This was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1994:
And this was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1995:
We could continue. The biggest selling singles and albums of the period were made up of acts like Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Simply Red, Take That, Bon Jovi, The Beautiful South. Now, whatever the musical merits of these acts (I attended a Celine Dion night at an East London pub last year and it was incredible) no-one could possibly claim that they were diverse or radical, in any sense. It was one big gloopy mass of MOR. It’s been quite hilarious, then, to see pieces likethis appearing to mark the ‘anniversary’ of Britpop. It was a “cultural abomination that set music back”, apparently, leading to “unrelentingly pedestrian bands (which) ditched everything that once made British pop music interesting”. Woah! That’s quite the claim isn’t it? There’s a lot of it about too: attacks on how‘rubbish’ it all was, confused musings about its ‘conservatism’ (except for the bands/albums which the writer liked). These pieces tilt at the windmill of Britpop ‘celebration’, of which there’s been very little (an incredibly half-hearted BBC season being the only effort of note in that regard). Instead, Britpop has in the past 20 years become an embarrassing and much-maligned period far more likely to inspire ire and ridicule than misty-eyed nostalgia. This interpretation has evidently taken hold to the extent that critics can completely rewrite history, removing Britpop from its chronological context and blaming it for anything and everything they didn’t like about the 1990s.
It’s important, then, to remember the climate in which Oasis and co first came to prominence. It was ridiculously conservative and derivative, all power ballads and shit cover versions and semi-ironic one-hit wonders. Robson and Jerome sold millions of records entirely on the back of World War II nostalgia, at a time when John Major’s Back to Basics campaign was reeling from scandal after scandal. Were Oasis really more damaging than this comforting retreat or, just maybe, have they become the whipping-boys for a mainstream conservatism which everyone seems to have forgotten existed before them? I instinctively dismissed Definitely Maybe at the time – I was a 14 year old starting to realise I was gay and my brother played Oasis constantly – yet even then I could see that it had an energetic swagger which had largely been missing from the British mainstream. It felt exciting and it came from a recognisably, assertively working-class place. The opening lines of Oasis’ debut single are ‘I need to be myself/I can be no-one else/I’m feeling supersonic/give me gin and tonic’, for God’s sake. ‘You and I are gonna live forever’. “Is it worth the aggravation to find a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ This was a band upending the defeatism of a class pummelled by almost two decades of Tory government and capturing the sense of dynamism and hope which was leading to a Labour government.
That government, of course, would turn out to be a shattering disappointment. This plays into contemporary responses to Britpop, as of course does Oasis’ decline into cocaine excess and disconnect. Yet the class dynamics which made Oasis seem revolutionary at the time still instruct responses to Britpop today. It’s notable, for example, that critics almost uniformly pick out Pulp and Common People as worthy of praise amongst the detritus. Yet the irony of praising a band singing about patronising responses to the working-class while slating the gobby working-class kids who took it too far (ie didn’t know their place) is completely lost. Michael Hann writes that Britpop “resulted in a generation of bands and fans who resembled nothing so much as a parody of the football hooligans of a generation before.” Just read that sentence again. It drips with a class hatred which Guardianistas would be quick to leap on if aimed at a less acceptable target. ‘We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’, indeed. It’s easy to toss up a few signifiers of what ‘Britpop’ was and appeal to caricatures of violent working-class excess. It’s also lazy and utterly meaningless, failing to understand the musical period as a lived experience involving pride, self-discovery and a healthy lack of deference.
The media pieces slating Britpop are further bemusing because, it cannot be stressed enough, the ‘genre’ was almost entirely a media construct (hence why my use of it in this blog is so all over the place). While Britpop as a term may have only become commonly understood in 1994, it very quickly was being applied to preceding acts like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and even Morrissey (who had been embroiled in a racism storm in 1992 for draping himself in a union jack in front of a backdrop depicting skinheads). Again, the past 20 years has seen a hardening of opinion on what constituted Britpop which simply did not exist at the time. Dance acts like Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were drawn under the umbrella at the time, as were Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack (with trip-hop becoming a ‘thing’ in 1994). The intellectual, anti-sexist/homophobic/racist, cross-dressing Manic Street Preachers were included with aforementioned A Design For Life being as much an ’intelligent Britpop anthem’ as Common People. Then there were the swathes of bands drawn into the fold yet kicking against it: Skunk Anansie’s Skin declared they were ‘clitpop, not Britpop!’ while the Manics-endorsed Asian Dub Foundation complained of the ‘mythical whiteness’ pushed by the Britpop label. These were the bands which spoke to me, an awkward queer teenager at the time, and as far as Britpop means anything I would identify them as part of it. This isn’t to say that I buy into the ‘Oasis fans are awful’ stuff which The Guardian has previous form on – my 18th birthday was spent with my brother and a bunch of his mates, all of whom loved Britpop and called me ‘Jarvis Cocker’ for the evening. None of them ever gave a shit about my sexuality. But this doesn’t fit into the trite narrative about Britpop being conservative, sexist, racist etc so it’s all completely abandoned. So, in essence, the media reframes its own creation to argue against itself. It wasn’t, after all, Oasis that led to the creation of Loaded magazine, or Suede who wrote the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ cover.
Michael Hann’s hatchet job underlines his complete lack of understanding of the period with this observation:
Indie had ceased to be an alternative. And if it was no longer an alternative, but a hegemonic force of its own, then what was the point of it?
It’s important to note that he completely overstates the case. Even at its peak, Britpop was largely confined to the lower reaches of the charts and was still being outsold by the Celine Dion and Michael Jacksons of the world. Yet as far as Oasis, Blur, Suede etc did become big-hitters, this didn’t close down the opportunities for difference and diversity. Precisely the opposite – they opened the door to acts you previously couldn’t have imagined competing with Meat Load et al. What were Spice Girls if not a part-response to, part-expansion of Britpop? Yet as an unashamedly POP act, free from all the dreary anti-guitar, anti-‘authenticity’ rubbish which currently dominates music criticism, they’re still widely celebrated today. It wasn’t a BAD THING that Oasis again reminded people that some passionate working-class people could become one of the biggest bands in the world. In fact the media seems to accept this when engaging in one of the endless ‘the charts are now dominated by posh people’ tirades – it’s only when you mention ‘Oasis’ or ‘Britpop’ that the Pavlovian responses kick in and thought goes out the window.
None of this is intended as an argument that Britpop shouldn’t be criticised. If anything, it demands criticism as one of the final big musical periods where a substantial audience intersected with massive media hype and eager critics. Acts like Shania Twain and James Blunt would sell heaps in the years after but you’d never find them on the News at Ten, while the rise of Popstars/Pop Idol/X Factor in the early 00s would soon change the game again. If everyone seems to have an opinion on Britpop it’s because everyone of a certain age feels that they lived through it. It’s expected, then, that there will be different voices and criticisms. But let’s not just accept the vapid consensus that Britpop was horrible and ruined everything for everyone. Let’s remember Wet Wet Wet and Robson and Jerome.