tremble clef

Monday, October 23, 2006

Robbie Williams, "The 80's" (2006)

"Art," Oscar Wilde once remarked, as usual using what only appears on the surface to be a paradox, "is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious." Though I do want to suggest that pop music is often art, I don't also mean to imply, with that epigram, that Robbie Williams is a great artist, nor even that his new album, Rudebox, is uniformly brilliant. (The first five tracks are great, as is the final third of the record, but there's also a middle stretch of Lily Allen-aided futility.) Nevertheless, I feel quite bad for Robbie that a high number of critics and listeners don't seem to know quite what to do about his perceived lack of seriousness (though I'm sure his MILLIONS OF DOLLARS more than make up for being misunderstood), when, in fact, as Wilde already portended several centuries ago, an artist who affects a lack of seriousness should never be taken to be less than serious about his art/music. That we cannot reconcile Robbie's trivializing and serious sides -- that we sometimes even take that (heh) "discrepancy" or "inconsistency" to be an artistic or even character flaw -- is a reflection, I think, of the kinds of affect we allow, not just our artists, but our men and women.

Take, for example, the two-star Guardian review of Rudebox, in which Alexis Petridis sets up this narrative: on Intensive Care, Robbie's previous album, "Stephen Duffy apparently expunged the singer's desire to record the wretched jokey tracks that had peppered all his previous albums" (sure, because a man who once wrote the lines, "I'll get a lot of ink/Out of our affair," never had his tongue in his cheek), thereby leading, Petridis implies, to better reviews (although it's not clear how he established that cause-and-effect relationship). However, much to Petridis's dismay, it turns out that Robbie is "not done winking and gurning yet," and the problem with "Rudebox is...that [it] doesn't stop winking and gurning at you for over an hour." On a more mundane but related level, the fan debate about the single "Rudebox," when it was released a month ago, roughly proceeded along related lines: "He's winking (and therefore it sucks)!" "No he's not (and therefore it's good)!" "He's taking the piss (and therefore it sucks)!" "I know I am, but what are you? (You suck!)"

There is little about "Rudebox" -- which, yes, I find one of the most infectious and thrilling singles of the past few months -- that strikes me as a joke, and no one who suggests that it is has ever, as far as I can tell, pointed to specifically why it should be considered so. Some, I guess, have gestured in the direction of Robbie's rapping. But even if we establish that the rapping is "bad," a case would still have to be made that it is intentionally so, since only then would it constitute a "joke." Indeed, I'm not even sure if I find the rapping "bad" -- Robbie's cadences appear to me to be quite straightforwardly and even earnestly modelled after, not Mike Skinner's (not in this case anyway), but Murray Head's efforts on "One Night In Bangkok" -- or, at the very least, I think that our pronoucements of "bad rapping" is too often because we uncritically apply a racialized yardstick. (But that's another blog entry.)

Some press reviews have tried harder to pinpoint (if only implicitly) the jokey nature of Rudebox. In his review for The Independent, Andy Gill calls Robbie's lyrics "pretentious," by which he seems to be mean that Robbie throws together a bunch of quotations, citations, and references. Some of these, for Gill, are more permissible than others, although the reason proves elusive. "It's one thing," he frets, "to reiterate the Pet Shop Boys' reference to Yevtushenko's To the Finland Station [on "Viva Life On Mars"], and another thing entirely to imagine one might usher a glimpse of insight into 'The Eighties' through a collage of apparently random pop-culture references and biographical details." First, of all, it's not evident why such lyrics are "pretentious" -- what is Robbie pretending to be? He's not claiming to have read Yevtunshenko (if anything, it's Gill's off-handed citation that makes that claim for himself. Besides, I've always thought that the Pet Shop Boys citation was of Edmund Wilson's account?) The touchstone is "West End Girls," not Russian history. Second: why not? Why can't we get a glimpse into a decade through a collage of pop-culture references? Haven't we just summed up the raison d'ĂȘtre of VH1?

