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Apr 15

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Rock DJ”

Popular72 comments • 6,261 views

#869, 12th August 2000

robbierock 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.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Doctor Casino on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Funnily enough, it’s a very “rock” posture, isn’t it? The exact sort of there-if-you’re-looking-for-it smirk you’d expect from an alt-rock band contractually required to do a cartoon movie theme song or something. It’s aged rather well, though – he’s got charisma and it is a pretty fun backing track. I’d give it a 5 without malice.

  2. 2
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Easily my least disliked Robbie track. You mention Captain Sensible but his string of sussed-out lad nonsense banter laced with hints of something darker always makes me think Ian Dury. First time you see the uncensored video, there’s a real shock value to it too, of course.

  3. 3
    Mark G on 14 Apr 2015 #

    “When’s it going to stop, DJ? Cause it’s keeping me up all night”

    Was Rob the first to make explicit drug references in the mainstream as a regular feature?

    (As opposed to the “No, it’s about…” covertness of The Beatles, etc)

  4. 4
    wichitalineman on 14 Apr 2015 #

    “Are you being ironic?”
    (sobs) “I don’t even know any more.”

    Every line, every move a signifier, but it’s complete confusion. I hadn’t heard this in a while but dug out Now 46 the other day – listening to it made me feel like a cat being stroked the wrong way. Every line a new stroke.

    This is closer to BA Robertson (Bang Bang, Knocked It Off, Kool In The Kaftan) than Ian Dury or Captain Sensible. “Smug baked in” is perfect.

    When was the “I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams!” moment, was it just before this came out?

  5. 5
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #3 Depends how mainstream and how regular. Obviously there were fairly overt drug references in big hits before: Puff The Magic Dragon, Here Come The Nice, White Line Fever, Born Slippy spring to mind. Was there a glut of drug references after this? I don’t know but then I’m quite thick at picking up on these things. There seem to be a lot of drinking songs in noughties /teenies pop (lots of lyrics about doing shots etc) but less drug stuff.

  6. 6
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I’ve always wondered if it started out as a drug song – that’s the only sense I can make of the chorus. (Even then ‘rock’ doesn’t really work – the stuff that keeps you up all night comes as powder.) There’s certainly something desperate about this song – there’s no magic left in pop & no sincerity in rock, nobody’s pretending that there is, but here we all still are cranking it out… Very much a post-fin-de-siecle mood, really. I like it a lot, though – 7.

  7. 7
    chelovek na lune on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Robbie in end-of-the-pier/variety show entertainer mode, emphasising that he is just the cool side of mainstream (Can we kick it? Yes we can. If he were more niche he might have cited Bonita Applebum) . Nowt wrong with that, says this former Southend resident (not that end of the pier shows, as such, have taken place there since the 70s…), but frankly, he was more accomplished than that. “Supreme” was the killer underrated single he put out this year – “Rock DJ” is more of a distraction, albeit a competent one, than something I’d choose to listen to. (5)

  8. 8
    Tom on 14 Apr 2015 #

    If there’s a unifying strand to the lyrics – and I’m not sure there is, which is why I didn’t try this in the review itself – it’s the intertwining of celebration and exhaustion: “Rock DJ” is a standard music-is-great party-hard song which keeps peeling back its own skin to take a harder look at what’s really going on. “When’s it gonna stop?”, “Give no head no backstage passes”, “Pimping aint easy” etc. It’s easy to hear the utterly deadpan “You got no love and you’re with the wrong man / It’s time to move your body” as ironic – you’ve fucked up your life, but don’t worry love, you can always dance – quite a Cocker-esque sentiment, and the vibe is close-ish to This Is Hardcore. But Robbie’s way too much the showman to ever actually commit to this and go full-on “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” on us – or at least not on this song, there’s an even more dyspeptic bunny to come.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I find it interesting that Robbie’s dissatisfaction (on his number one singles at least ) is aimed at himself rather than his audience. His wiki entry suggests that he has battled with manic depression and this song seems to embody both ends of that spectrum. The song could be about any kind of addiction including drugs, sex (I don’t want to F*ck DJ), fame or lucozade.
    It’s a compelling tune but the video is downright disturbing.

