Britpop: The Story of British Politics and Society in the 1990s

Otis Platt

Much has been written of the British music phenomenon Britpop over the past 20 years. I argue that while Britpop started off as a reaction against the US grunge scene in way to promote a ‘British’ national identity based around working class grit, it became co-opted by capitalist marketing and the neoliberal agenda of New Labour. Using Benedict Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities”, along with E.P. Thompson’s concept of fluid social class, I will discuss how the “Britpop” phenomenon of mid-1990s Britain represented nostalgic British nationalism, I will look at three of the most well-known acts of the era: Oasis, Blur & Pulp during a time when their ideas were being called into question as problematic. After that I will detail how this popular alternative music subgenre was co-opted by capitalist marketing and nascent political forces (represented by Labour leader Tony Blair’s New Labour). In order to show this historical development and its socio-political contours I will begin by outlining the origins of Britpop in the early 1990s as a reaction against the influence on US Grunge.

Emphasis will be placed on how Britpop differed from Grunge and attempted to define itself in opposition to Grunge. I will chart the general history of Britpop to its decline in 1997 and the movement’s legacy to British music. The structural analysis will begin by outlining the representations of British nationalism inherent in the lyrics and music of Britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp. This will include an analysis of the potentially problematic aspects of whether the nationalism of Britpop was simply nostalgic during a time when the reality of British identity was more complex. My final section will be on the attempted co-option of the Britpop genre by economic and political interests in the mid-to-late 1990s. This will show how the counter-cultural aspects of Britpop became just another aspect of neoliberal commodification and part of the new political establishment.

The History of Britpop

Britpop emerged as a musical phenomenon in Britain in the early 1990s. Historians point to the genre emerging after Blur embarked on a lengthy American tour in May 1992, which precipitated in them writing and recording an album about the Americanisation of Britain that November. The lead singer described British culture as being “under siege”, and that “We [Britons] should be proud of being British.” This change for Blur was the product of two factors. Firstly, Albarn listened repeatedly to English alternative records by the Specials, Madness, XTC, The Jam, and The Fall with his girlfriend Justine Frischmann, culminating with the band writing new songs on tour that told stories of English life. Secondly, much like in the USA, when the band returned home the UK music press was filled with American guitar bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This only made Blur more determined to release Modern Life is Rubbish in a way that was stridently anti-American rock and pro-British pop. The band insisted that the resulting record was about British nostalgia over American importation. Albarn, according to Mike Smith, wanted to emphasise Britain’s rich Victorian-era musical tradition combined with the music of the 1960s and “come up with an articulate response to what had come from America.” Modern Life is Rubbish was released in May 1993 as Blur’s statement. The sixties influences of The Kinks was the ‘rubbish’ from the past that the band used to create its music. Thus, Britpop was born as a reaction to American grunge with a distinctly British twist.

In 1994 Blur released their second Britpop album, Parklife, with many of its 14 songs reflecting “Albarn’s claims to a bittersweet take on the UK’s human patchwork.” Parklife reached number one on the album charts. Nineteen Ninety-Four would also see Oasis release their first album, Definitely Maybe, a record with a profoundly Beatles influence. This group, led by Noel Gallagher, saw themselves as “proletarian sons of the soil, come to avenge music’s dependency on intellect and artifice.” This “proletarian swagger” of the Gallagher brothers would be something Damon Albarn and Blur would attempt to emulate, if unconvincingly. By the end of 1994, Noel urged British bands to stick together, in order to “go and break America.” However, 1995 saw the battle of the singles between Oasis’ “Roll With It” and Blur’s “Country House” (both released on 14 August) in the bid to get to number one on the charts. Musicians and the press often portrayed this battle as the middle-class southerners (Blur) versus the working-class northerners (Oasis). While Blur won this battle (reaching number one), Oasis won the war, due to the other songs off their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? achieving sustained sales in the US. The year 1995 also saw the release Pulp’s acclaimed album Different Class, the lead single of which (“Common People”) was a strident response to the “voyeurism on the part of the middle classes” of “a certain romanticism of working-class culture” in the words of singer Jarvis Cocker.

The year 1997 is considered the year Britpop declined in prominence. Many point to Blur’s self-titled album as a point of departure, where the English influences were traded in for American lo-fi influences (particularly Pavement) following a further stylistic change in 1996 spurred on by Albarn and Blur’s guitarist Graham Coxon. Ironically, the second single off Blur, “Song 2”, would become their biggest and most endearing hit. Additionally, Oasis’ third album Be Here Now has been identified as the moment the Britpop movement ended.

Britpop and British Nationalism

The Britpop movement had a strong emphasis on British nationalism. Ida Hølgo argued that “one of the reasons why British music and Britpop came into vogue was the change of focus from America and its rather depressive and self-pitying grunge, to music of a more positive character and lyrics about topics and concerns that were uniquely British and that British people could relate to.” Sociologist Andy Bennett argued: “music can work in a variety of ways to inform particular notions of nation and national identity.” Against industrial decline, high youth unemployment and an “increasing anxiety concerning the fate of national identity”, Britpop assisted with “the ‘magical recovery’ of British national identity.” In the 1990s there was much debate “about the kind of Britain that will emerge in the twenty-first century, and the problems upon putting forward any coherent notion of “Britishness”.” Britpop’s re-exploration of the themes and imagery contained in the songs of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Small Faces was postulated to be seen “as a nostalgic return of the past – harking back to a Britain that has been lost.”

