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Monday, September 18, 2006

Actually The Benny Hill Analogy Doesn't Work. This Time.
While we're myth-busting (1) here, let's get another thing clear: Robbie Williams' distinct lack of success in the only country that really matters is not the result of a profound cultural schism. This is not a question of greatness being lost in translation. This is not somehow the fault of the American revolution. No, the truth is somehow scarier than that.

With all due respect to Kazzer, Robbie Williams is the great, lost pop star of our generation. To use a crude sports term, the man is a genetic freak. Some sort of perfect Chris-Martin-Justin-Timberlake hybrid (though he existed, in the pop culture sense, before both). If Timbaland or Jay-Z had ever feigned interest in him, he would have even rendered Timberlake's creation unnecessary.

Alas, he lost his marbles, cut a gratuitously weird video and blew his one chance at North American stardom. But it was never that he was British. If James Blunt - arguably one of the least attractive pop stars in recent memory - can get on Oprah, almost anyone can (3). In fact, I suspect that, to use a crude sports term, Robbie just never wanted it enough. If he'd really wanted to, he surely could have been set up with some major American actress or another, been introduced to, at the very least, Jermaine Dupri and subsequently lost all traces of his accent (4). All that's easy enough to do.

But what's seemingly obvious is that Robbie got his fame (5), got his money, found a sufficient supply of groupies and said to himself, "Sure, I could be making babies with Gwyneth Paltrow right now, but, you know what? I think I'm satisfied." This is not necessarily a bad thing. Save for the fact that when you're, say, a pop star or a professional athlete or anything that other non-pop-star, non-pro-athlete people aspire to be and consider to represent a charmed existence.

This is, instead, the least acceptable thing he could have done. You can do a lot of things and still be accepted as great. If you're so inclined you can even marry your 13-year-old cousin. In fact, you should probably at least consider marrying your 13-year-old cousin because, God knows, there are probably at least a few people who would like to do same (6) and they will surely, if quietly, admire you for enjoying the sort of reckless freedom they can only dream about when they're not attending NASCAR races (7). If you're trying to conquer America and your choices are: A) Stop trying or B) Marry your 13-year-old cousin, the correct answer is rather obvious.

Simply put, the people who aren't listening to you don't want to feel like you don't care about their lack of caring. This - not recreational drug use, not an inability to hit a mid-range jumper - is what gets most pro athletes in trouble and, subsequently, dooms Robbie Williams. Granted, it's a fine line. You have to be able to act like you don't care what anyone thinks of you, while simultaneously demonstrating that you physically need people to pay attention to and secretly long to enjoy your level of privilege. This is, for one, why Shakira has done as well as she has - because it's so obvious how much she wants it (never mind how much others want her to have it).

The only thing that can save Robbie Williams now is a distinct lack of Robbie Williams. So long as he's more or less alive and more or less in control of his own legacy, he will more or less undermine himself. But once he's out of the way, or at least faded from memory, other musicians and various influential writers can make up for his own lack of trying with their own efforts to reassess, reappreciate and reimagine. Suddenly, Robbie will get the benefit of the doubt. Of course, his hopes of conquering America will have past, but he'll probably end up with the best reviewed record of 2025. Especially if he's dead, or at least near-death, by then.

And that is the second rule of pop music: time renders all mistakes forgiven. Be it marrying your 13-year-old cousin or, worse, not caring enough to marry your 13-year-old cousin.

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(1) Arguably my favourite show on television. There, I said it. Why isn't this show a hipster favourite on par with Iron Chef or Flavor of Love or Celebrity Mole Hawaii (2)?
(2) What do you mean Celebrity Mole Hawaii wasn't a hipster favourite?
(3) Not quite enough is made of Blunt's improbable success as that rare creature, the truly unattractive pop star. Spare me your Ashlee Simpson jokes.
(4) If you can find a copy, go listen to Coldplay's Blue Room EP, one of their earlier recordings. Note that the singer sounds British.
(5) Albeit non-American fame and, therefore, not really fame at all.
(6) Yes, yes, there's a joke there about some southern state or another. Feel free to make your own.
(7) All right, there you go. Satisfied?

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