"The 80's," the other track that Gill mentions, is not in any case meant to provide a look into an entire decade, but simply a glimpse into Robbie's (or the narrator's). The citations don't themselves "usher a glimpse of insight"; it is the act of Robbie's endless citing that is in itself revealing. The citations are not a means, as Gill seems to think; they are themselves a kind of ends. "The 80's," to set some context, is autobiography, and a fairly poignant one ("Things look better when they start/That's how the 80's broke my heart"); on some levels, its template is provided by, say, The Streets' "Weak Become Heroes," Estelle's "1984," or even Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring." But in some ways, it also departs from those tracks: not just because it "devolves" into joking mockery at the end ("What you looking at, you mong?"), but because there is less of a sense, even though the narration is retrospective, that Robbie has really transcended the life he documents. Near the end, Robbie talks about losing his virginity, and adds: "I'm in my 30s now and I'm still impressed/Why the Falklands Mum, and what have they done/Where do girls come, where do girls come from, where do girls come from?" Time suddenly seems collapsed, and the last line especially exhibits a surprisingly moving urgency; although its ostensible meaning is that Robbie, even now, can't understand women, it also feels like, for a second, he has regressed to a time when girls caused him anguish and pain.

Surrounding this pivotal naked moment in "The 80s" are the citations that tick Gill off so much. But it's hard to see why he sees them as jokes, or why he's annoyed at the emptiness of the signifiers. In the song, Robbie quotes 2 Live Crew, Snap!, A Flock Of Seagulls, Berlin, Musical Youth -- yes, as throwaway lines, like he's the rainman of 80s culture. But this seems psychologically accurate, suggesting as it does the extent to which Robbie's memory of that decade is made up of half-remembered phrases and fragments, many of which have now been detached from their original contexts to take on independent lives. It actually makes Robbie like many of us (where's the beef, where's the beef!?). Such citations litter all of Rudebox (I especially like the Missy Elliot snippet), and it's what gives the album a sense of vitality. Geezers need excitement: one reason why the past few Robbie albums have been dud is the way they sound like he's just going through the motions. On Rudebox, in contrast, he seems to be rediscovering the joys of music -- by re-assuming his role as fan, and reminding himself of the way music soundtracked his life.

Or even formed it. In this light, Robbie's decision (stay with me here) to cover the Pet Shop Boys' cover of My Robot Friend's "We're the Pet Shop Boys" makes perfect sense. I've written about this song before, back when it only existed in two, instead of three incarnations. Then, I faintly suggested that the song expresses the narrator's fantasy that music can bring him and his estranged lover back together: "one possible way to interpret it," I noted, "is to see the narrator thinking back on a failed relationship ("Suburbia is a slipstream of a memory/Of a time when you were close to me") with a partner who shared his love of the Boys. Pretending that he's 'there again,' the narrator starts singing 'we're the Pet Shop Boys,' as if that chant, as well as all the Boys' song titles at the end -- and his and his ex's shared fandom of the group -- can bring them back together again."

I've become, in the three (!) years since penning those thoughts, more convinced by this reading of "We're the Pet Shop Boys," and it is one that helps us make sense of Rudebox's narrative. The album is suffused with such phantasmatic gestures: most obviously in the autobiographical suite "Burslem Normals," "The 80s," and "The 90s," but really throughout. Robbie covers a number of songs that probably mean something to him (The Human League's "Louise," and Stephen Duffy's "Kiss Me"), coming as they do from the period of his life that the album details. But in covering "We're the Pet Shop Boys," he also points us to what it means to cover anything: it might be a homage, but it is also a selfish act, because in covering -- or elsewhere "simply" citing musical lines, references, memories -- such songs, Robbie suggests that he is doing nothing less than seeking to remind himself of the things that have quite literally constituted him. These are far from empty, jokey, or pretentious references.

I have spent some time arguing that at least a couple of things that people have pointed to as evidence of Robbie's lack of seriousness (his rapping, or more prominently, his compulsive citations) shouldn't really be considered as such. And yet, in the final reckoning, I'm not particularly interested in establishing If Robbie Is Serious, Or If He Is Joking. For what it's worth, I think he's deadly serious, but, as Wilde reminds us, this does not mean that he can't be absolutely jokey in his approach. The division between seriousness and jokiness is not a clearcut one.

More importantly, perhaps, is the final question of why we are largely incapable of coming to terms with that last fact. Which is to say: that Robbie's music can often be both a joke and yet deadly serious, is something that we seem to have trouble negotiating, and why this is so is an interesting phenomenon. Again, as the figure of Wilde suggests, there is of course a name for this kind of stance, in which seriousness is covered by a jokey exterior: camp. Camp is often thought of as the sole property of gay men, and Robbie's entire career has been plagued by rumors and jokes -- not least made by himself -- about his gay sensibility. What I finally find most intriguing about our culture's persistent refusal to believe that Robbie can hold both serious/joking multitudes in his being is the way it confirms what we probably already know: our inability to allow camp, in its largest sense -- in which a seriousness of purpose is belied by a trivializing mode -- as a mode of expression for anyone except gay men. Good news for gay men, perhaps, but in the end, what a limiting constraint for straight men like Robbie, and, really, everybody else.


