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.