Welcome to the Robbiedome

Robbie Williams and a sick masculinity

How to Cite

Brabazon, T. (2001). Welcome to the Robbiedome: Robbie Williams and a sick masculinity. M/C Journal, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1907
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

One of the greatest joys in watching Foxtel is to see all the crazy people who run talk shows. Judgement, ridicule and generalisations slip from their tongues like overcooked lamb off a bone. From Oprah to Rikki, from Jerry to Mother Love, the posterior of pop culture claims a world-wide audience. Recently, a new talk diva was added to the pay television stable. Dr Laura Schlessinger, the Mother of Morals, prowls the soundstage. attacking 'selfish acts' such as divorce, de facto relationships and voting Democrat. On April 11, 2001, a show aired in Australia that added a new demon to the decadence of the age. Dr Laura had been told that a disgusting video clip, called 'Rock DJ', had been televised at 2:30pm on MTV. Children could have been watching. The footage that so troubled our doyenne of daytime featured the British performer Robbie Williams not only stripping in front of disinterested women, but then removing skin, muscle and tissue in a desperate attempt to claim their gaze. This was too much for Dr Laura. She was horrified: her strident tone became piercing. She screeched, "this is si-ee-ck." . My paper is drawn to this sick masculinity, not to judge - but to laugh and theorise. Robbie Williams, the deity of levity, holds a pivotal role in theorising the contemporary 'crisis' of manhood.

To paraphrase Austin Powers, Williams returned the ger to singer. But Williams also triumphed in a captivatingly original way. He is one of the few members of a boy band who created a successful solo career without regurgitating the middle of the road mantras of boys, girls, love, loss and whining about it. Williams' journey through post-war popular music, encompassing influences from both Sinatra and Sonique, forms a functional collage, rather than patchwork, of masculinity. He has been prepared to not only age in public, but to discuss the crevices and cracks in the facade. He strips, smokes, plays football, wears interesting underwear and drinks too much. My short paper trails behind this combustible masculinity, focussing on his sorties with both masculine modalities and the rock discourse. My words attack the gap between text and readership, beat and ear, music and men. The aim is to reveal how this 'sick masculinity' problematises the conservative rendering of men's crisis.

Come follow me

I'm an honorary Sean Connery, born '74
There's only one of me …
Press be asking do I care for sodomy
I don't know, yeah, probably
I've been looking for serial monogamy
Not some bird that looks like Billy Connolly
But for now I'm down for ornithology
Grab your binoculars, come follow me.

'Kids,' Robbie Williams

Robbie Williams is a man for our age. Between dating supermodels and Geri 'Lost Spice' Halliwell [1], he has time to "love … his mum and a pint," (Ansen 85) but also subvert the Oasis cock(rock)tail by frocking up for a television appearance. Williams is important to theories of masculine representation. As a masculinity to think with, he creates popular culture with a history. In an era where Madonna practices yoga and wears cowboy boots, it is no surprise that by June 2000, Robbie Williams was voted the world's sexist man [2]. A few months later, in the October edition of Vogue, he posed in a British flag bikini. It is reassuring in an era where a 12 year old boy states that "You aren't a man until you shoot at something," (Issac in Mendel 19) that positive male role models exist who are prepared to both wear a frock and strip on national television.

Reading Robbie Williams is like dipping into the most convincing but draining of intellectual texts. He is masculinity in motion, conveying foreignness, transgression and corruption, bartering in the polymorphous economies of sex, colonialism, race, gender and nation. His career has spanned the boy bands, try-hard rock, video star and hybrid pop performer. There are obvious resonances between the changes to Williams and alterations in masculinity. In 1988, Suzanne Moore described (the artist still known as) Prince as "the pimp of postmodernism." (165-166) Over a decade later, the simulacra has a new tour guide. Williams revels in the potency of representation. He rarely sings about love or romance, as was his sonic fodder in Take That. Instead, his performance is fixated on becoming a better man, glancing an analytical eye over other modes of masculinity.

