Sunday, August 21, 2005

You can stick your Union Jack up your arse

BBC Digital reminisci-pak prompts Britpop post...

“Four decent bands, a bunch of pub-rock no-marks and an avalanche of delusion about the supremacy of white English ’60s retro, untethered laddism and Three Lions jingoistic fuckwittery that went on to lay karmic waste to record labels, live venues and rock mag institutions alike… no dress-sense, no manifesto and no new ideas”
Gary Mulholland, This is Uncool

Why was Britpop so backward? In the 90s, music mirrored life in that I generally had no time at all to look back. Genres came and went in a dizzying blur of succession, the next best thing – be it band, style, or sound – always around the corner. Matthew Collin in Altered State: “… There would never again be one single defined “scene”, but scores of interlocking subgenres, sub-subcultures, split along faultlines of class, culture, area, musical preference and drugs of choice.” From PE and Rakim, through Roses and Ride onto Warp, Moving Shadow, Aphex, Premier, DJ Shadow, Size and Rush, we listened, danced, instinctively understood, absorbed, assimilated, moved on to the next promo (never hearing the tunes before I bought them as there were enough signifiers – labels, band, reputation, media/mates’ approval – already). We also instinctively felt that the meaningless lyrics of Noel Gallagher were an honest reaction to transgressive times; all most people wanted was a simple mantra for “getting high”.*

Rave had been beyond cool, acid jazz’s laidback corduroy chic too gauche. Though the likes of Young Disciples, Omar and Galliano were a bona fide representation of modern multicultural reality, some young white men couldn’t help get nostalgic; their way of avoiding what for them were perhaps unpalatable modern truths. So in Camden, the same space that acid jazz had developed in, the NME would get what it wanted and cool was recultivated and reinstated. In dingy pubs round the corner from Dingwalls, it became retro, old school British, referential, intelligent and dumb (particularly on the prevalent Tory sleaze of the time). Though some of the tunes were impressive packages within themselves, Britpop had an easy tie-in with the anti-culture of the ale house. The big gig played second fiddle as the sound filled pub, bar, disco. Bigger, blander and gaudier, the Chris Evans-endorsed comeback venue of the neon-lit local drowned in narrowly focused hedonism.

The 90s contrasted with the 80s, where even bands like Simply Red would make socio-political comment (before going onto pissweak soul-lite). Don’t bother saying anything in a mass-produced environment, it will be commoditised, its content ignored. Or do try, see what you can get away with, pull the wool over the eyes of the peddlers and the punters. Some Britpoppers went down this route. Realising that the surface of the sheeny pop song could work in tandem with the depth of the caustic comment, the likes of Blur’s Albarn, Divine Comedy’s Hannon, Elastica’s Frischmann and Pulp’s Cocker (let’s not use chummy first names au NME) all penned clever commentaries while Oasis, Boo Radleys, Supergrass and Menswear just rocked and popped their way up the charts. Albarn’s Girls & Boys was the classic example; the UK’s hedonists just keyed into the Duranesque groove and went with it, blissfully unaware that their pants-down, down-in-one vulgar existence was being satirised.

For all that, Britpop was more guilty than most in its reliance on an opaque nostalgia – there was an inherent fear of the Rave New World and an implicit, infantilist looking back to ’60s/’70s/even 80s childhoods. Modern life was rubbish, Albarn told us, shortly before eulogising quaint notions of parklife. Why? Modern life in this decade was surely better for these (largely southern, middle-class) Britpoppers than it would have been in the ’70s/80s. The American influence can’t be all bad. As a progressive who saw through this flag-waving faux naivety and pastiche, Britpop seemed dodgy but nonetheless I mediated it again for usage. Ultimately I realised this easier cultural trip would engage some of my less adventurous friends. Sophisticated consumers in our mid-20s in a post-modern world, like with the more blatant nostalgic product I could choose whether to engage with it or not, and sometimes did so simultaneously with other output.

This dearth of overtly politicised material, or mere sly nod and a wink commentary, to get your head round contributed to the change in the music-listener relationship. Now it was all about diagnosing the developments in sound, working out their source material or inspiration or deconstructing then admiring the lyrical twist…
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