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Simon Sweetman: About that time Robbie Williams tweeted a photo of my son

Music critic Simon Sweetman is famous for his often brutal reviews, and those on the receiving end usually take it on the chin. But not Robbie Williams. A year on, Sweetman looks back at his brief scrap with the pop star – and asks: since when are kids fair game?

When Simon Sweetman came on board as a writer for The Spinoff Parents at my request, we had a chat about some of the stuff he could cover. Tentatively, I suggested he write about “that time Robbie Williams used a photo of your child to incite abuse against you”. I remember “the Robbie Williams incident”. I was horrified when I saw Oscar’s sweet face pop up on my Twitter feed. He’s a precious, delightful, sweet little boy that I’ve had the privilege of watching grow up. He’s one of my son’s best friends. And he didn’t deserve this. Neither did Katy, his mother. Neither did Simon.

I’m pleased that Simon now has the chance to say what it felt like – in his own words, on his own terms. I can’t imagine what my reaction would be if my babies were turned into memes or used to encourage hate against me by thin-skinned jerks. We need to think about that – what would we do if it was our baby? – Emily Writes, The Spinoff Parents editor

It’s almost the one-year anniversary of a very bizarre thing that happened to me. I attended a Robbie Williams concert. That alone isn’t the bizarre thing – as a music fan with a hunger to write, I’ve stooped fairly low in the past. I once interviewed Shaznay of All Saints. I attended a Wing “concert” in a tiny function room in a budget hotel. They served tea and coffee and, after watching Wing mangle AC/DC covers to a church-friendly backing track, I nabbed a setlist with the exquisite typo “Songs Preformed by Wing”. The role of the newspaper critic is to go where you’re told. You can’t like every act you see, but you do some research, find out what you need to know, and you go. That attitude has seen me at a Ciara concert that lasted 23 minutes. I’ve watched Billy Corgan sing happy birthday to himself between songs for even longer. Couldn’t tell you today which was the better show.

So, anyway, it’s Labour Weekend 2015 and I’m off to see Robbie Williams. And I’m into it from the point of view that it’s the first concert in my lifetime at Wellington’s Basin Reserve, which I’ve always thought should be an excellent go-to outdoor venue – and only a wee stroll from home. Just right for the five days of summer we get every year or two in the Capital. In my head I’ve already lined up Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to play there at a future date. But first… Robbie.

The show isn’t great. He’s there – as he sings – to entertain us. And most are happy with that. This could have been “the Sevens” or “the Cricket” or WOW (known in the capital as The Cougar Sevens) or a transplanted Toast Martinborough. Put simply: it’s an event you go to for a laugh and a glass and a half of whatever she’s having. The soundtrack for this particular event is Robbie Williams struggling to get anywhere near the notes he placed on the original records that were hits a decade and a half ago. He had opened Wellington’s “Cake Tin” stadium with its first big concert in 2000. His career had been on the wane ever since. Exiled from Britain, this cheeky chappie was loving the city of lost angels instead.

Robbie Williams performs in Monaco, July 2015

Robbie Williams performs in Monaco, July 2015

Robbie struggled through his gig. As did I. But I got to slip off – to trot out a review – and think no more of it. Well, that was the plan.

The following day there was a bit of vitriol in the comments. And then the timeline gets a bit blurry.

By Sunday afternoon I’d had my review quoted back to me. I’d had a few angry emails and some Facebook requests from Robbie Williams fans. They were just grumpy enough to turn up to the battle of wits empty-handed but eager to trade blows anyhow. Sling when you’re whining.

Local and international media started to take interest in the story – and this baffled me somewhat. What was the story? Man Attends Robbie Williams Gig: Says It’s Crap. That’s not news. And it wasn’t the first time I’d been sure the singer on stage wasn’t up to much even if most of the paying audience loved every minute. They were there with nostalgia in their hearts and fun times on their mind. They were there with cloth for ears or cotton wool blocking them up. Whatever.

But jeez – this was turning into a story. Would I talk to this paper? Would I comment on that radio station? Everyone was climbing out of the Petri dish to ask. All manner of media, including people almost connected to journalism. Dom Harvey wrote to me, “hey mate, always meant to get you on the show but what with this Robbie Williams thing perhaps now would be a great time to have a chat.” I thanked him for being a fan. Seriously – he told me he’d “always been a fan”. And suggested that maybe we talk some other time. “Mate”.

I soon found out what happened: overnight Robbie Williams had tweeted a picture of me holding my son, Oscar, then five months old. The photo was on my website. A friend had taken a candid snap. We were in a music shop; in fact we were celebrating Record Store Day. Oscar was dressed in a t-shirt that said The Who. And he was bubbling away to an early live-music experience, a local band bashing out their best in the store. Penny’s photo was so good – we thought – we asked her if we could use it on my Off The Tracks website. It seemed a nice touch. Here I wasn’t the ugly ogre that hated music. I was the dad sharing the great gift of music with his son. That was our thinking. Our, meaning me and Oscar’s mum, my wife Katy.

A day after the Robbie Williams concert, the Official Robbie Williams Twitter Account had gone to my site, found the photo, and tweeted it out with the line, “Simon Sweetman…Baby-Eater”.

I’m used to being mocked for writing reviews. I can take it. Heck – I’m a big boy (giant clue being I just got called a Baby-Eater. Must be a big boy!) It’s always the same way. I get called a bully. I get told I’m getting personal. Then the lunatic-fans turn up and bully and get personal. This is biblical stuff to them. Their revenge. Fair. Square. And if not, so what, because he fucking started it!