  10. 10
    DanusJohnus on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Re: 8. I’m trying to fathom whether you mean This is Hardcore the song or the album in general. In relation to the song, I think Robbie exudes far more resilience than Jarvis, even if they are discussing the same enlightened view, that of finding out what’s it’s like to get what you really want and always dreamed of. I still find ‘This is Hardcore’ a difficult and tortured song to listen to, particularly the constant shifts in mood. Both RW and JC had well documented problems, but if Rock DJ is a reference to these, it hides the true manifestations of near-breakdown far better than This is Hardcore, which to me highlights an impassive and numbing reaction to experiencing decadence on a regular basis (particular the repeats of ‘That goes in there’.). Even on the inlay of the album, JC seemed like a mannequin, someone who had been utterly defeated by delving too much into a lifestyle that always fascinated him.

    I remember a Robbie documentary around this time when he’d forsworn the substances. He seemed to need company and played cards into the late hour as a means of distracting himself. It actually seemed quite a sad tale of coming out the other side of mental and physical exhaustion.

  11. 11
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Rock DJ (if it’s saying anything) seems to be saying ‘life can be tough and unfair but if you don’t dwell on it and enjoy the good times, you may retain/develop the resiliance to deal with it’ whereas Jarvis in semi-ironic party guy mode (and Robbie on his next (?) bunnied (?) single) are saying ‘Christ, you might as well dance, you’ve got nothing else left.’

  12. 12
    Tom on 14 Apr 2015 #

    The next Robbie bunny is a while off, and doesn’t seem to fit that description TM.

    Re. This Is Hardcore, I was thinking about the song mostly and the album a bit. I think it’s several steps further along the road that Rock DJ might be starting on: Robbie is just starting to not enjoy himself, Jarvis stopped long ago and is busy dragging someone else into his emotional black hole. (Revisiting Pulp recently – for the first time in my 40s – it struck me, much harder than it did at the time, what a cruel band they could be. For all that Jarvis is having a shitty time in TIH, the “you” is bearing the brunt of it.)

  13. 13
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I meant Supreme (UK #4) which is particularly cruel. A university mate said approvingly ‘He’s taking the piss out of all the aging women who go out dancing to his stuff’, to which I said ‘why is that a good thing?’ He went on to a lucrative job at HSBC, proving his commitment to moral crumminess and a sense of smug superiority to those who aren’t wise to the game.

  14. 14
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I think you may both be overreading TIH – in an interview at the time Jarvis said “when you’re on the road you spend a lot of time alone in hotel rooms, and inevitably you end up watching porn”. I’ve always thought that pretty much covered it – the appalled, exhausted fascination of watching that go in there again, and again, and again. Fine album, either way. “The Day After The Revolution” is terrific, although I realised much later that it’s a pale imitation of “The War is Over (Sleepers)”.

    #13 – gosh. I knew Robbie’s career had stalled, but I would have thought the royalties would have kept him afloat…

  15. 15
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #12 & #14, the ‘you’ on TIH (album) feels a lot more like Jarvis. The ‘you’ on His&Hers and Diff. Class was generally a woman who was treated with varying and often ambiguous levels of sympathy.

  16. 16
    DanusJonus on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Re:14 – I think at the time Jarvis gave a very simple explanation of the song. if you look for interviews from a lot later on (I think there was one in Q a couple of years back), while it was about watching porn in hotel rooms, he was comparing the way people get used up in that industry with the way the entertainment business does the same thing. For me it was the whole idea of him watching it and realising he too had become dead behind the eyes.

  17. 17
    Jonathan on 14 Apr 2015 #

    To call back to the previous entry, I’m quite confused that the UK apparently decided Craig David was inherently ridiculous when this ready-made wanker was mugging about the place.

    (“Rock DJ”: the chorus is a chore, and someone as bad at rapping as Robbie Williams is shouldn’t be doing it.)

