling than losing your head to a Robbie Williams banger in a group of people you love? I think not. Thankfully Gen Z seem to be prepared to continue the work started.
“There’s a tradition at my uni that the last song played at parties has to be Angels,” 20-year-old Lottie tells me. She was born in 1998 - a year after Angels was released. “Everyone joins hands in a massive circle and sings together.”
Sounds good to me.
Follow Moya on Twitter at @moya_lm