Notions of masculine crisis and sickness have punctuated this era. Men's studies is a boom area of cultural studies, dislodging the assumed structures of popular culture [3]. William Pollack's Real Boys has created a culture of changing expectations for men. The greater question arising from his concerns is why these problems, traumas and difficulties are emerging in our present. Pollack's argument is that boys and young men invest energy and time "disguising their deepest and most vulnerable feelings." (15) This masking is difficult to discern within dance and popular music. Through lyrics and dancing, videos and choreography, masculinity is revealed as convoluted, complex and fragmented. While rock music is legitimised by dominant ideologies, marginalised groups frequently use disempowered genres - like country, dance and rap genres - to present oppositional messages. These competing representations expose seamless interpretations of competent masculinity.

Particular skills are necessary to rip the metaphoric pacifier out of the masculine mouth of popular culture. Patriarchal pop revels in the paradoxes of everyday life. Frequently these are nostalgic visions, which Kimmel described as a "retreat to a bygone era." (87) It is the recognition of a shared, simpler past that provides reinforcement to heteronormativity. Williams, as a gaffer tape masculinity, pulls apart the gaps and crevices in representation. Theorists must open the interpretative space encircling popular culture, disrupting normalising criteria.

Multiple nodes of assessment allow a ranking of competent masculinity. From sport to business, drinking to sex, masculinity is transformed into a wired site of ranking, judgement and determination. Popular music swims in the spectacle of maleness. From David Lee Roth's skied splits to Eminem's beanie, young men are interpellated as subjects in patriarchy. Robbie Williams is a history lesson in post war masculinity. This nostalgia is conservative in nature. The ironic pastiche within his music videos features motor racing, heavy metal and Bond films.

'Rock DJ', the 'sick text' that vexed Doctor Laura, is Williams' most elaborate video. Set in a rollerdrome with female skaters encircling a central podium, the object of fascination and fetish is a male stripper. This strip is different though, as it disrupts the power held by men in phallocentralism. After being confronted by Williams' naked body, the observing women are both bored and disappointed at the lack-lustre deployment of masculine genitalia. After this display, Williams appears embarrassed, confused and humiliated. As Buchbinder realised, "No actual penis could every really measure up to the imagined sexual potency and social or magical power of the phallus." (49) To render this banal experience of male nudity ridiculous, Williams then proceeds to remove skin and muscle. He finally becomes an object of attraction for the female DJ only in skeletal form. By 'going all the way,' the strip confirms the predictability of masculinity and the ordinariness of the male body. For literate listeners though, a higher level of connotation is revealed. The song itself is based on Barry White's melody for 'It's ecstasy (when you lay down next to me).' Such intertextuality accesses the meta-racist excesses of a licentious black male sexuality. A white boy dancer must deliver an impotent, but ironic, rendering of White's (love unlimited) orchestration of potent sexuality. Williams' iconography and soundtrack is refreshing, emerging from an era of "men who cling … tightly to their illusions." (Faludi 14) When the ideological drapery is cut away, the male body is a major disappointment. Masculinity is an anxious performance. Fascinatingly, this deconstructive video has been demeaned through its labelling as pornography [4]. Oddly, a man who is prepared to - literally - shave the skin of masculinity is rendered offensive.

Men's studies, like feminism, has been defrocking masculinity for some time. Robinson for example, expressed little sympathy for "whiny men jumping on the victimisation bandwagon or playing cowboys and Indians at warrior weekends and beating drums in sweat lodges." (6) By grating men's identity back to the body, the link between surface and depth - or identity and self - is forged. 'Rock DJ' attacks the new subjectivities of the male body by not only generating self-surveillance, but humour through the removal of clothes, skin and muscle. He continues this play with the symbols of masculine performance throughout the album Sing when you're winning. Featuring soccer photographs of players, coaches and fans, closer inspection of the images reveal that Robbie Williams is actually every character, in every role.

His live show also enfolds diverse performances. Singing a version of 'My Way,' with cigarette in tow, he remixes Frank Sinatra into a replaying and recutting of masculine fabric. He follows one dominating masculinity with another: the Bond-inspired 'Millennium.'

