In Defense of Britpop (Well, Some of It)

Cometh the anniversary, cometh the backlash. As I’ve already discussed this week, 2014 is a year that bursts with musical anniversaries — on this side of the Atlantic it was the decline of grunge (and a vintage year for hip hop), while across the ocean it’s the 20th anniversary of the commercial height of Britpop. There’s plenty of nostalgia around the anniversary, but there’s also been a significant backlash: The Guardian‘s Michael Hann described it as “a cultural abomination that set music back,” while The Quietus’ Taylor Parkes launched a broadside against Britpop nostalgia, arguing that “Britpop was the willing soundtrack to — and yes, enabler of — the final destruction of everything Britpop ever claimed to love.” Hey, come on now. It wasn’t all bad. Not at first, anyway.

As with all genre descriptors, “Britpop” is a slippery label — just like grunge, and punk, and whatever else, it refers to a whole lot of music that doesn’t necessarily have a great deal in common. It’s interesting how often genre labels first emerge as a reference to geography or chronology, and only come to refer to style later on. Take “punk,” for instance — there was nothing stylistically to unite, say, the Ramones and Television and Talking Heads. If they had anything in common, it was a philosophy: a disaffection with the way that popular music failed to depict their lives, and a determination to to make the sort of music that they wanted to listen to themselves.

It was only after a couple of years that the word came to refer to a distinct aesthetic, both visual (mohawk, leather jacket, etc.) and musical (short, fast, loud). It’s the same with grunge — there was perhaps more stylistic coherency among early grunge bands than among their punk forebears, but there’s still a much bigger difference between, say, Mudhoney and Soundgarden than there is between two identikit second-wave grunge bands like Bush and Stone Temple Pilots.

And it’s the same with Britpop, because for all that it sort of grew into a Union Jack-waving monster, it started just like any other subculture: with the desire to represent the participants’ own experience. There’s a fine line between patriotism and jingoism, of course, and even the former is fraught with danger — but equally, the global ubiquity of US culture means that it’s often something for people outside this country to define in opposition to. As such, the early stirrings of Britpop weren’t so much patriotic as they were determinedly non-American. If there was a common thread that united bands as different as Blur and Pulp and Oasis and Suede, it was this: the desire to represent the experience of living in early-’90s Britain, in the aftermath of the Thatcher years, in a country that had undergone a decade of radical, irrevocable social change.

You can see threads of this in all the classic Britpop records: a cross between a kind of starry-eyed romanticism and gritty council-flat realism (even if some of the bands in question had probably never been near a council flat — hi, Damon!). Suede’s Brett Anderson quoted Oscar Wilde to Rolling Stone in mid-1993: “It’s the Oscar Wilde thing of lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Life has always been cinema to me, even when I’ve been sitting in the dole office.” You can see similar sentiments in Oasis’ debut album, even though the two bands were polar opposites in virtually every other respect: “I live my life for the stars that shine/ People say it’s just a waste of time… In my mind my dreams are real/ Now you’re concerned about the way I feel /Tonight, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star.” And Pulp were pretty much the embodiment of thrift-shop romanticism, bless them.

This was essentially the opposite of the determinedly unglamorous image of grunge, which is perhaps why the British reacted so strongly against the Seattle sound and its purveyors. People forget how dire the mid-’90s were — if you want to argue that Britpop turned into a monster, then Jesus, so did grunge. For a brief period, at least, the music coming out of England was a revelation: proof that you could create a sound to reflect your own experience of the world, something that was yours. (It wasn’t just Britpop, either — at around the same time, the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky were proving that you could make a brand of hip hop all your own, instead of affecting an American accent and pretending like you were in Run-DMC.)

Clearly, this didn’t last long: by 1995 or so, Oasis were huge and bloated, Blur and Pulp were reassessing their entire aesthetics, Suede had gone into a slow Bernard Butler-less decline into self parody, and the charts were full of inferior also-rans with affected cockney accents and faux-Carnaby Street clothes. Bands like Cast and Ocean Colour Scene and Shed Seven sold lots of records. Kula Shaker and Menswear got record deals. And somehow it was acceptable to like Paul Weller again. It was a dark time for everyone.

Two years later, it was all over — in a cultural sense, anyway, because as with pretty much any other subculture, Britpop peaked commercially once the original progenitors had long since lost interest. The idea of rejecting American cultural hegemony morphed into straight-out flag-waving patriotism, with all the problems that implied. Euro ’96 catalyzed a whole lot of chest-beating and flag-waving. People used the phrase “Cool Britannia” with a straight face. Noel Gallagher accepted an invitation to hang out at 10 Downing Street with popular young Prime Minister and future Bush sidekick Tony Blair. And then he released the dismal Be Here Now, which was the last nail in the coffin of Britpop.

A lot of what’s been said about Britpop over the last couple of weeks is essentially true: it turned into a monster, lost sight of its original ideas, and was eventually a sort of bloated parody of itself that lurched around like a mockney zombie before finally collapsing into a puddle of warm lager and average cocaine. But it also gave us some great records — I’ll defend to my grave the first two Suede records, mid-’90s Blur, and basically all of Pulp’s work. All of Supergrass’ albums remain wildly underrated (In It for the Money, in particular, is a minor masterpiece) and the first two Oasis records still have their charms.

And god knows Britpop made 1993 and 1994 more interesting than they’d have been otherwise. Sure, reassess its legacy, but trying to cast it retrospectively as all bad is just as blinkered as reminiscing about the days of Cool Britannia. History is never that simple.