So when I first saw the image I was focused only on the fact that I was being mocked. I could chuckle this off. No drama. Not really. And then – second thought – how truly bizarre that Robbie Williams and/or people connected to him (who possibly run his Twitter account) care this much. Just as a critic is told they must have thick skin, so too must the artist. Surely Robbie Williams must have had worse than this? So what that I called his attempt at covering Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the original key akin to someone drawing a smile on the Mona Lisa, with crayons. He was Robbie Williams, millionaire pop star and ex-boy bander, the only one from that group to have any sort of longevity – so indeed Take That! He had to have had worse than what I gave him.

Also, he had to know, deep down, that he did an appalling job of sounding anything like not only the original Queen recording, but his own original recordings too. He might have been doing all he can to be a better man but up on the stage his charm – a look and a wink and a nod as he told his silly, lazy chav-made-good stories – was impacted severely by the fact that he clearly had not been doing all he could to be a better singer. And then, to look at it another way, I was the only one who thought this, apparently. Ask the punters. They were rapt. The troops were happy. He’d made bank, done his show; he should have laughed off a bad review. I’m surprised he even read it. Or had it read to him. Or however it works when you travel with 50+ staff.

So I’m sitting there thinking that this was mildly amusing and utterly surreal and then I noticed my wife’s reaction. It wasn’t actually funny at all. And that’s when the parental focus kicked in. Oscar was three years old at the time, about to turn four. He was old enough that he might process some of the discussion around this. It was possible his friends at daycare could arrive with stories about it, overheard from their parents or the teachers. Several of the teachers and parents told me how funny the situation was, how much they liked the review/hated the concert and so on.

Robbie Williams was the one here playing the man and not the ball. Playing the child even.

What about the rules of engagement did he not understand? Why was Oscar brought into it? Was this simply my fault for having a photo of my child online? Finders/keepers/users – fair game. It was there and that’s my fault. Was that the deal? Was a valid, adult response to a bad review to shame the writer by mocking his appearance, weight and implicating the child? Too late – it was done. And Robbie Williams fans were retweeting and flooding my inbox with their attempts at sentences.

I tell Katy that we just have to not worry about it. It will all be over tomorrow.

And then Robbie Williams played Auckland and named me during the show. I woke up to 45 emails with copies of the YouTube clip where he says, “Simon Sweetman… kiss my fucking arse!” And I was tagged in it. The papers and sites re-wrote their stories, and included the photo and this new YouTube clip. Another round on Twitter. Another round of being asked to comment. Another round of “Simon Sweetman declined to comment but shared the stories on his social media channels”. Rachel Glucina named my son when no other organisation had. She made no effort to contact me – then included a bit about me declining to comment.

The local paper wanted me to comment. Other news organisations too. The British and Australian press now covered the story.

But what was the story?

And how could I respond? If I said it was funny or silly or weird and that Robbie should grow up I’d look like a twit. If I sincerely expressed my disappointment at the image of my son being shared it would be shared, and Photoshopped. And I’d be next week’s meme too.

They – meaning nearly everyone – continued to share the image. Even the ones pointing out that it was poor form by Robbie. They did so and then added the picture of me with Oscar. I knew I couldn’t say anything. It would come across like odd boasting if I defended my right to write a review. And the fans out for blood – such a strange attitude, why not just continue to remember that you enjoyed the concert? – were sure I was the bad guy here. Not the overly-sensitive pop star who stooped low but was rewarded because engagement was high.

I never publicly commented on The Robbie Williams Thing, as it was known for a week or three around our place. Katy and I didn’t take down every photo of Oscar from our Facebook pages but we took a break from sharing any new images. I changed the picture on my website, updating it to one of Oscar and I in a similar pose. Surrounded, again, by music. He was now four years old. Can’t have eaten him after all – that was my (silent) response. Robbie Williams and his army were not going to take a shared love of music off me and my son. But we would be more careful… until we’d get lazy and the next kids birthday party would pop up. Explaining that you cannot be tagged in Facebook images is more excruciating than listing off a litany of allergies, right?

I kept getting asked to write about it. Even though I had a daily blog at the time – obviously, if I had wanted to I would have done it. But I never had a reason to write about it; there was nothing to say. I didn’t regret my review. I didn’t need to qualify it nor rewrite it in any way. It was fine. It did the job I wanted to do. I did the job I was supposed to. I attended the show and wrote what I thought of it.

There’s one thing that I always held onto from that night. It’s something I thought about mentioning at the time and which I couldn’t believe others had not mentioned at all: Robbie Williams’ impassioned speech, mid-concert, in which he talked about how he nearly stole the camera off someone who wanted to photograph his children. He was going to break the camera. Because, right, nothing meant more to Robbie Williams than his own kids. Not all the drugs and mansions and easily-pleased audiences, no way. It was the kids that mattered. They mattered most to Robbie. And he’d be fucking damned if anyone was gonna circulate an image of his flesh and his blood. And just then the lump in his throat grew as an indication that this banter was designed to move people. His audience gushed. They sighed. That Robbie Williams. Nice guy, bit of a lad, possibly a lout, but oh aye, he does love his kids. He knows right from wrong.

Those same fans possibly, because it stands to reason, forgot all of that when their Twitter feed lit up. They put down the reason and logic, picked up the pitchfork and mob mentality, and took the dive. With their man Robbie. The Grin When You’re Winning harmless guy. The song and dance man. The Let Me Entertain You guy.

What could I do with that shining nugget of irony? Well, I wasn’t giving it to bloody Dominic Harvey.

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