  18. 18
    JoeWiz on 14 Apr 2015 #

    ‘I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams’ was, I think, before the next album and after this one. ‘SWYW’ was the last real ‘event’ Robbie album, I don’t have the figures the hand but I’d imagine this was his biggest first week sales, especially off the back of this single.
    I was a little bit let down when I’d first heard this, I was expecting something along the lines of ‘No Regrets’ or at least ‘Strong’ good, intelligent adult pop. This seemed a bit half hearted to me, a bit party for its own sake, but I was stuck in my bedroom studying for my GCSE’s at the time, maybe I was just jealous.
    ‘Supreme’ was indeed the strongest track on this album, with excellent 70s F1 inspired video attached but overall I’d say that SWYW was a weaker record that it’s predecessor, the joy of being a solo success ha seemingly already worn off, and Robbie was already starting to go through the motions.

  19. 19
    Iain Mew on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I hated this, and find it (and “Kids”) repulsive in a way which I don’t any of his other singles. I think it’s the spitefulness and contempt Tom identifies, and the way that the stuffed stagey pop song it’s soaked through gives it a vehicle for being maximally annoying.

  20. 20
    Tom on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #17 Well, originally these were going to be a two-for-one entry (or really three for one – Craig, Robbie and a bit in the middle about the rise of snark about pop in comedy and broadcast media, which got put in the CD entry instead). Because that is a very interesting question – how did Robbie, a man with less talent and as much insecurity as Craig David, get away with a relatively far smaller degree of ridicule?

    Robbie was obsessively tracked by the tabloid press, who were particularly interested in his love life, so his life in the goldfish bowl of the UK media was hardly comfortable. But from my recollection he was taken more seriously as a pop star than most of his peers, probably more seriously than he took himself. Track record and sheer success is part of it. Self-knowledge is also part of it. It helped him that his point of comparison was Gary Barlow, at this point considered something of a laughing stock.

    But ultimately it boils down to something I should have made clearer in the Leigh Francis section last time: there is a cruel streak in the British media and psyche, a bully’s eye for weakness, which is always there but started to come out more in the 00s. I’m not immune to it, and I don’t completely trust people who’d claim to be – which is probably why “7 Days”, a song I find very hard to take seriously, felt like a good place to raise the subject.

    This cruel streak is flattered away into other things on both sides – a “tradition of satire” and a desire to prick pompous egos on the one, and on the other the myth that the Brits resent success. I think the truth is simpler: we are mean, and our meanness is often very arbitrary. To bring it back to pop, I remember conversations when I first got online, with baffled and faintly hurt American fans of Depeche Mode, who found it very hard to understand why so many British people seemed to think Dave Gahan was a chump leading a band who had always been chumpish. And the answer was – there was no very good reason! (Well, OK, maybe the rock god phase, but the reputation was there years before.)

  21. 21
    DanusJonus on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I think part of the reason that Robbie got away with it more than CD was in due to the public and press having seen him grow up ‘before our eyes’. For better or for worse, he’d been a national topic of conversation since he was 16. Where as Gary Barlow was ‘the talented one’ in Take That, Mark Owen was ‘the cute one’, Robbie was just as well known as those two for no other discernable reason than people seemed to take to his personality.

    I also think there’s another element at play here. By the time of Rock DJ, he had very much pulled himself back up from the low point of the mid-90’s. One of the other sometimes attributed myths about the British is that while success is resented, a good redemption story is admired. He’d gone from leaving Take That, getting overweight, taking drugs, hanging around with Oasis, wanting to be in Oasis, deemed the ‘fat dancer from TT’, not selling well as a solo artist to bringing out Angels and appearing to be finally taken seriously.

    So while he had less talent than CD, the public and press knew his foibles and he’d probably gone through his fair share of ridicule by 2000. I’d say that while he was taken more seriously as a pop artist by this point, when he did the George Michael ‘Freedom’ cover, I don’t recall serious artistic appreciation being anywhere near the top of the list of comments made about him.

