Aug 16


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#916, 22nd December 2001

robbie nicole Robbie Williams quit a boy band because the grinning and flexing began to feel like a job, and feeling like a job meant feeling like a cage. He fled into pop stardom, and the cage followed. Rising up the TV ratings as “Somethin’ Stupid” topped the charts was Pop Idol, a show that was a four-month job interview for being a pop star, an announcement that the role was now a profession. And who was the blueprint for that these days? Who was the idol, the one with the X Factor? Nobody but Robbie. The Robbie of 1998, “Let Me Entertain You” and “Angels”, versatile, shining with charisma and desperate for love, was the model for what Reality TV spent the next decade hunting. He had wanted to do it his way: now his way was a template for sheer will-to-stardom. Meanwhile he looked for another jump. This time he went backwards: the swing era and the big bands.

Swing When You’re Winning, Robbie’s leap into the past, landed in a rising cultural moment for the Rat Pack and their era. A hipster swing revival in the USA – Squirrel Nut Zippers and their like – never really took hold in Britain, but a rising tide of biopics and reissues made the Rat Pack steadily more salient. They represented an answer to a particular cultural problem: what next for lad culture? The Loaded generation had rebooted new masculinity as old masculinity plus irony, but the lad mag formula of boobs, booze and bacon sandwiches was essentially metastable, too delicate a thing to live, for all its brashness. New laddism could either drop the knowing figleaf and collapse back into just plain blokiness – plenty took this option – or it could ‘grow up’. Keep the camaraderie and the bad behaviour but dial up the wardrobe, play it sophisticated. Frank, Dean, Sammy and the boys looked very appealing in this context. For a pop star wanting to make a parallel shift, seeking an opt-out from cheek, they were just as tempting.

But for a singer, the Rat Pack were also a trap. 60s Vegas wasn’t a theme park or a role-playing game, it was a high-stakes arm of the record business, and you needed chops to survive it as much as charm. Hand in hand with the rediscovery of the swing era vibe had come renewed appreciation by fans of how tightly arranged the records were, how rich their performances and phrasing. Put yourself in those shoes and it was easy to seem callow. Reality TV eventually caught up to Robbie again, with the “Big Band Weeks” so adored by Simon Cowell. These annual pantomimes seemed like Cowell indulging one of the few types of music he actually liked, but they were cannily competitive too: a showcase for technique as well as swagger. Though since neither were plentiful, big band weeks were still a chore.
That all explains why the singer, and the style, and the moment. The choice of song is simpler, I’d guess – it had been a big hit, and the availability of Nicole Kidman for a duet made it obvious. “Somethin’ Stupid” ushers Robbie into his swing phaselet on the arm of a bona fide Hollywood star. But does it dodge the big band trap? Can Robbie Williams wear Sinatra’s shoes?

Not really. But the failure of “Somethin’ Stupid” isn’t that it’s bad exactly. It commits a graver sin: it lacks all panache. The main thing Robbie had going for him was his sparky, snook-cocking cheek, and that’s the element he seems keenest to excise on his swing material. On “Somethin’ Stupid” he sounds subdued, cowed by the difficulty of the task he’s set himself. He sticks exactly to the Sinatras’ dual-vocal arrangement. That served a strong purpose for Frank and Nancy – it kept the song from sounding even creepier, and it stopped the father’s performance from embarrassing the daughter’s by the contrast. It worked for the song, too, casting it as an ironic comedy – two lip-biting lovers, neither knowing the other feels exactly the same way. But for Williams and Kidman it doesn’t come off like that – instead the blend of Robbie’s underperforming voice and Kidman’s unassuming one evens out into a unisex trot. A reverent approach meets a diffident performance – and Robbie’s leap into the past leaves him, for the first time, sounding half-hearted.



  1. 1
    CriticSez on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Thanks for putting this up! I felt like giving up on FreakyTrigger because of the delay.