Some say that we are players
Some say that we are pawns
But we've been making money
Since the day we were born

Robbie Williams is comfortably located in a long history of post-Sinatra popular music. He mocks the rock ethos by combining guitars and drums with a gleaming brass section, hailing the lounge act of Dean Martin, while also using rap and dance samples.

Although carrying fifty year's of crooner baggage, the spicy scent of homosexuality has also danced around Robbie Williams' career. Much of this ideology can be traced back to the Take That years. As Gary Barlow and Jason Orange commented at the time,

Jason: So the rumour is we're all gay now are we?
Gary: Am I gay? I am? Why? Oh good. Just as long as we know.
Howard: Does anyone think I'm gay?
Jason: No, you're the only one people think is straight.
Howard: Why aren't I gay? What's wrong with me?
Jason: It's because you're such a fine figure of macho manhood.(Kadis 17)

For those not literate in the Take That discourse, it should come as no surprise that Howard was the TT equivalent of The Beatle's Ringo Starr or Duran Duran's Andy Taylor. Every boy band requires the ugly, shy member to make the others appear taller and more attractive. The inference of this dialogue is that the other members of the group are simply too handsome to be heterosexual. This ambiguous sexuality has followed Williams into his solo career, becoming fodder for those lads too unappealing to be homosexual: Oasis.

Born to be mild

I seem to spend my life
Just waiting for the chorus
'Cause the verse is never nearly
Good enough

Robbie Williams "Singing for the lonely."

Robbie Williams accesses a bigger, brighter and bolder future than Britpop. While the Gallagher brothers emulate and worship the icons of 1960s British music - from the Beatles' haircuts to the Stones' psychedelia - Williams' songs, videos and persona are chattering in a broader cultural field. From Noel Cowardesque allusions to the ordinariness of pub culture, Williams is much more than a pretty-boy singer. He has become an icon of English masculinity, enclosing all the complexity that these two terms convey.

Williams' solo success from 1999-2001 occurred at the time of much parochial concern that British acts were not performing well in the American charts. It is bemusing to read Billboard over this period. The obvious quality of Britney Spears is seen to dwarf the mediocrity of British performers. The calibre of Fatboy Slim, carrying a smiley backpack stuffed with reflexive dance culture, is neither admitted nor discussed. It is becoming increasing strange to monitor the excessive fame of Williams in Britain, Europe, Asia and the Pacific when compared to his patchy career in the United States. Even some American magazines are trying to grasp the disparity.

The swaggering king of Britpop sold a relatively measly 600,000 copies of his U.S. debut album, The ego has landed … Maybe Americans didn't appreciate his songs about being famous. (Ask Dr. Hip 72)

In the first few years of the 2000s, it has been difficult to discuss a unified Anglo-American musical formation. Divergent discursive frameworks have emerged through this British evasion. There is no longer an agreed centre to the musical model.

Throughout 1990s Britain, blackness jutted out of dance floor mixes, from reggae to dub, jazz and jungle. Plied with the coldness of techno was an almost too hot hip hop. Yet both were alternate trajectories to Cool Britannia. London once more became swinging, or as Vanity Fair declared, "the nerve centre of pop's most cohesive scene since the Pacific Northwest grunge explosion of 1991." (Kamp 102) Through Britpop, the clock turned back to the 1960s, a simpler time before race became 'a problem' for the nation. An affiliation was made between a New Labour, formed by the 1997 British election, and the rebirth of a Swinging London [5]. This style-driven empire supposedly - again - made London the centre of the world.

