Everything for Everyone

The packaging of Sing When You're Winning, the second North American release from British superhero Robbie Williams, presents a series of stills that look like scenes from a British football (er, soccer) fantasy, in which every character is Robbie: home team, opponents, referee, coach, cops, fans in the loo, drunken lout at the bar. The implied message here seems to be: 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). His second mistake is in rapping all comic and Cockney on Sing's first single, "Rock DJ"—Phil Daniels didn't get away with it in Blur's "Parklife," nor did Ian Dury in "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3," nor Captain Sensible in "Wot." Americans, it seems, are most fascinated by British pop when it presents a mirror image of American pop; it's not as significant that the Beatles and Stones stole from American sources as it is that they masked their own accents enough so you couldn't—initially, anyway—tell the difference.

Beyond those two nagging concerns, Williams has enormous potential to take over not just America, but the entire planet. Every pop musician in the world these days consumes genres and styles termite-like, but Williams is that rare breed with outward cross-cultural, cross-genre appeal: a former teen popper (he was a member of Take That, a mid-'90s U.K. sensation with one U.S. hit, "Back for Good") who still sends young girls into fits of ecstasy; a classic song stylist with middlebrow charm for moms and dads who still harbor fond memories of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; a beefed-up hetero with undeniable homo rumor mill (is he or isn't he?) possibilities; a white pop star with just enough romanticism and rhythm to lure the same type of black audience that once upon a time turned out in droves for his idol George Michael; a cocky lad with credibility among Oasis fans who admire the attitude, and—so long as he limits it to interviews—the funny accent.

Of course, all this could work against Williams—in America, it maybe already has. Though he scored a minor hit single in 1999 with "Angels," Sing When You're Winninghas, after just a few weeks, dropped off Billboard's Top 200 (highest chart position: 110). The danger in being all things to all people is that you end up being nothing to nobody, and in the tight demographic requirements of the American airwaves, Williams isn't multigenre so much as he's—at least in the perception of tightwad programmers—genreless. Not hard enough for Alternative, not jiggy enough for Urban, too brash for AC, too poncey for AOR, too old for Radio Disney.

The even worse danger in all-things-to-all-people is that you end up stuck in the middle of the road, and for this reason, Williams will have a difficult time wowing American critics. "Rock DJ" is symptomatic of the problem. The first dozen times I heard the song I assumed he was singing, "I don't want a rock DJ." Just another "rock's dead, let's dance" proclamation? A glance at the lyric sheet suggests otherwise: What Williams actually sings is "I don't wanna rock, DJ." The difference between not wanting a rock DJ and not wanting to rock (insert comma) DJ, is major, and if you have the gall to shout, "I don't wanna rock" in your chorus, you'd better do something interesting with it—like maybe rock especially hard.

So Williams comes up a little short on that one (albeit important) musical function, but there are a lot of other things he can do. All across Sing, he cruises mindlessly through riffs and gestures: the Beatles ("Let Love Be Your Energy" wrings guitar notes out of "Dear Prudence"), Beck (the central hook in "Forever Texas" is from "Where It's At"), Nick Drake (the wistful opening of "The Road to Mandalay" has "Volkswagen ad" written all over it). "Supreme" (in two versions, English and French) is a clever, dramatically arranged rewrite of "I Will Survive," that campiest of disco anthems; "Better Man" (also done in bilingual takes—he must really like his Canadian fans!) is a power ballad that'll make everyone but Bon Jovi and Poison fans wince.

But it's when Williams imitates George Michael that he most jells, even if the resemblance borders on eerie. "Kids," a spirited, trashy duet with Kylie Minogue, has a "Freedom '90" bongo beat and vocally exhumes "I Want Your Sex"; it even flaunts a lyrical nod to "serial monogamy" (do you think he stenciled that on Kylie's back in the studio?). And no one with ears for prettiness could resist his dusky "Father Figure" falsetto in the ballads "If It's Hurting You" and "Love Calling Earth."

So maybe Robbie'll win America over with a sweet slowdance—nothing wrong with that, is there? Or maybe, given his own fixation on his Britishness, that's really nota concern. You can be sure that regardless of whether or not he cracks Carson Daly, he'll go about the business of being a pop star anyway; like his immediate predecessors in British superpop, Oasis and the Spice Girls (whom, musically and philosophically, he's perched smack-dab in the center of), Williams was declaring himself one practically before he was out of his diapers. So why stop now?

 
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