    When “Gotta Get Thru This” was posted, I was still on the early 70s. I’m now on February 2009, way ahead!

    On my rating system, this is 4.8/10, rounded down here to 4.

  2. 2
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Welcome back, Tom!

    If you’d asked me, I would have sworn that the other party on this was Kylie Minogue. I’m not sure I’m confusing it with the previous year’s “Kids” as such – for all that single’s ideas (many of them terrible) it could not by any stretch be considered half-hearted.

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    Tom on 18 Aug 2016 #

    It’s nice to be back, though as I said on the interstitial entry I’m off on holidays for a week now so plenty of time to contemplate Robbie.

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    pinefox on 18 Aug 2016 #

    I think this is a really good piece of pop-cultural writing.

    The analysis of Rat Pack revival is shrewd and neat. But it is also true that some people (like) rediscovered or really liked the songs of the pro-rock era, rather than the swagger. It’s good that you acknowledge this too, ie ‘how tightly arranged the records were, how rich their performances and phrasing’.

    I don’t know the record very well but I feel quite persuaded by your description of it too.

    Well done, Tom.

  5. 5
    JLucas on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Then at the height of her fame, Nicole Kidman made two top forty appearances in quick succession during the back end of 2001. Shortly before this hit #1, a remix of ‘Come What Me’, a duet with Ewan McGregor from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, grazed the top 30 despite what seemed like blanket exposure on the various music TV channels at the time. I’m still rather fond of it, and would much rather we were reading about that here than this.

    Christmas 2001 turned out to be a bit of a moment for A-list Hollywood stars taking a brief detour into the charts. At the same time this was #1, Kate Winslet was in the top ten with ‘What If’, from the animated Christmas Carol movie she was lending her voice to at the time. I always enjoy hearing that one around the festive season.

    There was also Gwyneth Paltrow, who failed to chart here but had a big Australian #1 alongside Huey Lewis with Cruisin’, from the soundtrack to her film ‘Duets’.

    As you can probably tell, the pop careers of Hollywood leading ladies are much more interesting to me than this record, which is…fine. It’s too respectful and low-key to be offensive, but it sounds like a John Lewis ad, which it presumably would be were it released today.


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    Matthew Marcus on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Yeah, I would have said this was Kylie too! I hope the female part isn’t actually *that* interchangeable…

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    lonepilgrim on 18 Aug 2016 #

    2001 saw the release of the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ reboot and also Spielberg’s ‘A.I.’ whose Gigolo Joe character (played by Jude Law) reminds me of Robbie in this video.
    There are so many quotation marks around the performances in the video and song that they put me in mind of this quote, from the wiki entry on ‘Simulacra and Simulation’:
    ‘Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives.’

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    Paulito on 18 Aug 2016 #

    @5: I would have sworn that ‘What If’ was bunnied, but on checking I see that it only reached #6 in the UK. It was a huge hit here in Ireland, where it topped the charts for four weeks. A soppy but nonetheless quite affecting ballad, it certainly has more presence than Robbie and Nicole’s rather inert effort.

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    JoeWiz on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Welcome back Tom (and thanks for the Drake related retweet!), this is a beautifully written piece – within 5 years of the high water mark of New Lads, we end up here, a horrible watered down version of an apparently classic look – yet somehow still embodying the same kind of misogyny and backward looking attitudes that the ‘lads’ were rife with in the mid 90s.
    This is a pretty middling song, but the album itself had a few highlights – Robbies reading of ‘One for my baby’ was a particular delight. The album itself works as a whole considerably better than it’s sort of sequel from a few years ago ‘Swings both ways’ – a horrible mish mash of half hearted original numbers and embarrassing duets with Olly, Lily and Buble etc. Luckily I don’t think it produced anything near a number 1, so we can graciously avoid it.

