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With its twentieth anniversary having just taken place, Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' reflects on the now routinely derided Britop movement and asks if it was negative as it is is often portrayed
Britpop celebrated its twentieth anniversary last month, or – at least – the media celebrated it on its behalf. Although the first rumblings of Britpop were heard in 1993, the first week of April seemrf as good an anniversary as any. The week of the death of Kurt Cobain and the release of Oasis' debut single proved an accurate indication of the musical waters shifting, however mawkish it may seem to mark a suicide in this way.
I had been pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastically this 'anniversary' had been celebrated (Nostalgia-fests, generally, have gone downhill since their 90's heyday, but this one was quite good). Despite successfully blending critical acclaim and rampant commercial appeal for nearly four years, Britpop is now routinely derided - admitting that you still enjoy the music these bands released will get you a withering glare if not outright abuse.
And then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm, came the backlash. Clearly irked by the numbers of people dusting off their Bluetones albums and saying, “You know what? This is a LOT better than anything on the best new music list of Pitchforkmedia”, a number of critics have stepped up to slag Britpop off. As it's clearly stupid to try and claim Blur and Pulp – almost universally loved and respected – didn't deserve their success, these critics tend to point their ire in the direction of those of us who stubbornly insisted on buying some of the other records as well.
Yes, there were downsides to Britpop. The flag-raising tendency was parochial and, occasionally, outright xenophobic. Some of the bands signed to lucrative contracts were hopelessly derivative. The emphasis on 'proper bands' who wrote their own songs eventually resulted in a genre for bands of four blokes in trainers who played guitars and sung in whiny Northern accents – and this trend ultimately saw even the more interesting guitar bands marginalised.
And yet, it would be unfair to blame either the original wave of Britpop bands or the people who bought their records for the above. No one holds Johnny Rotten personally responsible for the third wave of punk bands. In fact, only Blur and Oasis ever embraced flag waving patriotism – and, even then, seemed to do so out of a earnest desire to connect with 'the people', however clumsy that might have looked.
It's probably fair to say that the obsession with Britpop in 1994/5 meant other worthwhile music got missed – it turns out that critics were giving less attention than was really due to Pavement, Jeff Buckley, Red House Painters and the early Mark Lanegan albums. But the same is true for all prominent musical movements – those critics raving about punk were missing out on John Martyn's peerless 'One World' and Dennis Wilson's 'Pacific Ocean Blue'. It doesn't mean we should dismiss the importance of the Clash.
I think the critiques of Britpop tend to be too indie-centric, forgetting that it was only after the event that Britpop became the mainstream. Britpop partly defined itself in opposition to American grunge, which by 1993 had morphed into a humourless and mopey metal-lite (Nirvana excepted). But it was even more defined as an opposition to 'pop' as defined by the charts during 1993/4. At this point, the Top 40 of 1994 had reached an all time low. It's easy to forget now, because an increasingly diverse media means nobody even knows who is number one. But, in 1994, the charts still acted as a barometer of the state of the nation – they mattered. So, Britpop bands saw themselves as the antidote to deliberate under achievers that didn't want success, but also – more importantly – as an antidote to all the awful musicians who wanted success, but didn't deserve it.
This was the era of the mega-selling schmaltz ballad. The nation had already suffered epic stints at number one from Bryan Adams (16 weeks) and Whitney Houston (mercifully cut short after 10 weeks). Then came Wet Wet Wet with 'Love is All Around' (15 weeks), which at least allowed the music fan the small salvation of being able to name Reg Presley as the song's true author in a pub quiz, but was still vomit inducingly over-friendly. In between those, the 'novelty record' ruined breakfast in kitchens across the nation. Such abominations as Whigfield's 'Saturday Night', Mr Blobby, Scatman John and the Outhere Brothers all topped the charts. Small consolation came from a brief visit to the charts from Primal Scream, or a new REM single. But these were slim pickings.
In this context, Britpop's arrival was a godsend. Suddenly, there were songs by people who looked like you might see them in the supermarket (or, more likely, at the football). They told jokes, and wore normal clothes. Their songs were equally as catchy as the novelty hits, but didn't give you a headache if you heard them more than once. Suddenly, week after week, the charts were full of exciting songs, more or less aligned to Britpop.
Defining a scene on the basis of what it wasn't isn't unusual. Punk is best understood in contrast to the increasingly overblown stadium prog and the increasingly out-of-touch sixties mega-stars (and, though few critics want to admit it now, punk fans liked punk because it wasn't disco). Grunge is only understood in contrast to hair metal and shiny MTV-approved pop.
Like punk and grunge, Britpop's borders are contestable. Are we just talking about four/five man guitar bands in the Blur/Oasis model whose fame peaked in 1994/5? Can we allow for Pulp's keyboards? What about bands who were clearly marketed to Britpop's audience who sounded a bit different – Kula Skaker, say, or the heavy-rock of Skunk Anansie and Reef? What about McAlmont and Butler – can we not reasonably assume that some of Suede's audience followed their favourite guitarist's new project? Can we rope in the Chemical Brothers, given that their biggest hit had Noel Gallagher on lead vocals?
