Britpop

In this essay, I discuss my old love affair with Britpop and the recent critical reappraisals of the genre in the British media.

 

 

I reckon that the appeal of Britpop for me was its quaintness. It had an otherness to it—with its foreign dialects, slang, and occasional bursts of class consciousness—but nothing so strange as to alienate or rattle the worldview of a 14 year-old, middle-class white kid. If you were from England (and let’s be real here, ‘Britpop’ was a misnomer; it was a strictly English affair undeserving of the inclusiveness that the term ‘Britpop’ has for Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish) Britpop was merely a rehash, even if it was a welcome one at the time. For an American kid though, Britpop sounded different enough to offer a genuine alternative to post-grunge rock music.

Of course I came into Britpop long after it had petered out. Rather than discovering Britpop as it was released, I was learning about it through the reverence still afforded to it in the early half of the 2000s by British music magazine like Q, Mojo, and NME (and especially NME). This saved me from having to listen to the litany of forgotten Britpop bands, but also divorced me from its cultural context. Thus, while I avoided listening to Menswear albums, I also did not understand how xenophobic and retrograde Britpop often was. I just heard enjoyable pop songs.

I do not quite remember how this happened. I am fairly certain that I was a freshman in high school or thereabouts. I had purchased Blur’s Greatest Hits compilation and quickly fell in love with the quirky arrangements and killer pop hooks. I was eagerly anticipating the band’s forthcoming album Think Tank. I bought four (!) Oasis albums: Definitely Maybe, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Be Here Now (!!), and Heathen Chemistry(!!!). I got Pulp’s Different Class and Supergrass’ I Should Coco. Through all of this, I was alone in my love of Britpop. None of my friends paid any mind to it no matter how much of their time I wasted extolling its merits, but that just made me feel cool for liking something that they had no idea about.

Chronologically, Britpop followed my punk phase, ran roughly contemporaneously with my infatuation with Garage Rock Revival, and came just before my becoming a trend-chasing indie kid. It meant a great deal to me back then. It was a source for great pop songwriting that still had guitars, meaning that I could enjoy it while still ostensibly being a rock fan (this was important for acceptance within my peer group at the time). It presented—and still does—a glimpse into songwriting practices that either never developed in the United States or have long since been abandoned, most notably in the form of the character study (see Blur’s “Tracy Jacks,” continuing a tradition of such character pieces that includes songs by the Kinks and the Jam, among others) and the aforesaid songs with class consciousness (this was almost entirely the domain of Pulp).[1] Most of all, it was different from anything that I had listened to before or anything that my friends were listening to at the time.

It was a music born—or at least promoted—as a reaction against American rock music (i.e., grunge) that was a return to a time when British music dominated the British charts.[2] It became a response to the millennial angst felt by certain Britons about Great Britain’s place in the world at the end of the twentieth-century, a century that had seen it slowly erode to something approaching a second-rate power. Britpop was absorbed in the emerging Cool Britannia movement, which was all about Britain culturally reasserting itself after a perceived period of stagnation. Once again, Great Britain had cool bands (the Britpop guys), cool writers (Will Self was a prominent figure at the time), cool films (remember Trainspotting—the one thing that Scotland was allowed to contribute to Cool Britannia—and its soundtrack—which, naturally, did not feature any Scottish bands), and cool artists (Damien Hirst being the most notable of course, then as now the person most likely to be remembered as the major artist of his generation).[3] Britain’s New Labour party capitalized on this and used the Cool Britannia ‘scene’ in general, but Britpop most of all, to brand itself as the face of the new Britain, a Britain that would implicitly return the country to its Victorian-era peak. This was a courtship that worked, as Oasis’ Noel Gallagher was all to eager to be seen as an ally to New Labour (Noel eventually started distancing himself from Tony Blair and New Labour, presumably bitter about how he and his band were used as political pawns and/or disenchanted with the direction that the party had taken).[4]

If I was British, I would no doubt mirror the consensus tone of the Britpop pieces that were running in the British newspapers earlier this year.[5] Most of them point out how the vanilla palatability of Britpop allowed it to become popular and dominate the musical conversation at the expense of other, more interesting, artists active in the mid-90s like Tricky, Portishead, and Disco Inferno. They are quick to discuss the problematic exclusionary aspects of the movement. In general, they condemn the scene entirely, even if they often (though not always) stop short of dismissing the music of the perceived top-tier acts like Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. I do not disagree with the way that the more conscious members of the British media are handling Britpop, especially in light of the whitewashed treatments of it by the more, shall we say, uncritical or even jingoistic media outlets in the UK (the BBC, of course).