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    JLucas on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Did Swing When You’re Winning anticipate the revival of the standards album as a tool for shoring up a flagging pop career? I always assumed Rod Stewart was the first real success story using the format, but it seems his first ‘Great American Songbook’ album was a year away when this came out…

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    AMZ1981 on 18 Aug 2016 #

    It is oddly fitting that this should be Christmas number one for 2001, a year that saw that top end of the charts riddled by inferior cover versions of previous chart toppers. With the benefit of hindsight Christmas 2001 also marks the end of an era, being the last year without a reality TV contender for the yuletide top spot (although thankfully the full horror of this era takes a few years to kick in).

    There is something quite wonderfully odd about this record existing in the first place. Robbie Williams was enjoying his commercial peak but he remained a strictly English phenomenon whose music stubbornly refused to export. Nicole Kidman, by contrast, was an internationally renowned celebrity whose film stardom dated back to when Robbie was a teenager and who was also at her peak (the film that won her best actress Oscar would come out about a year later). The fact that she was duetting with an obscure (viewed from the Hollywood side) English singer who wasn’t Frank Sinatra may have raised eyebrows in America with people wondering just how he managed that.

    Looking at the wider picture the race for the 2001 Christmas number one may have been the most bloodless in history; nobody seemed to want it that year. Robbie and Nicole released their single a week prior to the critical sales week and nobody threw their commercial weight at the week after. In fact the media were forced to create the battle for the Christmas top spot themselves; they did this by championing one time King Crimson member Gordon Haskell’s sentimental ballad How Wonderful You Are which almost won the day but not quite. Haskell soon vanished back into obscurity.

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    weej on 18 Aug 2016 #

    An understandable place to get stuck. Without actually being bad, this has to be one of the least creatively inspired of all the songs we’ve had at number one – simply a glossy high-budget advertisement for itself without any intention of being anything else. No inept execution to add charm or curiosity*, no showmanship or technical impressiveness, just a glossying up of the past, professional audio-visuals for the world market. If this was how pop music was going to be, then who would blame you for losing interest?

    The version of the song that springs to mind most easily these days would have to be this one.

    *Well, the Spanish guitar is a bit naff, but on the whole…

  13. 13
    Rufus Headroom on 18 Aug 2016 #

    Aye Tom, you’s the man! Never any jive talkin’ on your site, missed ya. This is a real turn off, always hate to see anybody play it safe, especially in music. Nicole is a total non-entity on this. What do you lot think about that US Swing Revival?

  14. 14
    thefatgit on 19 Aug 2016 #

    Contemplating cover versions for Facebook’s 7 Covers in 7 Days, and up pops this. Good to see Tom’s found a way to complete 2001, with so many turgid offerings, including this one.

    “Swing While You’re Winning” was a Christmas gift to my mum. She fell for Robbie big time, and her most favourite song ever was featured as a duet with Rupert Everett, which is somerhing although George & Ira might have raised more than an eyebrow, even if Robbie & Rupert’s tongues were planted firmly in their cheeks.

    That’s what is missing from “Something Stupid”, all played with a little too straight a bat. Concentrating a little too much on the harmonies. The arrangement a little too unprepossessing, even with those Spanish guitar flourishes. The comedy saved for the video, but really this is being propelled to the top by the names on the cover, rather than any affection for Frank & Nancy’s dubious offering. I think the NME described it as celebrity cabaret or something at the time. I see no reason to disagree. (3)

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    swanstep on 21 Aug 2016 #

    A good first-personal article on the ’90s swing-band revival is here:
    http://www.stereogum.com/1851924/lets-all-remember-the-late-90s-swing-revival/franchises/weird-90s/ if anyone’s interested.

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    Kit on 21 Aug 2016 #

    “Did Swing When You’re Winning anticipate the revival of the standards album as a tool for shoring up a flagging pop career? I always assumed Rod Stewart was the first real success story using the format”

    Is Labour Of Love II far enough earlier to be the original mode that you’re flagging Swing as the revival of?