Britpop was itself a misnaming. It was a strong sense of Englishness that permeated the lyrics, iconography and accent. Englishness requires a Britishness to invoke a sense of bigness and greatness. The contradictions and excesses of Blur, Oasis and Pulp resonate in the gap between centre and periphery, imperial core and colonised other. Slicing through the arrogance and anger of the Gallaghers is a yearning for colonial simplicity, when the pink portions of the map were the stable subjects of geography lessons, rather than the volatile embodiment of postcolonial theory. Simon Gikandi argues that "the central moments of English cultural identity were driven by doubts and disputes about the perimeters of the values that defined Englishness." (x) The reason that Britpop could not 'make it big' in the United States is because it was recycling an exhausted colonial dreaming. Two old Englands were duelling for ascendancy: the Oasis-inflected Manchester working class fought Blur-inspired London art school chic. This insular understanding of difference had serious social and cultural consequences. The only possible representation of white, British youth was a tabloidisation of Oasis's behaviour through swearing, drug excess and violence. Simon Reynolds realised that by

returning to the three minute pop tune that the milkman can whistle, reinvoking parochial England with no black people, Britpop has turned its back defiantly on the future.

Fortunately, another future had already happened. The beats per minute were pulsating with an urgent affirmation of change, hybridity and difference. Hip hop and techno mapped a careful cartography of race. While rock was colonialisation by other means, hip hop enacted a decolonial imperative.

Electronic dance music provided a unique rendering of identity throughout the 1990s. It was a mode of musical communication that moved across national and linguistic boundaries, far beyond Britpop or Stateside rock music. While the Anglo American military alliance was matched and shadowed by postwar popular culture, Brit-pop signalled the end of this hegemonic formation. From this point, English pop and American rock would not sail as smoothly over the Atlantic. While 1995 was the year of Wonderwall, by 1996 the Britpop bubble corroded the faces of the Gallagher brothers. Oasis was unable to complete the American tour. Yet other cultural forces were already active. 1996 was also the year of Trainspotting, with "Born Slippy" being the soundtrack for a blissful journey under the radar. This was a cultural force that no longer required America as a reference point [6].

Robbie Williams was able to integrate the histories of Britpop and dance culture, instigating a complex dialogue between the two. Still, concern peppered music and entertainment journals that British performers were not accessing 'America.' As Sharon Swart stated

Britpop acts, on the other hand, are finding it less easy to crack the U.S. market. The Spice Girls may have made some early headway, but fellow purveyors of pop, such as Robbie Williams, can't seem to get satisfaction from American fans. (35

British performers had numerous cultural forces working against them. Flat global sales, the strength of the sterling and the slow response to the new technological opportunities of DVD, all caused problems. While Britpop "cleaned house," (Boehm 89) it was uncertain which cultural formation would replace this colonising force. Because of the complex dialogues between the rock discourse and dance culture, time and space were unable to align into a unified market. American critics simply could not grasp Robbie Williams' history, motives or iconography.

It's Robbie's world, we just buy tickets for it. Unless, of course you're American and you don't know jack about soccer. That's the first mistake Williams makes - if indeed one of his goals is to break big in the U.S. (and I can't believe someone so ambitious would settle for less.) … Americans, it seems, are most fascinated by British pop when it presents a mirror image of American pop. (Woods 98

There is little sense that an entirely different musical economy now circulates, where making it big in the United States is not the singular marker of credibility. Williams' demonstrates commitment to the international market, focussing on MTV Asia, MTV online, New Zealand and Australian audiences [7].

The Gallagher brothers spent much of the 1990s trying to be John Lennon. While Noel, at times, knocked at the door of rock legends through "Wonderwall," he snubbed Williams' penchant for pop glory, describing him as a "fat dancer." (Gallagher in Orecklin 101) Dancing should not be decried so summarily. It conveys subtle nodes of bodily knowledge about men, women, sex and desire. While men are validated for bodily movement through sport, women's dancing remains a performance of voyeuristic attention. Such a divide is highly repressive of men who dance, with gayness infiltrating the metaphoric masculine dancefloor [8].

Too often the binary of male and female is enmeshed into the divide of rock and dance. Actually, these categories slide elegantly over each other. The male pop singers are located in a significant semiotic space. Robbie Williams carries these contradictions and controversy.

