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15 October 2022

How Robbie Williams became the ultimate British pop star

With his swaggering yet self-aware lyrics and rousing melodies, Robbie Williams is the king of laddish, early Noughties pub culture. Long may he reign.

By Lauren O'Neill

About halfway into Robbie Williams’s fifth album, 2003’s Escapology, there’s a track called “Handsome Man”. The song is solid gold Robbie – there is a lean in its shoulders; its bassline does not simply groove but swaggers. Its lyrics, as all his best do, play with his public image – and in mid-Noughties Britain, Robbie was sexy, self-aware and more famous than God.

“Handsome Man” is so full of zingers it could be a stand-up routine – “Have I gone up in the world/Or has the world go down on me?” Williams winks, forever walking the tightrope between pop and panto that is his alone – but there’s one line in particular that always stands out to me. Part way through the second verse, he sings “I’m the man who put the ‘Brit’/in ‘celebrity’”.

In 2002, Stoke-on-Trent-born Williams struck with EMI the biggest record deal in British history at the time – £80m for six albums, the first of which was Escapology. A figure like that, Alexis Petridis wrote for the Guardian at the time, “can’t be recouped – unless Williams achieves success in the US”.

The elusive goal of “breaking America” haunted many British musicians pre-social media. Another level of fame and glory was available to the chosen few that managed to catch the attention of US audiences: UK acts seemed small-time in comparison with glossy megastars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Williams – already very popular in continental Europe – was believed to be up to the challenge, however, and moved to Los Angeles to make Escapology in large part at studios across California.

The record is clearly influenced by both the surroundings and Williams’s ambition to crack the American market: “Revolution” is a bluesy and deeply self-indulgent duet with vocalist Rose Stone, while “Me and My Monkey” is a bizarre, Fear and Loathing-type night sweat set in the Vegas desert. Despite such pandering, American listeners couldn’t get on board. Williams’s British idiosyncrasies were apparently too irrepressible, his mammoth success in the UK too tethered to his status as a celebrity here, his mode of expression too tied up in both the golden feeling of being the drunkest, funniest person in the pub – not the “bar”, but resolutely the pub – and the biting regret of the morning after, when you’re alone with only a polystyrene tray of freezing cold chips next to you for company. Escapology peaked on the US Billboard Hot 200 at number 43. This is still the highest position Williams has ever reached on that chart.

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Ultimately, Williams was never going to crack America, despite the considerable wattage of his charisma (as Fergal Kinney writes for the Quietus, he is a figure who has always “transcended traditional notions of talent and competence”) and his status as Britain’s biggest popstar. In fact, it was precisely that status that kept him from making the jump. Williams’s Britishness is fundamental to his work – his heady singalong piano and guitar lines could only have emerged out of a nation that gets its kicks inside football stadiums and nightclubs. His Britishness has hamstrung him, but it is also what makes him great. No mainstream British male pop act has come close to exploring – embodying – the mores of his times to the extent that Robbie Williams did in the early Noughties.

[See also: Britney Spears and the girl industrial complex]

Robbie Williams has remained at the periphery of the British cultural imagination since the peak of his career – his spirit moves in the bottled mania that descends on a crowd of people at karaoke whenever someone does “Angels” (as if to prove my point, I was recently in the company of a Canadian friend-of-a-friend when this specific strain of dancing plague took hold: he was baffled, mate) – but in recent weeks he has returned to the foreground. This is ostensibly because he is currently taking a victory lap around the UK as he tours XXV, a greatest hits album featuring re-orchestrated versions of his biggest songs (he’ll also be the subject of an upcoming biopic and a Netflix documentary series). But maybe we’re retrospectively realising how much of a one-off he really is. In the UK, of course, Escapology was an enormous success. It was the best-selling record of the year, shifting 1.2 million copies in the UK, and it preceded his legendary three-night run at Knebworth House, where, between 1-3 August 2003, he played to a combined 375,000 people.

During his imperial phase – probably loosely defined as the period from 1999 until 2003, which saw him release Sing When You’re Winning, followed by his wildly popular covers album Swing When You’re Winning, and then Escapology – he was inescapable (another choice “Handsome Man” line: “It’s hard to be humble/When you’re so fucking big”). This fact is made more interesting when you consider that in their songs, Williams and his writing partner Guy Chambers were discussing topics like masculinity, vulnerability and mental illness in a manner that still feels disarming now, even in our “Time to Talk”-obsessed culture.

“My bed’s full of takeaways/And fantasies of easy lays/The pause button’s broke on my video”, Williams sings on 1999’s “Strong”, distilling the ennui of a single man in his late twenties (on the song’s mammoth chorus he simply states: “You think that I’m strong/You’re wrong”) in such a specifically British register. On the other end of the spectrum, the silliness of “Rock DJ” captures the slightly dark buzz of a night out on a UK high street. Flick a bit further through his discography and you land on “Feel”, which includes what is, quite simply, one of the great lyrics of all time: “I don’t wanna die/But I ain’t keen on living either”.

Listening to these songs, as ironic as they sometimes are, you also get the sense that Williams means what he is saying, and that the experiences he talks about so vividly, even when they are unflattering, are real. His audience’s lives were full of Bench T-shirts, indoor smoking, Page 3 spreads and Bacardi Breezers – but so was Robbie’s. Of course, while in some ways he embodied the harmful British machismo of the era – lads’ mag culture in all its sickness; Blairite eat-the-world consumerism – he was also a victim of it, openly damaged and imperfect, giving candid newspaper interviews about his struggles with addiction. Despite his wealth, he was relatable before relatability became both commodified and apparently impossible for celebrities to achieve. It’s a huge part of why his appeal has endured, especially held up against the sheen of popstars today.

It says a lot that his closest analogue on the current landscape is probably the distinctly unrelatable Harry Styles, another boy-band standout from the north of England whose musical ability is secondary to his charm, and who has also achieved success by embracing the fashionable masculinity of his day (for Styles this has meant androgynous dressing and a publicly deferential attitude). But the younger man has attained global stardom and LA cool by remaining vague, his lyrics atmospheric rather than sharp-edged, his accent meandering. Where Styles’s Britishness is indefinite, Williams’s remains defining. His brand of laddish Noughties bravado courses through everything from his lyrics to his proclivity for oversharing onstage, like someone holding court in a smoking area.

Robbie Williams – today 48, happily married and sober – is better off without the approval of the US. He has instead been elevated to national treasure status here, and will play to huge, adoring British and European audiences for as long as he wishes. He remains the patron saint of pub singers, the guardian angel of the end of the night – and the man who, without doubt, puts the “Brit” in “celebrity”.

[See also: “Don’t Worry Darling” review: A derivative let-down]

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