The World’s Most Handsome Man?
Why Robbie Williams Will Never Conquer America

Well, I did something this weekend I thought I’d never do again. Desperation, I’ve found, leads men down shameful paths, and the lure of money is a strong one indeed. I am rather embarrassed to admit this, but I succumbed to its siren call on Saturday, plunging into a situation I thought I had left behind for good three years ago.

Yes, it’s true. I worked in a grocery store.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is not virgin territory for me. I jockeyed a register for 10 years or so, and shuttled from the front end to the produce department for a couple more, to supplement the income of a poor college student (none) and, later, that of a starving magazine editor (slightly more, but only slightly). Despite the interesting people I met there (Hi Megs, Hi Alley), I hated virtually every second of that job, and so walking back into a supermarket environment was amusingly dreadful.

I only worked for six hours, through Manpower, doing what supermarkets call a demo. I had a table, some plastic cups, and an assortment of store brand products, and I graciously handed out these samples to unsuspecting, hungry customers. The hardest part was saying the names of these store brand products without letting irony creep into my voice. For instance, the store brand version of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal is hilariously named Cinni-Mini Crunch. Honestly, try this: say that out loud, right now. Cinni-Mini Crunch. You laughed a bit, didn’t you? It’s nearly impossible to say with a straight face.

I told you that story to tell you this one. Wandering the store at the same time as my scheduled demo was the Easter Bunny, resplendent in matted white fur and creepy-looking mesh eyes which probably didn’t allow the guy sweating profusely inside the costume a whole lot of air. Or, for that matter, a whole lot of vision. Which was probably for the best, considering his aisle-wandering companion.

It seems that the Easter Bunny couldn’t handle walking around and handing out chocolates to kids by himself, so he thought he’d invite his incredibly hot and apparently clothes-allergic girlfriend to walk around with him. Seriously, imagine Carmen Electra dressing like Christina Aguilera and you’ve got the gist. I couldn’t help but wonder, because that’s the kind of guy I am, how parents were explaining this pairing to their children. “Look, kids, it’s the Easter Bunny, and his, um, trashy whore…”

Or how about this: “Her? She’s Mrs. Bunny.” Uh huh. First name “Humpslikea,” by any chance?

Still, provided interesting scenery, I must say. And I promised myself on my way out that I’d never come to work in a supermarket again, and this time, I meant it.

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Robbie Williams is a superstar in his native Britain, and in fact in most of the world. His fifth album, Escapology, just dashed expectations by premiering at number 46 or so in America, likely scrapping Williams’ long-discussed plans to make a major stateside push this year. So far, that push has included an appearance on MTV Cribs, and that’s about it. The funny thing is that the folks in Williams’ camp and at Virgin Records seem surprised by Escapology’s flop, when in truth, there’s nothing surprising about it.

Robbie Williams will never be popular in America. End of story.

Oh, sure, he’ll probably have another moment of radio glory like he did in 1999 with “Millennium,” from his U.S. debut The Ego Has Landed. But the kind of celebrity he’s enjoying across the Atlantic? Never happen here, and I’ll tell you why. Two words: Freddie Mercury.

Most people who remember Queen only remember the late ’70s stuff – “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You” – and have likely forgotten that they soldiered on through the ’80s, producing several decent albums’ worth of gloriously excessive pop music. Those hoping for another Night at the Opera got “Radio Ga-Ga” and “Hammer to Fall” instead, earnestly corny numbers fronted by Freddie Mercury’s increasingly flamboyant and hammy voice. The final straw for America was the band’s 1984 video for “I Want to Break Free,” which found the boys vamping in drag.

See, the problem was that Queen (and especially Mercury) had embraced their proclivity for pure camp, a level of humor that the Brits love and the Americans don’t quite get, for the most part. Those Monty Python sketches with Eric Idle in a dress? Camp. Need I even mention The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Tim Curry is the very soul of camp.

But camp in America means airings on PBS, and midnight showings attended by people who never, ever listen to the radio. American humor is very different – it’s usually about people getting cut down, and usually features only the mocking and the mocked. Camp humor has no targets, only silly people fully embracing their own silliness. What most campy performers don’t realize when they come to America is that if they don’t provide a target for their humor, we’ll simply assume the performer himself is the target, and point and laugh and mock.

And I think it’s because in some way, we need to respect our performers. Most rap is about respect, for example, and about presenting the appearance of badassness. (Or is it badassitude? Badassitivity?) The public would probably have a hard time with the idea that most gangsta rappers have never even held a gun. Even fringe element rebellion is repackaged, shot in flattering lights and given right back to us, and we’re so ready to respect Avril Lavigne for her so-called punk attitude that we wouldn’t know what to make of genuine punk like the Clash. (A band of whom, by the way, little Avril has never heard.)