NO! Robbie didn't go on NME's cover in a 'desperate' attempt to seduce nine-year old knickerwetters … YES! He used to be teenybopper fodder. SO WHAT?! So did the Beatles the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, etc blah blah pseudohistoricalrockbollocks. NO! Making music that gurlz like is NOT a crime! (Wells 62)

There remains an uncertainty in his performance of masculinity and at times, a deliberate ambivalence. He grafts subversiveness into a specific lineage of English pop music. The aim for critics of popular music is to find a way to create a rhythm of resistance, rather than melody of credible meanings. In summoning an archaeology of the archive, we begin to write a popular music history.

Suzanne Moore asked why men should "be interested in a sexual politics based on the frightfully old-fashioned ideas of truth, identity and history?" (175) The reason is now obvious. Femininity is no longer alone on the simulacra. It is impossible to separate real men from the representations of masculinity that dress the corporeal form. Popular music is pivotal, not for collapsing the representation into the real, but for making the space between these states livable, and pleasurable. Like all semiotic sicknesses, the damaged, beaten and bandaged masculinity of contemporary music swaddles a healing pedagogic formation. Robbie Williams enables the writing of a critical history of post Anglo-American music [9]. Popular music captures such stories of place and identity. Significantly though, it also opens out spaces of knowing. There is an investment in rhythm that transgresses national histories of music. While Williams has produced albums, singles, video and endless newspaper copy, his most important revelations are volatile and ephemeral in their impact. He increases the popular cultural vocabulary of masculinity.

[1] The fame of both Williams and Halliwell was at such a level that it was reported in the generally conservative, pages of Marketing. The piece was titled "Will Geri's fling lose its fizz?" Marketing, August 2000: 17.

[2] For poll results, please refer to "Winners and Losers," Time International, Vol. 155, Issue 23, June 12, 2000, 9

[3] For a discussion of this growth in academic discourse on masculinity, please refer to Paul Smith's "Introduction," in P. Smith (ed.), Boys: Masculinity in contemporary culture. Colorado: Westview Press, 1996.

[4] Steve Futterman described Rock DJ as the "least alluring porn video on MTV," in "The best and worst: honour roll," Entertainment Weekly 574-575 (December 22-December 29 2000): 146.

[5] Michael Bracewell stated that "pop provides an unofficial cartography of its host culture, charting the national mood, marking the crossroads between the major social trends and the tunnels of the zeitgeist," in "Britpop's coming home, it's coming home." New Statesman .(February 21 1997): 36.

[6] It is important to make my point clear. The 'America' that I am summoning here is a popular cultural formation, which possesses little connection with the territory, institution or defence initiatives of the United States. Simon Frith made this distinction clear, when he stated that "the question becomes whether 'America' can continue to be the mythical locale of popular culture as it has been through most of this century. As I've suggested, there are reasons now to suppose that 'America' itself, as a pop cultural myth, no longer bears much resemblance to the USA as a real place even in the myth." This statement was made in "Anglo-America and its discontents," Cultural Studies 5 1991: 268.

[7] To observe the scale of attention paid to the Asian and Pacific markets, please refer to http://robbiewilliams.com/july13scroll.html, http://robbiewilliams.com/july19scroll.html and http://robbiewilliams.com/july24scroll.html, accessed on March 3, 2001

[8] At its most naïve, J. Michael Bailey and Michael Oberschneider asked, "Why are gay men so motivated to dance? One hypothesis is that gay men dance in order to be feminine. In other words, gay men dance because women do. An alternative hypothesis is that gay men and women share a common factor in their emotional make-up that makes dancing especially enjoyable," from "Sexual orientation in professional dance," Archives of Sexual Behaviour. 26.4 (August 1997). Such an interpretation is particularly ludicrous when considering the pre-rock and roll masculine dancing rituals in the jive, Charleston and jitterbug. Once more, the history of rock music is obscuring the history of dance both before the mid 1950s and after acid house.

[9] Women, gay men and black communities through much of the twentieth century have used these popular spaces. For example, Lynne Segal, in Slow Motion. London: Virago, 1990, stated that "through dancing, athletic and erotic performance, but most powerfully through music, Black men could express something about the body and its physicality, about emotions and their cosmic reach, rarely found in white culture - least of all in white male culture,": 191

Author Biography

Tara Brabazon