Certainly, several of the songs of key Britpop acts fitted this trope. Blur were described in 1994 by journalist Cliff Jones as defining “a New Englishness”; “an attitude based not on a nostalgic Carry On Mr Kipling Britain, but a Britain you will recognise – the one you live in”. However, Bennett makes the point that the group’s video-clip to their 1994 song “Parklife” revisited “some of the themes and ideas concerning British life explored in the lyrics and music of 60s British bands.” The video explored the regional identity symbolised by Phil Daniels’ cockney accent, along with the virtues of simple working-class life (terraced streets and trips to the ice-cream man) that were so prevalent in the 1960s. However by the 1990s this was all done with a heavy dose of irony, with Bennett suggesting that the video harked back to “a ‘golden age’ of British life.” These concepts of British identity were also explored by Pulp.

Pulp’s video-clip to their song “Common People” was also replete with this new British nationalism of the 1990s. The Kitchen Sink social realism of the video evoked nostalgia to the 1950s and 1960s in a romanticist tone, reviving a class identity that was appearing to disappear by the 1990s. This was also a time when regional and national identities were more strongly felt, and the “Common People” video-clip went to great lengths to recapture this as much as the Blur video-clip did. It is argued that these representations form part of what Anderson calls an ‘imagined community’ of nationhood, as they are constructed in a way that reinforces an archetypal version of national identity that reinforces something which is imagined as “a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

At the time these representations of British identity were criticised as inauthentic. It was suggested that Britpop was glossing over the recent British social history of the racially turbulent 1970s and 1980s. It was seen as promoting a traditionalist view of British cultural identity through “flag-waving.” Jones argues that “[as] Britpop became the music that was seen as the preferred representation of British cultural identity, its ethos came to reflect and reinforce a nostalgic and chauvinist cultural turn which privileged whiteness and to a lesser extent maleness.” Retrospectives of the 1990s focusing on Britpop often ignore the success of socially, racially and sexually diverse and politically charged genres such as jungle and bhangra (electronic rather than guitar-based) that “engaged with and reflected contemporary concerns and anxieties rather than attempting to mould a self consciously nostalgic national identity that excluded large swathes of the country.”

However, this author takes the view along the lines of E.P. Thompson in that we should not judge the actions of the key players of Britpop, as their “aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience.” Additionally, people writing at the time believed that Britpop was not necessarily the Britain one recognised as the one they lived in, rather being one resource that young people chose to associate themselves with thanks to the cultural fragmentation that existed at the time. It was part of a pluralism of identity politics that meant one could take solace in “magical recovery” of traditionalism or embrace a new national identity that was more encompassing of multiculturalism. Both Britpop and South Asian Dance Music included all Britons regardless of race. Britpop was simply one version of national identity that coexisted “unproblematically alongside a range of other possible versions of national identity facilitated by an increasing musical and stylistic diversity within British youth culture.” Therefore, the criticism that Britpop was too white is unfounded.

Britpop’s Decline and Co-option by New Labour

The 1990s in Britain was a time of great consumerism. Britpop became one of “the most significant creative industries of the decade and became the shibboleth of cultural consumerism in Britain.” This became enhanced during the “Cool Britannia” period (1996-1998), where Tony Blair’s Labour Party used Britpop and its commercial consumption to great advantage by winning the 1997 General Election. In the lead up to the Election, Blair was portrayed as hip and cool, in contrast to the Conservatives. He even Noel Gallagher to Downing Street in an attempt to make the government likeable in popular (or populist) sense.

Once in government, Blair used Britpop as a means to an end with his socio-economic policies. Scholars have pointed out that Britpop “became increasingly acquiescent with, and deferential towards, the specific expressions of neoliberal triumphalism of the Blair years.” Navarro argues that New Labour successfully marketed Britpop through the politicisation of consumerism and the marketisation of popular culture that generated a cultural movement between 1996 and 1998 (“Cool Britannia”) by connecting politics with music, art and fashion. In endorsing “Cool Britannia”, Blair and his government “fostered a new conception of a young, dynamic and multicultural Britain by bringing pop culture to the foreground and activating a market-driven economy.” Once Blair won office, Noel Gallagher was appointed to his Creative Industries Task Force. This shows the close link between politics and the music industry in this period, emphasising Blair’s “favouring of a dynamic economy stimulated by culture industry.” Thus Britpop began to serve the neoliberal economics of Blair’s New Labour.

Conclusion

Britpop represented the cultural zeitgeist of 1990s Britain. While Britpop began as a reaction against Grunge, affirming a sense of British nationalism and working-class identity in the process, however, this movement became co-opted by political interests. Its use in politics by the Labour Party ensured Tony Blair’s ascension to Number 10 and emboldened a neoliberal consensus across both sides of British politics.

While it came to reflect the neoliberalisation of British politics, I argue that Britpop did not represent an exclusionary and nostalgic British national identity – it did quite the opposite. It was one cog in a pluralistic conception of national identity, one section of the imagined community of 1990s Britain. Britpop’s co-option by commerce coincided with its use in New Labour’s election strategy, along with the movement’s musical decline. By the end of “Cool Britannia” the party was over.

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