- The musician with the fattest recording contract in the world isn’t Eminem or Celine Dion. He doesn’t even have a hit in America. But his label is trying to break him here – and working against more than a decade of Anglophobia on the U.S. pop charts.
I was in the gym last week, watching TV on the treadmill, when a video by Robbie Williams came on. The song was “Millennium,” and seeing the 1999 clip made me instantly nostalgic for the late ’90s. It wasn’t just Y2K nostalgia; I was wistful for the relative innocence of that time. Just think, boy-band pop was so hot back then that Robbie’s label actually tried to break this cheeky Brit in America.
Virgin Records must be filled with gluttons for punishment, because they’re about to try again. In a way, they have to. EMI, Virgin’s parent company, just signed Williams to a deal so enormous – it’s valued at $80 million – that it probably will be profitable only if Robbie sells a few million records in the States. His latest record, Escapology, which has already topped charts across Europe, will be out in the States next month.
Who is this guy? Williams, 29, could be called the British David Hasselhoff – a music star in Europe, a curiosity here – but then he doesn’t have a TV career to fall back on. More accurate to call Robbie the 21st Century Cliff Richard, a golden boy of British pop whose appeal may never translate across the Atlantic. He’s a veteran of early-’90s boy band Take That. He sings in a loutish, nasal voice with traces of cockney; half the contestants on American Idol would flatten him in a head-to-head vocal competition. Even in England, he wasn’t expected to amount to much – his colleagues in Take That were better-looking and had stronger voices. Yet Robbie became the solo star. His appeal lies in his laddish, cheeky attitude, two parts randy footballer to one part young Sean Connery.
Since breaking away from Take That in 1996, Robbie has sold tens of millions of CDs across Europe. In the U.S., only one of his discs has gone gold (a half-million copies), and EMI spent so much money promoting that record in 1999 that it couldn’t have been profitable.
Why didn’t the album do better in the States? Maybe it was the title: The Ego Has Landed.
So much for wry U.K. humor. Indeed, no artist better exemplifies the chasm between European and American tastes than Robbie Williams – as if we needed another reminder. On the surface, it’s a mystery why he didn’t catch on here. He doesn’t have a great voice. But then, neither does Jennifer Lopez, and like J. Lo, Robbie is sold more for his star quality than his skill. And he’s hardly the first arrogant pop star. U.S. rock stars and especially rappers are consistently rewarded for their bravado. (Only in country music is humility a required character trait.) Clearly, Robbie is just too British. A handful of U.K. acts have scored here recently after a long drought – Craig David, Coldplay – but these acts promoted themselves in America as being un-British. Being big in Europe is practically a strike against you in the States these days, and Robbie’s brand of so-smarmy-I’m-cool just doesn’t appeal to U.S. audiences.
I reviewed The Ego Has Landed for CMJ in 1999, and Robbie won me over. I’m an Anglophile to begin with, but the shamelessly hooky music really appealed to me. The album was actually a U.S. compilation of two previous British albums, which didn’t hurt. Obviously, they selected the strongest songs – shameless radio-pop, a few rockers, some surprisingly good ballads. More importantly, I guess, I “got” Robbie – he’s no Monty Python in the wit category, but he’s charming, and his lyrics are solipsistic (”Every morning, when I wake up/I look like KISS, but without the makeup”) in a way that’s both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. I wanted him to succeed.
In a promotional coup, Robbie won a performing slot on the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, a show that doesn’t even have many musical performances. I was looking forward to his appearance, thinking this was the ideal, glitzy forum for his grabby pop. But even I could see that he blew it. He walked out in a tux, with a gun-shaped microphone and the James Bond theme playing in the background. Fine, Americans know James Bond (so great is Robbie’s U.K. popularity that there are rumors there that he may take over the role from Pierce Brosnan someday). The problem was Williams’s smirky attitude – he looked like a frat boy who thought he was the life of someone else’s party. As he launched into his not-quite-hit “Millennium,” he pranced around the stage, surrounded by leggy tarts. You could tell that this was his trademark act – master of ceremonies, charming rogue – and it had worked great at London arenas; but on the MTV show, it sucked the energy out of the room. It didn’t help that Robbie’s voice was especially wobbly. Or that he was the oldest-looking 25-year-old I’d ever seen, balding rapidly, with deep creases on his forehead.
After the MTV showcase, Robbie remained unbroken in America. A few of his songs made top 40 radio – the ballad “Angels” did particularly well in certain U.S. cities – but it largely amounted to naught.
No wonder EMI wants to pretend Operation Break Robbie I never happened. Don’t be surprised if you hear Robbie’s songs bullied onto the airwaves and MTV in the next few months. Whether it will translate into sales and popularity this time is an open question. I basically feel like the ship has sailed for Robbie Williams in America. I’m a big fan of the polish and wit of modern U.K. pop, but I’m no longer convinced that this wanna-be Bond will be its U.S. emissary.