    Because CD suddenly appeared on the scene, he wasn’t given that same balance of judgement by many. I’m sure there’s many parallels with Robbie in the annals of pop history. The rise, fall and resurrection of his career seemed to me to very much fit into the stereotype of many a celebrity trajectory of this time.

  22. 22
    swanstep on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I’ve never been able to stand Robbie Williams, but this record (and its vid.) pretty much kills: a #1 record that hymns its own entitlement to the top of the charts. Its classily produced stomp feels like a sequel to George Michael’s very self-aware early ’90s dance hits ‘Freedom ’90′ and ‘Too Funky’ (and ‘Fastlove’ too to a lesser extent) and also to anticipate Michael’s later ‘Freeek’. The verses/rap seem to me to hang together pretty well as far dance-pop goes, so I’m not sure what #4, Wichita’s complaint about ‘complete confusion’ etc. is getting at. Sure, on one level it’s insufferable, pure peacockery but, as with The Darkness later in the decade (the ‘permission to land’ line here got me thinking about them), this is brashness as a kind of art – I guess the Gallaghers had some of this too now I think about it, but it’s something we tend to associate more with ready-for-their-closeup US artists from Madonna to Kanye (both of whom probably wish they’d thought of RDJ’s video concept).

    Weak point in RDJ (as with other recent #1s) is the middle eight – it’s undistinguished at best. Even though ‘Pimpin’ ain’t easy/But if you’re sellin’ it’/It’s alright’ is somewhat memorable the whole is a missed opportunity to really bring the track home. RDJ had a chance to become a bonkers standard but didn’t stick the landing. Oh well, it’s still for me an easy:
    7 (8 on a good day).

    p.s. RDJ spent 4 non-consecutive weeks at #1 in NZ. Peak Robbie there.

  23. 23
    chelovek na lune on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #20 I’m not sure the answer to the Q “why could RW get away with it, whereas CD couldn’t?” isn’t, in part, one of identity, and in the crudest, most atavistic, reactionary possible terms at that – could he pass as what The Sun (when it was at peak cruelty level – which is probably somewhat earlier than this) et al (or nowadays, Nigel F) might have called “one of our boys” (in a non-military sense) – could he blend in “in a mainstream crowd” without comment? Robbie – white, cheeky-chappy, northern-nearly-Mancunian, skilled at a nod and a wink to the working class….could . Craig – black, Jewish, slightly awkward, from a city that has no shortage of social problems but is hardly a cultural centre of note, takes himself a bit too seriously for his own good….couldn’t But….this isn’t the whole story. Craig’s limited supply of good musical material was what ultimately did for him: Robbie was more musically adventurous, and there was some good quality stuff along the way after a bit of a rough start – as well as the whole TT backstory.

  24. 24
    Susanna on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Hello! This entry has lured me into de-lurking due to an abiding fondness for Robbie. I was a teenage indie kid in the 90s who defected to pop thanks to the joys of Take That. I’m not sure why I decided Robbie was my fave – I think he just seemed the most interesting, and had the nicest voice of the group – but I became a strident fan for several years. In 1996 I created what I believe was the first ever Robbie Williams fansite – The Babe Bob Appreciation Society. I was living in Australia and so had to rely on an ever-enthusiastic bunch of international fans to email me with news, info about TV appearances, articles and so on. It was a fantastically fun project – the internet was so exciting back then! – but unfortunately I had to give it up at the end of ’96 when I moved to London and no longer had home internet access for several years.

    My Robbie fandom waned after the first couple of albums, and I think he is very hit and miss as a solo artist, but I will admit to being shocked at the notion he is less talented than Craig David expressed by others here. A good handful of his singles would be solid 10s for me, which I can’t say for CD. I agree with the review of Rock DJ though – it’s a fun song but not one I feel the need to listen to very often. I think this is the first time I ever watched the uncensored version of the video – I hadn’t realised quite how gruesome it is. I don’t think I will be watching at again.

