“You think that I’m strong. You’re wrong. You’re wrong” — Robbie Williams in Strong.
* * *
Before I left my hometown of Christchurch I experienced something of a Robbie Williams renaissance in my own life. As I worked the checkouts at Fresh Choice, my ears always pricked up when one of Robbie’s classics was cycled through the delightfully plain playlist. After a little reflection I realised how much of an effect his music had had on me when I was younger. I was familiar with his song Back for Good from his earlier days in the boy band Take That. And his combined effort with Nicole Kidman on the older song Somethin’ Stupid was very cherishable. Perhaps most important was the Rock DJ, one of the highlights of my primary school music-listening days. I never stayed up late enough or always forgot — something like that — to see the video, allegedly, according to the accounts of schoolmates at the time, showing Robbie strip, taking off all his clothes, skin, muscles, etc, eventually becoming a skeleton. The primetime version always ended in his undies. I could never understand the transfixed facial expressions of the rollerblading ladies circling around Robbie… But perhaps the most important aspect of the song was the line, “If you can’t get a girl but your best friend can it’s time to move your body”. I remember hearing the line, somehow thinking that if my nine year-old-or-so best friend at the time got a girlfriend then, according to Robbie’s rule, it would be time to move my body. Out of my three best friends at the moment, one has managed to “get a girl” so according to Robbie’s rule I’m yet under no obligation to move my body, or only under obligation to move a third of it. The careful reader will note that if two mutual best friends followed Robbie’s rule then they would remain perpetually girl-less.
* * *
Being exposed once again to Robbie’s words as an adult, I noticed some thematic overarchings across his singles¹. The search for love, his self-confessed failings and cosmic bewilderment, among others, can be summarised in what I’d like to term ‘the weak man’, the self not as something central, boastworthy and knowledgeable, but admittedly dependent, confused and unreliable.
At the same time as Robbie embraces the carpe diem, “We all enjoy the madness ’cause we know we’re gonna fade away”, there is an underlying sadness for the current humanity: “We’re praying it’s not too late /’Cause we know we’re falling from grace”. Of course there is not a huge hurry to attend the first-world issues of the current humanity, but rather an acknowledgement that the issues are there and the ideal of sorting them out in the future. The value of Millenium is in its cynicism and self-deprecation: “Live for liposuction /And detox for your rent; /Overdose at Christmas /And give it up for lent”. The words are indicative of a generation searching for meaning and cataclysmically failing, periodically hopping from one extreme to the other.
I was surprised to learn that Robbie himself didn’t write this. The words are however in keeping with the purpose of this post. Although this song lends itself to the possibility of depicting an imbalanced relationship with a weak and a strong partner, it is also possible to read it as one side of a weak:weak relationship, where the Angel in the song is only an angel through her lover’s eyes; she equally depends on him for his love. In saying that, the Angel may very well have angelic qualities, therefore attracting the dependent speaker, who relies on her, looking for affirmation: “And as the feeling grows /She breathes flesh to my bones² /And when love is dead /I’m loving angels instead”.
The lyrics also allow for interpretation in a cosmic sense, where the non-physical angel is either a past/passed lover, representing the ideal, no longer attainable relationship, or an imagined/spiritually experienced angel whom the speaker looks to for hope when feeling downtrodden: “When I’m feeling weak /And my pain walks down a one way street /I look above /And I know I’ll always be blessed with love”.
Perhaps signifying Robbie’s love for New Zealand, this song was only released in Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. The speaker tenderly acknowledges not only a need for love, shelter, security, etc, but also resolves to become a better person, possibly in relation to a past fault: “As my soul heals the shame /I will grow through this pain. /Lord I’m doing all I can /To be a better man”. The beauty of this is that speaker has clearly also been hurt by his own fault and is therefore quite defensive: “Go easy on my conscience /’Cause it’s not my fault”, which pairs nicely with his dependence and weakness expressed in the opening verses. Perhaps an appeal to Lord in the chorus represents a break from the accusations of others. The speaker has undoubtedly been hurt by his own actions, but this hurt has been made much worse by the condemnation by others arising from his own actions. Lord is therefore the last refuge, a hopeful desire for grace after being rejected by everyone else.
The speaker also expresses some naivety in resolving to become a better person, which can only be received lovingly by his listener. The bridge represents an alternative way of moving on, “Once you’ve found that lover /You’re homeward bound; /Love is all around” and “I know some have fallen /On stony ground /But love is all around”. The speaker moves away from his confession and appeal to the Cosmos, and instead hopes to find a new love, with the possibility of repeating again his past mistakes.
This is my favourite on the list. The edgy guitar, the tense video, and a more confidently weak man assaults his weakness head on with strength. The speaker explores existentialist questions in the opening verses: “Not sure I understand /This role I’ve been given” — What is my responsibility in life as a human? “I sit and talk to God /And he just laughs at my plans” — A variation of the adage, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’, represents the speaker’s cosmic bewilderment, earnestly seeking a spiritual connection and yet finding no answers. “My head speaks a language /I don’t understand” — The last straw is the unintelligible self. The speaker cannot find refuge either in the world or out of the world; now he is rejected by his very self.
Surprisingly, the speaker makes the most beautiful conclusion. Instead of doing away with himself, he aggressively confronts his meaninglessness and demands answers. He lives in spite of a world of questions and unfulfilled dreams. And he wrestles with the reality that birthed him, until it will answer him, “‘Cause I got too much life /Running through my veins /Going to waste. /And I need to feel real love /And a life ever after; /I cannot give it up”.
Before I end, I would just like to say that Robbie Williams is the man.
* * *
¹Unfortunately all I have heard of Robbie has been on the radio, having never acquired one of his albums.
²There is a subtle hilarity in reading this as a reference to the skeleton Robbie in Rock DJ.