So when an entertainer goes out of his or her way to make an ass of him or herself, no matter how knowingly, we tend to lose that respect. It happened to Mercury, and my bet is it’s happening right now to Robbie Williams. Furthering the connection, does anyone remember that Freddie had a solo album in the late ’80s called Mr. Bad Guy? It was a huge, silly record that sailed blithely over the top, preening and emoting all the while, and it flopped big time over here. And it’s an album upon which Williams seems to have patterned his whole career.

Escapology is just like every other Williams album, and just like Mr. Bad Guy – it’s a hooky slab of campy excess with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, in an irreverently British sort of way, but there’s nothing tough or badass about it. Williams would rather wink at you and mock himself than affect a believable pose, and that’s what’s going to kill him over here.

Normally, you understand, I wouldn’t care so much about an artist’s popularity, but Williams seems so concerned with it, and he’s really tried his best on this album to craft a smash hit. Problem is, what flies in Britain is relegated to the cutout bin here. Opener and first single “Feel,” for example, pulses on a decidedly Pet Shop Boys beat and piano figure, and they haven’t had an American hit since 1988. “Monsoon” is right out of the ’80s Queen handbook, and “Revolution” is almost a Rick Astley-style blue-eyed soul number. It’s all good stuff, but it’s not going to topple Justin Timberlake from the top of the charts.

One of Williams’ most endearing and hilarious qualities is his take on his own fame, a recurring theme on Escapology. Unfortunately, that preoccupation renders many of the album’s best tracks DOA in a country where Williams is relatively anonymous. Plus, I don’t think the general public would quite get it. As a case in point, remember Right Said Fred? The “I’m Too Sexy” group? They had a fun 15 minutes of fame over here, to be sure, but I’m still surprised by the number of people who didn’t get that the song was a joke. Those three odd-looking bald British guys didn’t really think they were too sexy for their shirts. Honest.

So what will Americans make of “Handsome Man,” the single best track on Escapology? Everything about the song smirks, from the punchy guitars to Williams’ hilariously mock-arrogant vocal performance. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re so fucking big,” he says, and then asks, “Did you ever meet a sexier male chauvinist pig” before promising to “milk it ’til it turns to cheese.” But wait, he goes on:

“Y’all know who I am, I’m still the boy next door
That’s if you’re Lord Litchfield and Roger Moore
Have I gone up in the world or has the world gone down on me?
I’m the one who put the Brit in celebrity
Give in and love it, what’s the point in hating me?
You can’t argue with popularity
Well, you could, but you’d be wrong…”

If you laughed at that more than once, then Williams is probably up your alley. He mocks himself relentlessly on Escapology, noting that “I’m here to make money and get laid, yeah I’m a star but I’ll fade” on “Monsoon” and dashes all notions of sincerity on “Come Undone”: “So write another ballad, mix it on a Wednesday, sell it on a Thursday, buy a yacht by Saturday…”

Funnier still is that his sincere numbers are often touching, as much as Mercury’s forays into balladry. Best of those is “Nan’s Song,” the last proper number on the disc and the only song here Williams wrote solo. It’s a sweet goodbye to his departed grandmother, and if Williams notices the bizarre juxtaposition of these sweet sentiments with the trash talk of “Handsome Man,” he doesn’t let on. He expects you to switch gears right along with him.

And then there’s “Me and My Monkey,” a seven-minute tale of gunplay, Sheena Easton, gambling and, yes, monkeys. This is the sort of hysterical, campy fun that just leaves most folks scratching their heads, but Williams hurls himself into this bizarre concept full-bore, and the result is both brave and deliriously stupid. It even features a mariachi band. No shit. You won’t believe this one until you hear it.

Chances are you never will, however, especially if you expect radio to play it. If you pass up Escapology, well, I can’t say you’ll be missing a masterpiece. It is, however, one fun disc – a pop album with no delusions of grandeur. All of its huge pomposity is just taking the piss, and all Williams wants is a laugh. But unless he loses all the things that make him so enjoyable and confounding, he’s never going to get any love from America.

One quick note: the U.S. version of Escapology features two songs not on the British version (“Get a Little High” and the nifty “One Fine Day”), but inexplicably excises three songs about his adopted home of Los Angeles. They’re worth hearing, however, especially if you like what you hear on the rest of the album. I will never understand repackaging an album for other audiences by messing with the track listing. Neither of the new songs will be singles, and the deleted tracks add some context to the overall record. Plus, like the rest of the album, they’re harmlessly inoffensive, so why were they deemed not fit for our ears? I don’t get it.

* * * * *

One last thing before I call it a night. Watching this week’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was akin to getting kicked in the gut, and as I’ve actually been kicked in the gut, I’m qualified to make that comparison. I love the fact that 140 episodes in, this show is still able to sucker-punch you and leave you staring at your screen in stunned silence. Only four more to go…

Next week, probably Fleetwood Mac, or maybe Madonna. Or maybe I’ll chuck all that serious tripe and review MC Honky. You’ll just have to wait and find out.

See you in line Tuesday morning.