If your main complaint with 'Britpop' is that it was more of a media than a musical construction, then you may have a point (albeit, my defence is that the music was good, and the bands did have more in common than has been common since). But much of the criticism Britpop faces is more strident. Perhaps this is because it marked the point where guitar music stopped being 'dangerous'. Parents raised on the music of the 60s and 70s saw plenty to enjoy in Oasis and Blur. They started borrowing your records. And the parents' records were quickly borrowed in return – indeed one of the 1995's best selling album was a compilation of 60's bands dubbed the 'fathers of Britpop'.
And so, Britpop is now often labelled backwood looking. Was it? The Britpop bands weren't the first to borrow liberally from older bands - The Jam sped up mid-60s mod; the Sex Pistols were heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls; the Smiths' musical and lyrical reference points all came from the 50s and 60s; even Bob Dylan and the Beatles both harked back to the music of their childhoods, defining themselves against what they saw as their inauthentic sounds of their contemporaries.
But a chord progression isn't a song, and what Britpop did was use the best sonic ideas of the past to accompany lyrics about the present. The songs of the Britpop era are deeply reflective of their times – a generation coming out of recession, gradually losing faith in the traditional family structure, quickly abandoning the kneejerk racism of their grandparents, resigned to rat-race capitalism and long, boring hours at the office – more likely to voice opposition through satirical comedy than revolutionary politics. And the last generation not to grow up seeing broadband internet as a human right.
Don't be taken in by those who dismiss Britpop as 'socially conservative'. Britpop fans accepted gay singers unquestionably (Ocean Colour Scene got the loudest cheers at Knebworth aside from Oasis themselves), bought records by female artists in their droves (in fact, you might argue that the automatic dismissal of Sleeper and Echobelly is the true sexism – rudely based on the assumption that both were only riding Albarn and Cocker's coattails) and happily accepted dance culture (it was Oasis' audience buying all those Chemical Brothers and Prodigy records).
Britpop has been blamed for 'lad culture' so often it is taken as accepted fact. But this is to mistake coincidence for causation. My memory is that 'lad culture' was just as likely to include clubbers and gangsta rappers as Oasis fans. 'Loaded' Magazine would have been a success even if Kurt Cobain hadn't died and Pulp had never been given a second chance by Island Records. Granted, the audiences at shows from reformed Britpop bands are blokey and beery, but the same is true of reformed grunge, punk, baggy and C86 bands.
To really answer the question of whether we should 'celebrate' Britpop is to go back and play the records. The headline Britpop acts have become accepted parts of the canon – but the real test is to listen to the so-called also rans. The interesting thing when you look at Sleeper, the Bluetones or Cast is that they were all genuine stars. They had chart topping albums and appeared on the cover of magazines. All three, in fact, were far more commercially successful than the Smiths or the Stone Roses. How on earth did this happen? Look dispassionately at them now and they have 'cult classic' written all over them. All three would be candidates for 'hidden treasure/overlooked gem' status – were it not for the fact that they sold thousands and thousands of copies the first time round. Commercial success can occasionally prove to be a bad career move.
In 'The Quietus', the normally sensible Luke Turner concluded his critique of Britpop by saying, “Part of being a music critic ought to be about disassociating your ears from the obscurant hormone rush of discovering and falling in love with music for the first time as a teenager. Those of us who have the means and the capacity to write owe it to them not to patronisingly hold up our own past lives as somehow superior to theirs, being lived and struggled through right now.”
He misses the point on several levels. Firstly, I would argue that giving teenagers some context – lots of people have done things before and their work is still accessible to you – is healthy. (By the same logic, should teenagers be shielded from knowing that we had recessions in the 1930s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, just in case it makes them feel like their recession doesn't mean quite so much?) And, besides, it wasn't just teenagers who liked Britpop – it was their parents as well. That's what made it so successful.
Secondly, if we do what Turner wants and focus exclusively on the here and now, we risk repeating the same mistake over and over – getting hung up on whatever fad catches the media's attention, wasting time listening to derivative records and then ultimately rejecting them as soon as the next fad comes along. Instead, let's measure new bands against what already exists – and demand high standards.
Thirdly, this isn't just nostalgia, but a re-appraisal. For too long, for a variety of reasons, music fans have been told that they were wrong about Britpop – that they allowed themselves to get taken in by greedy labels, and were being sold a dud. Many of us stubbornly erased Britpop from our pasts. We kept the Blur albums, but took our 'Shine' compilations to Oxfam.
By 1999, the 'NME' had chased the pop charts too hard. Its 'core audience' had grown restless and it decided to re-write history. Without a new headline band to champion (The Strokes were still hiding in their managers' rehearsal room), the 'NME' tried to keep us interested with a familiar game of 'build 'em up and and knock 'em down'). It was the last time we would fall for that trick – the 'NME's 'core audience' stopped buying the paper.
And now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can reflect on what was good about Britpop – and are slightly surprised to find that the answer is 'a lot'.
Now, where did I put that Seahorses album?