When in 1992 Suede released The Drowners and Metal Mickey—a fuse of 60s British pop, 70s glam rock, and 80s British punk, sung by androgynous frontman, Brett Anderson with an exaggerated British accent—it was the advent of a new subgenre. The British media simply called it “Britpop”.
It was the time when the grunge invasion had ended the 80s like a sad bore and kicked off a new era. American bands such as Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains led the new decade around the world with a sound that was a cross between punk and metal, two rival genres of the past. For the British youth, the 90s was not defined by the American grunge invasion, but by their very own Britpop. The subgenre would soon be associated with British national identity. At the end of the decade, however, it turned into a term disliked and abandoned because of its nationalistic, white, straight, and misogynistic connotations.
“Yanks Go Home!”
If punk was a response to heavy metal’s elitism, Britpop was a response to the Americanization that came with grunge’s international success. Suede’s Anderson appeared on the cover of a British magazine, standing in front of a Union Jack with the headline “Yanks go home!” It delivered a strong message. What began as a critique of Americanization then became part of the quest of building a national identity, a pop culture movement symbolizing Britishness. Obviously, the Union Jack was added into the background and the image and message associated with Britpop was largely media-driven.
Brett Anderson on Select cover (Wikipedia)
Three major bands, which became Britpop’s icon throughout the decade while Suede withered into the background, were Pulp, Blur, and Oasis. Aside from the accent and early British bands influence, what made them so uniquely British? Britpop emerged at a time when the country was facing an economic recession and a continued decline in the people’s confidence of government institutions. The conservative Tory government’s economic policy of the late 80s had favored the white middle-class and put the working class out of jobs because of the shift from heavy industries and manufacturing to financial services. Within this context, through it songs, Britpop observed British urban life from a working class perspective, with references to places, expressions, and other local cultural references unfamiliar to people living outside of Britain. Take a verse from Blur’s This is a Low for example.
And into the sea
Goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay
And back for tea
Hit traffic on the Dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go to sleep
And the radio says
Pulp describes England’s sharp class divide in their hit Common People. Unsurprisingly, class division was highlighted by the media in the rival between Oasis and Blur, they were lads respectively from the northern working class and southern educated class.
You'll never live like common people
You'll never do whatever common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
And you dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do
These observations in Britpop lyrics do not describe a bright and happy England. Nevertheless, because of Britpop’s theme of British life, it was seen as a tribute to British culture. In a way, it created a sense of pride among the British youth during a time when national identity was weak. The pop culture was then turned into a marketing tool and became part of party politics, used to serve political motives.
Politics and Pop Icons
Why was there this fixation with British national identity during the 90s? Much has been said about this from the academia, suggesting reasons which go all the way back to Britain’s decline of power since the end of the Second World War. Similarly, under economic recession and high unemployment rate in the early 1990s, Britain needed to regain its confidence at home and its reputation globally.
Another reason is that culture was always an important part of British life. Britain’s youths defined their Britishness through pop culture such as music. The absence of new British icons in the onset of the 90s and the popularity of grunge from the US, prompted the need for some home grown bands to fill this gap. The Britpop scene served this purpose. Recognizing this, the opposition party used Britpop as a marketing tool to build support for what its leaders called the “New Labour Party”; to develop the image of a young and modern party, one that acknowledged the important role of youth culture in strengthening national identity.
The decade of the 90s went through an economic recession and recovery. The decade saw Britpop icons, Damon Albarn, having drinks with Labour Party figure Tony Blair at the House of Commons and then Noel Gallagher arriving at Downing Street after the party won. Britpop was absorbed into larger agenda of what was called the “Cool Britannia” a rebranding of Britain which tried to deal with the multiculturalism of British society. It was a cultural movement that amidst the economic boom, brought back the heyday of London fashion and British pop music, reminiscence of the Swinging Sixties. For Blair, it was a way to unite Britain. The all-female and mixed-racial band, the Spice Girls, became the face of the Cool Britannia.
However, many would argue that Britpop did not represent this multiculturalism nor did it support gender equality, even with the “girl power” image that the Cool Britannia presented through new female pop stars.
White Lads, Straight, and Misogynist?
Apart from a few notable female musicians, Britpop heroes are majorly white and male. At the same time Britpop was on the rise, emerged a lad culture that celebrated masculinity and male solidarity, translated into drinking, violence, and sexism. The lad culture defies the feminist culture and was as a response to the political correctness of the 80s. Britpop became closely associated with this culture that marginalized women.
