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Robbie Williams show at World Cup opening ceremony is too short to ever be dull

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It was, perhaps, inevitable that Robbie Williams would begin the 2018 World Cup opening ceremony by singing Let Me Entertain You, rather than Party Like a Russian, the 2016 single that reportedly caused a certain amount of disquiet in the titular nation. It was certainly a robust opening for British viewers, but one wondered if it had quite the impact for the rest of the world: Williams’s stardom has been largely confined to Europe and isn’t of the wattage it once was. Still, nothing hung around long enough to get dull – Let Me Entertain You faded into the soprano Aida Garifullina warbling on the back of a “firebird” for a few seconds before Williams returned for a snippet of Feel, before Garifullina joined him for, inevitably, Angels. “And through it all she offers me protection,” Williams sang, echoing the prayers of flair players towards referees.
The whole thing – compact, based around partial songs rather than a dragged-out epic – felt based not on the self-conscious pomposity of Olympics opening ceremonies, but the tightly scheduled wham-bam of Super Bowl half-time shows. Albeit this was a Super Bowl half-time show done on a fraction of the budget. There were no bonkers mass dance displays, but there were women in some Fifa-approved bastardised national costumes. (Williams, it emerged later, flipped the bird during his version of Rock DJ, although this was missed by ITV in the UK who were already focusing on the football.) And a man in a wolf suit giving high fives to Ronaldo – the original one – and a child identified in Fifa’s official schedule only as “kid”. Presumably all those Fifa riches were heading straight for grassroots football projects even as Ronaldo and “kid” grinned awkwardly at each other.
It was short, it was mostly painless. And it was completely pointless.
But the opening ceremony was just the spearhead of a month in which the music business will expect to make serious money. Williams and his label, Universal, will be hoping for the massive increase in sales and streams that traditionally follow a globally televised appearance; the official World Cup song – Live It Up, by Nicky Jam featuring Will Smith and Era Istrefi – will doubtless get it little boost after being played throughout the tournament. But away from the Luzhniki Stadium, the industry is gearing up for a lucrative month.
For starters, Live It Up isn’t the only “official anthem” of this World Cup. Tournament sponsor Coca-Cola has its own “official anthem” – Colors, by Jason Derulo and Maluma. Telemundo, which holds the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the tournament in the US, has released J Balvin and Michael Brun’s Positivo – an old song with repurposed lyrics – as its World Cup anthem. And there are three more songs that appear to have been given “official” status, too, originally with the intention of there being a Fifa-sanctioned album, though there’s been no sign of it yet. Still, that pales in comparison with the nine – nine! – songs that were granted official status one way or another for the 2014 World Cup.

Robbie Williams and the Russian soprano Aida Garifullina during the World Cup opening ceremony. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
Then there are the scores of unofficial songs: from Rasputin Rebooted by the Stars House Band, featuring Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefsand the former cricketer Andrew Flintoff, a song so awful it managed a total of 3,540 views on YouTube as of Thursday lunchtime. Rather better is Chin Up, by hipsters du jour Rhythm Method, though don’t expect it to be echoing round the streets, sung lustily by post-pub gangs of drunk fans.
Old music, too, gets a push. World Cup advertising campaigns get built around music – for people of a certain age, Massive Attack’s Inertia Creeps isn’t so much an expression of dread as the accompaniment to Adidas’s 1998 World Cup campaign – and the money that flows in from “syncs” to advertisements is a major revenue stream in this age of declining sales.
This year, Beats by Dré has commissioned a four-minute mini-movie directed by Guy Ritchie called Made Defiant, telling the “origin stories” of World Cup stars – and soundtracked by hip-hop star Anderson .Paak. You can also expect to hear AC/DC on Coca-Cola ads and Major Lazer on Pepsi ads. Even the streaming services aren’t letting up, with Deezer and Apple creating World Cup-themed playlists. And a nation awaits what lachrymose power ballads BBC and ITV have chosen for their montage sequences (Oasis, of course, claimed to have written Stop Crying Your Heart Out in expectation of it accompanying England’s exit from the 2002 World Cup).
But what British audiences hear will be just a fraction of the World Cup’s musical spread. The combination of Latin American music’s booming popularity around the world and the fevered obsession with football in South America means that this could be a massive tournament for the music industry there: it’s no coincidence that both Fifa’s and Coca-Cola’s songs feature Latin artists – Nicky Jam and Maluma. This could be the reggaeton World Cup. Certainly, by the time the tournament finishes on 15 July, no one will be talking about Robbie Williams.

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