  25. 25
    Izzy on 14 Apr 2015 #

    He might have had less – vocal – talent than Craig David, but he was a far better pop star. My take is that for proper stardom there’s something crucial about not breaking the spell – which is part of why talent show winners tend not to make it unless there’s something otherworldly about them from the start.

    RW’s default setting has always been performance – you can see him mugging and showing off in any number of Take That outtakes – CD gave the impression of it just being an act, and one he was keen to let us in on. I recall him telling interviewers about ‘Craig David: the brand’, which is pretty grotesque. But less harmfully, maybe the metaframing we’ve been discussing in the Seven Days thread is no accident?

    You could call it lack of confidence or lack of social dexterity – both types are still approval-seeking, just done differently – but Robbie’s way makes it part of the star’s story, whereas Craig’s way shows us a normal guy behind the curtain. An excess of normality. Where do you go from there? And why would an audience follow?

    I remember watching Robbie switch into character in the wings at Live 8 before peacocking out in a big coat, nodding his self-approval and arrogant as all hell. A mediocre event, but oh! the stagecraft in that walk. Craig David could never have done that, would never even have thought of it.

  26. 26
    Tom on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #24 Hi Susanna! Thanks for delurking, and hopefully you’ll find more to comment on in future. (Though RW has had less #1s than I remembered him having)

  27. 27
    Susanna on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #26 Thanks Tom! And I definitely have Opinions on many pop things, not just Robbie, so I shall be sticking around :)

  28. 28
    mapman132 on 14 Apr 2015 #

    “Rock DJ” wasn’t a hit in the US, according to Wiki it wasn’t even released here, but that’s not to say it went entirely unnoticed: rubbernecking interest alone ensured the video would show up on MTV. Certainly one of those things you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it. A rather extreme commentary on celebrity I suppose.

  29. 29
    James BC on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I remember Robbie performing this on TOTP the week before its release – the by-then ailing show doubting its purpose enough to play songs that hadn’t yet charted. He finished by yelling “See you at the top of the charts!” and despite the arrogance, I couldn’t disagree. And this with a borderline novelty song that didn’t sound a lot like anything he’d done before, or anything else that was successful at the time. Robbie was just that big, and the song was a winner, and he knew it.

    These days I think of it as a great cheese night/wedding tune. Maybe you have to be the exact same age as me, since it doesn’t seem to have stuck in the popular consciousness as much as it might have, but for my age bracket it’s a dancefloor gem. The middle 8 might send me to the bar but I’ve had my fun already by then.

  30. 30
    Rory on 14 Apr 2015 #

    “A caustic, Lennon-ish joy in simply moving words around”: but enough about Noel Gallagher, let’s talk about Robbie Williams…

    This is one of the few UK number ones of the time that feel part of my own 2000, because I was in London the week when it hit the top (in fact you can’t get much more millennial than what I was doing on 12th August 2000). I saw the video on TV that week, and it’s not one you forget in a hurry. Those memories carried the tune easily across 15 years, even though I’m fairly sure it’s the only time I’d heard it.

    Watching the video a second time now, it strikes me not just as a meditation on celebrity (you want a piece of me? Here, have a bloody buttock), but also on maleness in UK popular culture circa late-90s/2000. It starts out looking as if it will be another routine performance for the male gaze, a parade of models looking like yet another Robert Palmer rip-off, but soon becomes a male performance for them, a ’90s lad’s idea of what women want. Robbie’s expressions around the 0:45-1:15 mark are priceless, and speak not just of the neediness of performers for an audience, but of the neediness of many young men for female attention. In that light, the moments where he goes too far, the stripping off at 2:30 and then the auto-da-flay at 2:55, are a great critique of lad culture, a reductio ad absurdum of all that showing off.

    This is one of a handful of songs where I feel compelled to mark the whole package, because trying to judge the song in isolation from its video is like trying not to think about elephants. The song itself might be an affable 6, but for the whole, 7.

    (Nothing new under the sun: Gaspar Becerra, A flayed man holding his own skin, 1556.)

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