Britpop and Robson and Jerome

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.

Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013

Pulp and Privilege

Pulp’s ‘Common People’ memorably skewered class tourism – the idealization of working-class life and poverty by people who never had to face its day-to-day reality. It was a common theme of the Britpop era but certainly hasn’t been confined to those years – you need only look at our current cabinet to see that ‘slumming’ it remains very real, with multi-millionaires assuring us that they’re just ordinary folk. It’s most notable, however, when it comes from those of a left-wing bent for whom wealth and power is implicitly associated with privilege, inequality and oppression. Few people want to be seen as advantaged at birth, as having it relatively easy. We all want to think that we have worked hard for what we have, that every benefit has been earned. 

The ease and comfort with which many can claim to be working-class while clearly not being comes largely from the view that class is a socially-constructed identity rather than being derived from (and embedded within) socio-economic structures (or more fundamentally as Marx would have it, distinguished by relationships to the means of production and labour power). As I have written before, the idea of class as a foundational determinant in society is a deeply unfashionable one. Instead the attitude neatly summarised by Laurie Penny holds sway – “all politics are identity politics” and class is but one identity amongst many others (with the emphasis usually falling upon gender, race and sexuality). I don’t wish to go into that here – though there is a lengthy and compelling demolition of that idea linked to in this post – but instead want to briefly look at how relates to the ‘class tourism’ we are all familiar with.

There has of course been a lot of recent discussion around notions of privilege and ‘privilege-checking’ stemming from various disagreements, debates and arguments largely revolving around the words of writers like Caitlin Moran, Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill. This in turn has led to a wider blow-back against the ideas from other writers. Their criticisms have common threads – privilege-checking is portrayed as ‘shutting down debate’, as the current weapon-of-choice of self-righteous morally pure internet warriors, as an attempt to lend credence to a form of ‘bullying’. Yet any rational look at these claims would surely swiftly find them wanting – it makes absolutely no sense for people with hugely powerful platforms, read by many thousands of people, to claim that they are somehow being ‘silenced’ by people on Twitter (and indeed the swift responses printed in places like The Guardian, New Statesman and The Times render it a laughable claim). Given that the point of a columnist is to push a particular opinion, arouse interest and ultimately generate income, it seems counter-intuitive that a columnist can then decide that they don’t like the debate they have initiated. Yet that is exactly what we’ve been seeing and, with tedious inevitability, there have been efforts to portray the ‘check your privilege crew’ as another kind of ‘troll’ (a phrase which many writers have already attempted to co-opt).

One of the interesting things about this whole issue is that the writers most inflamed by it are ones who spend an inordinate amount of time writing about forms of oppression. Throw a metaphorical dart at the comments section of left-leaning broadsheets and magazines and you’re liable to hit a piece on sexism or homophobia (racism is notably less common – unsurprising given most of the writers are white). You would imagine, then, that they would be hugely sensitive to questions of privilege. What complicates matters, however, is that many of the pieces focus on the ways in which the writers themselves are victims of oppression (albeit usually presented as more widely applicable). Indeed, there are entire journalistic careers, various blogs, Twitter accounts and more dedicated to documenting the various ways in which we are oppressed – but crucially, the focus tends to be on one form of oppression only (misogyny, homophobia etc). Undoubtedly many important issues are covered but it becomes problematic when it is seen to become a self-perpetuating industry where a tunnel vision develops. There is no glory in being seen to be ‘privileged’, no columns to be had and this makes that first-hand oppression that little bit more complicated. It requires the acknowledgement that not everyone affected by sexism or homophobia experiences these things in the same way, for example, or that people can be affected by these things whilst themselves being privileged (or even oppressive) in other ways.

Yet many seem unwilling or unable to hear this. As with class tourism, they are keen to portray privilege as something enjoyed by other people and portray their own relationship solely in terms of how they themselves are (or are seen to be) oppressed. With this mindset it’s easy to see how  ’privilege-checking’ becomes a threat, pointing out as it does that many of these people enjoy huge advantages (including over most of their critics). As I wrote in the piece on ‘trolls’, these writers are part of the Fourth Estate and act as gatekeepers to their positions. They jealously guard their privilege, seeking to control which views, and which debate, is seen as ‘acceptable’ and ‘serious’, hence the endless and constant dismissal of more radical voices without large media platforms.

This is underlined and illuminated by the fact that many of these people are swift to rush to their own, self-serving take on privilege-checking when it suits. I have personal experience of this (e.g. having a dissenting view immediately dismissed on the basis of being a man disagreeing with a female journalist, despite it having zero relevance to the subject) but it’s a subtle and insidious tactic which can easily be met with incredulity. It’s even more difficult to notice when we’re so frequently asked to focus on extreme and indefensible abuse which has nothing to do with disagreement. A perfect example of this is when Suzanne Moore shared this post in an effort to prove that she was being ‘bullied’. Moore’s own intransigence and abuse was erased from the story. Furthermore, most of the featured tweets weren’t to Moore (meaning that she would have to have actively sought them out in order to be ‘bullied’ by them) and several of them were clearly nothing more than strongly-worded venting (which we may find distasteful but is hardly worthy of state intervention). This isn’t at all to deny that some of the abuse was, as I say, indefensible but the post served its purpose well – it immediately portrayed a writer with a massive audience who had been grossly offensive as a ‘victim’. Then follow the pieces calling for something to be done about the the tone of ‘debate’, lumping in strong disagreement with mindless abuse. The platform ensures that thousands of people heed the call, dangerous behaviour becomes synonymous with words we dislike, it becomes ever easier for people to be locked up for writing something, and the cycle trundles on. 

Given their prominent roles in shaping debate and framing the boundaries of acceptability, it should be expected that writers for national publications (and more) are aware of their enormous power. Few would disagree that abuse should be addressed, that patriarchy is very real or that inequalities need our attention. Yet we should be (and need to be) wary of the rush to deny wider privilege and to repeatedly highlight only the ways in which we can be seen to be victims. Identity politics can, deliberately or otherwise, serve power well (recently exemplified in the portrayal of arch-hawk Hillary Clinton as a feminist hero for her ‘performance’ when testifying regarding the Benghazi attacks which saw at least four people dead)  and this is just one of the lessons to take from the growing calls for intersectionality.

“Pulp’s upending of class stereotypes, their anger and their experimentation matter now more than ever, as a government waging naked class war elicits no response at all from our cowed, moribund pop music. But with the decimation of the infrastructure that produced them, from access to education to arts council grants to the dole itself, has the British political and popcultural landscape changed so much that a group like Pulp is now impossible?

A very good article. It’s difficult to believe that, not so long ago, artists such as The Smiths, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Pet Shop Boys were not just regular fixtures in the charts but sometimes having huge hits. It’s easy to slip into a rosy-eyed nostalgia for ‘times gone by’ but it really does seem that a political consciousness is almost entirely absent from mainstream music in 2011. Not only in terms of the artists themselves, but also music journalism. From magazines to books to blogs, the overwhelming sense gained is of an extremely one-dimensional approach to music where all that matters is whether or not a tune is ‘catchy’. Attempt to delve deeper than that and speak about where it fits in culture, what it says, who is saying it, why they are saying it etc etc, and you are seen as ‘humourless’ and/or ‘thinking about things too much’. Celebrating the celebrity on their terms and alienating ourselves from the unbreakable bond (and overlap) between culture and politics is the order of the day. It treats pop music as froth instead of as a serious art form, which it undoubtedly is.

Maybe I’m wrong and the 21st century equivalent of these acts, of this criticism, is out there and hitting a younger audience. I need to be told! 

Pulp matter more than ever in today’s cowed popcultural landscape