When I was in sixth grade, my family hosted three Soviet Georgian pre-teens whose theater group was doing a whirlwind performance tour of the United States. (How these kids ended up in Chattanooga is a story that will have to wait for my novel.)
Often, these three seemed like aliens to me. I mean, didn't they know you're not supposed to grind M&M's into the guest bed's comforter? And didn't they know that you should only play your host's Nintendo after asking for his permission?
Common ground was discovered when the conversation finally turned to pop music. The guys knew Madonna! Michael Jackson! Everything made sense again.
That is, until I mentioned Paula Abdul. The Georgians had no idea who she was. For the first time, I understood why Americans feared Communism.
Because in 1991, Paula Abdul was not just an American Idol judge-cum-QVC jewelry saleswoman. She was a star, dammit, a star! She had six number one hits. Six! Aretha Franklin's only had two!
In 1991 I was convinced that Paula was a permanent part of the firmament. I can remember making one of my elementary school teachers listen to "Rush, Rush" and telling her it was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard.
So I'm sure you can imagine my horror when the Russians had never heard of her. It must be how Brits feel when they ask Americans about Robbie Williams.
Because in the U.K., Robbie Williams is some kind of nuclear phenomenon. Remember that sort-of-hit ballad "Angels"? The British named it the best song of the last 25 years. And they also said it was their favorite funeral tune.
Robbie Williams is such a big deal in England that even his failures make news. When a newspaper writes a story about how bad an artist's new project is, that only proves how relevant he or she remains to the culture. That's what happened when countless articles appeared about Madonna's post-"Sex" fallout, and it's what happened with the September 2006 release of Williams' unfortunately named single "Rudebox." You don't get this angry about someone that doesn't matter.
But in America, most people don't even know he exists. This week, iTunes is practically begging us to pay attention to him, offering a free dowload of "Kiss Me," another track from the "Rudebox" album.
Really, the song is not that bad. There's no reason that Robbie shouldn't succeed over here: His music is decent, he' s charismatic, and he's smoking hot. You'd think we'd love him over here. I mean, we took James Blunt to our bosom, and he's not even interesting.
It's not going to happen, though. Robbie Williams' last album didn't even get a physical release in the US. You could only buy it on iTunes. And if that "Rock DJ" video, where he threw pieces of his flesh to a bevy of roller-skating supermodels, didn't get him noticed, nothing will.
All of which must be very confusing to Europeans. So maybe I was wrong to judge the Georgians. Maybe I'm just like them.