Although they tend to be associated, the sexism of the lad culture is hardly reflected in the lyrics of Britpop songs. In fact, in the onset of Britpop, Suede had a number of songs which lyrics contain homosexual references. One is the famous line from The Drowners, where Anderson sings: “We kissed in his room to a popular tune.” Further countering the male-centered heterosexist perspective associated with Britpop, the picture on the cover of their first album was of two women kissing. Anderson had said in an MTV interview in 1993 that he does not see the picture as being controversial because “like someone eating ice-cream or something like that that happensevery day.”
Apart from the band members being all male and white (female guitarist and songwriter Justine Frischmann was in Suede’s original line up), Anderson’s feminine appearance, the way he sways on stage, and his high pitched voice displayed a sexual fluidity, something quite different from the lad culture image.
In contrast, while laddism is not explicitly apparent in their music, the competition between Blur and Oasis to top the charts and Liam Gallagher and Albarn’s confrontation during a charity football match were a showcase of male rivalry at its best. What would be a better place for these British lads to go at each other but at a football match?
Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn
Furthermore, the ladette culture then emerged, a culture that celebrates female binge drinking and sexual promiscuity, or simply adopting the accepted male behavior of the lad culture, but was viewed to be a social defiance and moral degradation. Much of the British media sensation and public concern at the time showed that changes in women’s gender role were disturbing to the British society. Not to say that women should adopt the lad culture to achieve equality, but it is interesting to see that while the violence and misogynies of the lad culture went largely unchallenged, the ladette culture was considered a moral problem.
The Girl Power of Cool Britannia
Very few Britpop bands were mixed-gender, multiethnic, multiracial, or fronted by a woman. The few included Echobelly, with multicultural band members and an Indian-born frontwoman, Sonya Madan, and Elastica, mixed-gender and fronted by Justine Frischmann. Reflecting what female bands experience in the music industry, when forming Elastica—which members were mostly women—Frischmann once said, “I wouldn’t want to be playing in something that would be marginalized and called a girl group.”
While it is true that there are not too many examples showing Britpop’s inclusiveness, but Britpop was just about as white as heavy metal, punk, or grunge. The fact that it had only a few notable female musicians or frontwomen is a fact found throughout rock history. However, because Britpop was turned into something to represent British national identity, its lack of inclusiveness is deemed problematic.
Justine Frischmann wearing a T-shirt of an American band (Pinterest)
In the mid-90s, The Spice Girls, brought with them a fresh and “modern” take of female empowerment and girl bands that went beyond white Britain. Spice girl Melanie Brown who was Black opened the way for people of color to identify with British national identity. The Spice Girls went on to become the icon of 90s girl power, a notion of female empowerment that celebrates femininity and female sexuality but still very much rooted in heterosexual norm. It offers a superficial kind of emancipation, one that does not challenge deep-rooted sexism or racism. Thus, it did not threaten the status quo, was easier to be accepted by men and society in general, and did not cause the social anxiety that the ladette culture did. Not surprisingly, the Spice Girls were seen to fit the part of the marketing gimmick of Cool Britannia.
Not So Hip
In 1997 Britpop was coming to an end as the bands began to take a different course of musical direction, taking their creativity beyond Britpop. By 2000, the term Britpop had lost its hipness and is now something that most British bands would want to disassociate themselves with, even its icons. For Anderson, “It [Britpop] felt nationalistic, it felt like there was, sort of, quite a strong thread of misogyny (NME, 2019). Jarvis Cocker of Pulp expressed his dislike of the term Britpop in BBC Radio 4 interview in 2010 where he described it as a "horrible, bitty, sharp sound.”
|Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker (Pinterest)|
The critique of Americanization by new bands in the beginning of the 90s and the generation’s need for British identity were timely packaged by the British media into the term “Britpop.” Politicians too jumped into the bandwagon.
Governments and politicians have always used culture to influence public perception and achieve political objectives. Pop cultures have also been used in this way, for example, by using music to create a unifying national identity. It is within this context that British politicians have capitalized on Britpop. The bands in the 90s which bore the label Britpop were telling their stories of British urban life. The lyrics may express a regional identity, but the music’s association with British national identity was largely media-driven and used to serve political motives.
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Dobson, Emillou (2019) ‘The History of BritPop.’ Haunted Publications [online] <https://hauntedpublications.com/the-history-of-britpop/> [14 November 2020].
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The Queenslander (2019) ‘Britpop: The Story of British Politics and Society in the 1990s.’ [online] <https://theqlder.com/2019/09/01/britpop-the-story-of-british-politics-and-society-in-the-1990s/> [18 October 2020].
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Suede MTV 1993 interview: https://youtu.be/s5cT0gd5uGQ
Justin Frischmann interview: https://youtu.be/H9d-qXaxAos
Interesting, insightful and full of new material.BalasHapus
Thank you so much!Hapus