  17. 17
    lonepilgrim on 22 Aug 2016 #

    Linda Ronstadt released two albums of swing and pre-swing standards in 1983 and 1984 (‘What’s New’ and ‘Lush Life’) so there were precedents for this choice of material. ‘Labour Of Love II’ is a mixture of genres, more in the tradition of Bowie’s ‘PinUps’ or Bryan Ferry’s early solo albums.

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    ThePensmith on 24 Aug 2016 #

    It’s interesting this entry opens on the idea of Robbie being at a crossroads career wise, so to speak, by the end of this year certainly. “Swing When You’re Winning” as an album was in some respects an inevitable diversion (I think this was also picked up on at the entry for “Eternity” as well. My all time favourite single of his, that. I digress).

    In other ways, it wasn’t. Such was his ubiquity at this time he could pretty much get away with anything – to a point (all I’ll say is hello to you, ‘Rudebox’), and both this year and next he took the Christmas number one album, with this and 2002’s “Escapalogy” which didn’t produce a bunny – the excellent ‘Feel’ was the closest he got from that album – and would be his last album for a few years to be done with Guy Chambers and first under his £80m contract renewal with EMI.

    I will concur though that “Somethin’ Stupid” was a bit of a basic cut and copy version and that Nicole Kidman was an odd choice of duet partner. She seemed so supremely smug throughout on it and even now when the music channels play the video at Christmas I feel irritated watching her.

    Robbie did however, do a nice version of it with Emma Bunton in 2013 just as the above mentioned sequel album “Swings Both Ways” was released. So for that version a 7, but for this a 4.

    But back to the ‘career crossroads’ idea as it were. I mention my interest in this because of recent chart events for a future multiple bunny and an artist who’s been quite well connected with Mr Williams in the last few years. Said future multiple bunny is about to release their fifth album and has just put out a very strong single – one of the strongest of their career in fact – and still has a massive fanbase and still sells albums and tours by the truckload, but I can see them now shifting markets just like Robbie did 15 years ago.

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    AMZ1981 on 24 Aug 2016 #

    For a time Robbie Williams was exceptionally prolific, releasing studio albums in 1997, 1998 and 2000 while touring constantly and maintaining a strong media presence. With hindsight it is amazing the quality control was as strong as it was. Swing When Your Winning was a stopgap, albeit a big selling one – it can’t have taken that long to make. Within a year there would be yet another studio album featuring possibly the best Robbie song of them all, which would have been a dead certainty for the bunny had it not come out after the album’s release (there was some discussion of this in the Eternity thread).

    It might surprise some people to discover that we only meet Robbie twice more (as of August 2016). For one bunny we’ll need to wait until the 2010s while the other one comes in 2004 and I doubt even hardcore Robbie fans remember it. That might be the place to discuss the strangely anonymous 2005 album and the unheralded 2006 self portrait that may have been a deliberate attempt to sabotage his career.

  20. 21
    flahr on 25 Aug 2016 #

    It pleases me that Rodman do make one change, at least: the first and last times they sing “stewpid” instead of Frank’s all-American New Englander “stoopid”. Although it is “stoopid” the second time, Robbie’s face audibly gurning as he sings it.

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    Musicality on 21 Jan 2020 #

    Never liked this one, the names carried it in my opinion.

  22. 23
    benson_79 on 13 May 2021 #

    I remember watching a TV special on (I think) BBC1 of Robbie doing his big band schtick. My then-housemates really enjoyed it but I just remember thinking ‘he can’t actually sing these songs very well tho’. At one point Williams does a virtual duet with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, complete with a big, blubbing, fourth wall-breaking, I-can’t-believe-I’m-allowed-to-do-this moment, which neatly summed up my feelings on the whole affair; not to mention prefiguring the X Factor trope where the finalists get to duet with an established star, albeit in the flesh. Tears and snot pouring down Alexandra Burke’s face while performing with Beyonce, etc. Ah, the magic of song.

  23. 24
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

    I think Tom’s about right with the 4/10 here.

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