Back at “Millennium” I claimed that Robbie Williams’ wild success, his undeniable – and untranslatable – appeal as a pop star, said something wider about turn of the century British culture; that Robbie fitted into a post-Blair, post-Diana era where Britain felt at ease with itself and curious about itself, happy to celebrate the everyday, and to let someone become the country’s biggest star on little but determination and cheek.
Robbie was only the beginning: the early 00s saw a steady demystifying of celebrity matched by an equally steady supply of the newly famous. “Rock DJ” landed at number one near the beginning of this process – during the first series of Big Brother, still very much at this point a ‘psychological experiment’ in national voyeurism, Britain taking an unblinking, intimate look at ten of its own. Life Thru A Lens, if you like. If Robbie Williams was an expert on anything, it was being famous, and he understood every side of such attention. The video for “Rock DJ” cast him as a dancer, desperate to be noticed, stripping off clothes, then skin, muscle and organ.
So the media approach to pop success I talked about in the “7 Days” entry – knowing, snarky, treating it as a joke as much as a story – was only part of this broader 00s re0evaluation about what celebrity and fame meant. It was toxic for some stars. But it suited Robbie very well. He could make records where the sneer came baked in. “Rock DJ” acts as if it’s a bubble of charismatic nonsense, a song about almost nothing, but I’m hearing something corrosive about it too, a spitefulness that Robbie never commits to but can’t or won’t entirely shake off.
More than any of his other singles, “Rock DJ” comes on as Robbie just giving his public ‘Robbie’ – the worldly, applause-hungry jester. The eagerness to please a rock crowd that would never quite accept him has long gone, and instead we have the full-on engagement with rap that “Millennium” had gestured towards. But it’s an engagement completely on Robbie’s own terms. Williams’ approach to rapping is actually very like J from Five’s – collect a bunch of lines that sound cool and throw them at a track blindfold – but he’s got far more presence. He also has a good trick of dropping a snatch or two of vernacular in – “have a proper giggle”, “gonna stick it in the goal” – that helps him get away with his borrowed Americanisms and places him in a lineage of British rapping bluffers that goes back to Captain Sensible’s “Wot”.
But it’s remarkable how much of “Rock DJ” is just getting by on Robbie’s energy and charisma, and he’s well aware of that. He delivers lines like “Babylon back in business / Can I get a witness?” like they’re part of an anthem, then snaps back to a cruel deadpan: “You got no love and you’re with the wrong man / It’s time to move your body.” All of it has a caustic, Lennon-ish joy in simply moving words around and a childish glee at the very presence of an audience and the chance to perform for them.
That’s the upbeat side, and it’s easy to focus on because Guy Chambers’ springy backing track has such brio. “Rock DJ” is a brightly coloured play area of a song, designed as a chance for Robbie to strut, to work a crowd and a stage (live performances make the most of the track’s call and response opportunities). But while it does that job, Williams’ relationship with the spotlight has never been quite so simple. Mostly he’s rousing on “Rock DJ”, but sometimes he sounds offhand and callous, and the chirpy backing vocals only enhance the sense that this is a deliberately glib exercise. During the breakdown, on “if you’re selling it, it’s alright”, Williams’ voice slides into contempt.
Contempt for us? For himself? It’s hard to say. There’s an ambivalence to “Rock DJ”, a sense of a party, like the video striptease, that’s going on too long. “I don’t wanna rock, DJ… When’s it gonna stop, DJ?” As with “Millennium”’s sudden turn in on itself in its coda, “Rock DJ” is a smash hit with a buried case of impostor syndrome. It’s easy to make too much of this – the song works fine if you hear it as no more than a star vehicle – but as is often the case with Robbie Williams, it’s that streak of restless scorn that makes it interesting to me.