Britpop was never especially relevant in the United States. Blur and Pulp were critical darlings and Oasis was successful in the mainstream for about a year-and-a-half. Thus, for at least a small portion of my life, I felt that Britpop was my own little genre, full of loveable British eccentrics / pop geniuses that only I knew about. The recent reappraisals in the British press gave me a reason to revisit this part of my past, one that was always in the back of my mind but rarely at the forefront. In fact, over the past several years, when I would listen to Blur or Pulp, I did not think of them in the context of Britpop. It was almost as if I had expunged my knowledge of, and interest in, the movement from my memory.

I lost interest in Britpop probably about a year or so after becoming obsessed with it. I do not feel the guilt or embarrassment for embracing it the way that several members of the British media do; owing, no doubt, to a gap that is both spatial and temporal. Certainly the movement’s lack of depth makes it impossible to identify as a fan of the genre as a whole, but I still enjoy listening to the occasional song by Oasis and Supergrass. I to this day count Blur and Pulp among my favorite artists of the ‘90s and listen to each with some degree of frequency. However, it should be noted that Blur, despite being emblematic of the worst elements of Britpop’s xenophobia early on, presciently abandoned Britpop’s sound right as the movement was about to implode (in 1997), first for American underground (i.e., Pavement-indebted indie rock) and later for West African and electronic styles. Meanwhile, Pulp come out looking the best of all, as they alone were astute enough to see Britpop for the sham that it was, writing songs that condemned the movement at its height. Pulp’s “Common People” is frequently read as indictment of the romanticized working-class lifestyle promoted by Oasis and adopted by the distinctly upper-middle class guys from Blur. Pulp’s 1998 album This Is Hardcore acts as a fitting bookend for Britpop, in particular its sneering title track. Sure it makes the somewhat obvious comparison of being a porn star and a pop star, but it does so with such wit and commitment that it sounds anything but clichéd.

I do not recall exactly why I lost interest in Britpop. I suppose I just got bored with backward looking British pop songs and was, in any event, becoming much more interested in current music. Maybe I just got burned out on the stuff, similar to how the British public started to feel in ’97. Maybe because the reason why it appealed to me was that I was beginning to lose interest in the music that my friends were listening to and needed to find something else; something that could be identifiably mine. Thus, when I found other, more interesting alternatives, I no longer had a need for Britpop. Perhaps I found myself asking it, “What exactly do you have for an encore?” to which it had no reply.


Notes:

[1] The inability of Americans to develop any real sense of class consciousness is a frequent explanation posited by Marxist historians and cultural critics as to why socialism never took hold in the United States, despite it having met all of the conditions (in Marxist theory) suitable for a socialist revolution. The closest the United States gets to this in music is usually found in work and Appalachian folk songs, the latter of which had a vital part in the development of American pop music that all too often goes ignored.

[2] I have always had a difficult time with this part of the traditional Britpop narrative. I find it unlikely that American music was as dominant in Great Britain at the time as is often stated. It seems more likely that a few music musicians and journalists became upset (envious, one would think) at the attention that Nirvana and Pearl Jam were getting and decided to start a reactionary movement against grunge that, as reactionary movements tend to do, quickly took on an exclusionist nationalistic fervor.

[3] In what must have been the peak of Cool Britannia synergy, Hirst directed Blur’s video for “Country House.” Sadly, both the song and video are underwhelming.

[4] Not every band in Britian was so willing to embrace and to be embraced by New Labour. This was the theme of Radiohead’s OK Computer track “Electioneering.”

[5] These two pieces by the Guardian are the most representative of what I am talking about:
http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/apr/24/britpop-cultural-abomination-music-blur-oasis
http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/apr/03/britpop-kurt-cobain-20-years-nirvana

 

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