  • I think this is the best possible defense of the album. Still. There's something to my mind about this kind of camp that I find alienating -- I frankly don't care about how Robbie Williams lost his virginity, or who his favorite mates in Take That were (cf. "The 90s"). I only care that Robbie Williams has no idea who he is insofar as no one has any idea who they are.

    But the way that he begs for our understanding -- "Wait, wait, don't go, let me tell you the story of my life!!" -- assumes that he thinks that at the moment no one could possibly understand him except on his own terms. He is the teacher; we are the students. That kind of condescension to the audience, even *through* the jokiness, is incredibly off-putting (Miss Alli at TWoP would refer to him as "That Guy"). Indeed, I wonder whether it's the opposite of camp in some way.

    In short, I enjoy some of the songs on this album (especially "Summertime," which I have no reason to enjoy). But I can't imagine paying for them; that would just be masochistic.

    By Anonymous esque, at 7:26 PM  

  • I see your point -- to some extent this entry was really just mounting a case that Robbie should be "permitted" to be campy (serious and not at the same time). But there is then a further debate to be had about whether Robbie's campiness is "good" or "interesting."

    Where that latter point is concerned, I do share your perspective that sometimes, Robbie's subjects arent especially compelling, but to me that's mostly a function of the fact that so many of them fall into the "oh my god, how hard it is to be a megastar!" category. That's why "The 90s" isn't quite as interesting to me as "The 80s."

    But what I don't quite get is the sense of condescension you do. I think a defining feature of camp is the way it is deeply insecure; the reason why camp makes fun of its subjects is because it fears that others will do so. Camp is therefore a kind of pre-emptive strike: I make fun of something (that I actually find profoundly serious, even if I know I am being overdramatic) because I fear you will. I see Robbie as using camp in that way, and thus utterly traditional, although I would be interested to hear more about why you think his style of camp is different.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 4:56 PM  

  • For both camp performers and RW, the performer lets the audience know that s/he needs them. But in camp, while the performer is on top in one sense (s/he's gotten the audience to part with $), the audience also takes advantage of its power to judge the performer. In judging the performer as ridiculous/exaggerated, there's a catharsis (ooh, classical!) of the serious concern underlying the camp.

    But this only works if the audience can identify with the performer's concerns, which means that the actual biographical details have to be vague (poor Liza!), portable (Judy as victim of the studio system), or themselves exaggerated (in the Kiki/Herb show, the narrative about Kiki and her daughter). To my mind, Robbie's story is none of these things, and this has the effect of giving the appearance that he's just imparting "wisdom" he's gleaned from his life to the audience.

    In other words, while Robbie's being jokey, we don't get to have that beautiful combination of laughing with him and at him that camp provides. Compared to Neil Tennant singing "We're shameless, we will do anything to get our fifteen minutes of fame..." -- a line that is both a pose and not unautobiographical (since Neil was a journalist who wanted to be a pop star, etc. etc.) -- Robbie's just one-note, and all I can do is laugh at him.

    I wonder whether I'd feel differently if "We're The Pet Shop Boys" were the first track on the album...

    By Anonymous esque, at 7:13 PM  

  • Sorry to comment after myself -- in the case of Judy, I'm not saying that we're all victims of the studio system. But there's something about not being able to live one's own life on one's own terms, represented by Judy's history with studio bosses, that makes her narrative portable.

    By Anonymous esque, at 7:16 PM  

  • As we know from all the debates about camp, its essence is famously elusive. But in my mind, camp performers do not in any simple way "let the audience know that s/he needs them," nor do camp performers ask audiences to identify with them -- and therefore the universality or "portability" of the performers' experiences isn't really important.

    That's because camp begins with knowing disavowal. When a drag queen does the wire hanger scene, it always looks like she is mocking Joan Crawford, but there is secretly (or not so secretly) a kind of idolation or identification between the drag queen and Joan. The camp is there as defense against the embarrassment of identifying with Joan. Since camp presents both possibilities (mockery and sincere love), it is in some sense self-contained. If the audience is invited to identify at all, it is with the gesture itself, in which something is simultaneously embraced and disowned. I think what the "thing" actually is -- the thing that is disowned and embraced -- is almost irrelevant; camp adheres to the gesture itself. In other words, when Robbie makes fun of his life during the 80s, I don't feel like I have to have led the same life. I only need to feel like there are also things in my life that I am embarrassed to feel so melodramatic about. The point of identification, that is to say, is in the style of being, not the being itself.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 4:39 PM  

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