Modern Life Isn't Rubbish: The Trouble With Britpop Nostalgia
, April 10th, 2014 05:49
The mainstream media are currently engaged in a collective misty-eyed throwback to the 'glory days' of the mid 90s. Luke Turner, who was a teenager at the time, argues that the current canonisation of Britpop is as musically and socially conservative as 1960s nostalgia
"They say the past must die / For the future to be born / In that case die... die..." Pulp - 'Monday Morning', 1995
"You grow up thinking pop's golden age was in the past. Suddenly it became the centre of things" - Jarvis Cocker, BBC Radio 2, 2014
It was July 6th, 1995. A hot summer's evening. London was, to a naive and wet-behind-the-ears 16-year-old, still a rather intimidating place - I think it wasn't long before this, on a CD shopping trip to HMV and Virgin, that I saw someone being beaten with a bicycle chain in King's Cross, in broad daylight. So we were glad to get off the train from St Albans to Kentish Town and head inside the Forum for the concert in aid of homeless charity Shelter, with Elastica, Gene and SMASH all on the bill. The latter were part of the New Wave Of New Wave, that speed-addled movement that slightly pre-dated Britpop, and were in a petulant mood. I think they walked off early after smashing something. My hero Jarvis Cocker was there, a friend had a piss next to Mark Lamarr (then riding high as host of Shooting Stars, that most Britpop of television programmes), Damon Albarn slouched onstage to present a prize, Gene were eloquent in their Home Counties Morrissey thing (their first album's not bad), and Elastica were a tour-de-force of black-clad, fringe-flicking, high-energy saucy punk. Everyone went home sweaty.
From what I recall, there was a strange atmosphere that night, the sense of something about to burst. It would only be a matter of weeks before the whole ludicrous Blur versus Oasis chart battle would begin, and the whole movement of a limited number of bands based around the Camden area of North London - the capital even managed to make Oasis its own - became the subject of media headlines and features on the BBC. Two decades later, the same media - and especially the BBC - is falling over itself to celebrate the anniversary of the first rumblings of Britpop's commercial success: the death of Kurt Cobain and the release of Blur's Parklife. It's a tired narrative that lends itself to the kind of hackery seen in this Evening Standard article, though admittedly Tuesday's Today programme on Radio 4, in which Evan Davies tried to get St Etienne's Bob Stanley to explain exactly what Britpop was - "how was it different from hip hop?" he asked, in a crazed tone of voice - was at least amusing.
Back in 1995 I was Britpop's target market, and I ought to be right in the middle of the mod t-shirt bullseye of this current raid on the memory banks. I had become, as young white men from England who avidly read the NME are wont to, a rather conservative teenager when it came to my music taste, buying into the limited narrative that I was offered by the music press. Until Britpop, my listening tastes were fairly broad, taking in anything from The KLF to chart pop, early Prodigy and rave, Soundgarden, Leonard Cohen, Boney M and the Top Gun soundtrack. Britpop's narrow aesthetic, and that of the media that lauded it, ruined all that, turning me into the kind of wally who'd list the 'right' bands on their school ruler. It took me years to recover, and it was only really the rise of detestable lad culture as a core aspect of Britpop that helped wean me off the stuff.
This is why I find the current media storm around Britpop's anniversary so troubling. It's a celebration of the very conservative, a backward glance to something that was already backwards-looking. It's not twee, exactly, but it is very Keep Calm And Carry On, it is very cosy, it is very mod, parochial, flag-wavy - "Yanks go home" mag covers, and so on. Indeed, a Google image search of the term 'Britpop' occupies the overlapping point of the Venn diagram between Oasis' fanbase, UKIP's youth wing, and a crap London souvenir stall.
I'm not denigrating the entire movement, or even my own teenage self, or anyone else who lived through the time and loved the music. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here: the bath of Britpop was, after all, an entirely dubious concept in the first place, and one largely invented by a lazy media. There were some great albums released back then, just as there are great albums released in any given year, and may of them stand up outside this spurious scene. I've written extensively on Suede in the past, at first because I felt their reputation was in such dire straits before their reunion that they deserved to be able to make their point, and more recently because their new material - in the form of last year's Bloodsports album - proves they're still capable of writing music as good as the stuff that made them accidentally invent Britpop in the first place. An aside: before you all start clamouring, yes The Quietus will be running anniversary features on some of them, but always looking to find new insights and angles, and never at the expense of our coverage of new music.
The likes of Suede's Dog Man Star and Pulp's Different Class will forever rank among my all-time favourites. The latter is arguably more relevant today then when it was released - see the incredible class fury of the wonderful, vicious 'I Spy'. Pulp were one of the most political groups ever to get to the top of the charts, something that's often overlooked. Parklife? No thanks - it's smug and complacent, aside from the ballads, and you should never trust a band whose best songs are their ballads. We could go on.
Memory of your teenage years is always unreliable, and we certainly don't need the mediator of the British media's rose-tinted spectacles to convince us that the greatest years of your life were when you'd just done your GCSEs, were still living at home, couldn't drink, and found negotiations with sexually attractive people as intractable as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Imagine it! One suspects that, exactly as was the case with the 1960s, a few people who did have what they thought was a marvellous time (a bleeding nose underneath a table at the Groucho with Keith Allen and Alex James, perhaps) are now in the position to call the shots and dictate the narrative of what we are all told to remember.
At some point we must break this cycle, this endless fetishising of both the past and youthful memory of it - a habit that the Baby Boomers (as I wrote here) are most guilty of, of course. Perhaps with 2013's Britpopathon, this is actually happening. Mine is not the only dissenting voice - take, for one example, Quietus writer Nick Southall, who presents a very different take on things, from the perspective of a teenager living in rural Devon. What's interesting about the reaction of so many of my generation to this wave of Britpop guff is how mortified so many of us are with it. This is the first 'Golden Age' to be remembered by a generation who, in their late teens, discovered the internet, and who by now are engaged in and comfortable with social media.
The fracturing of music since the mid-1990s means that we're all a few steps ahead of the mainstream newspapers, magazines and radio stations, and I've seen and participated in a lot of very heated debates and threads on Facebook about the whole thing over the past week or so. Some of the participants have been journalists who were working at the time and have a very different take on events from the 'everyone pissed at the Good Mixer' narrative that we're always being fed. Perhaps the tired hagiography of a few hot months twenty-odd years ago isn't necessarily striking the kind of chord that BBC 6 Music presumably hope will be represented in RAJAR figures in a few months' time.
I hope so, because Britpop nostalgia, like 60s nostalgia, like any nostalgia, is by its very nature something that halts progress, that stymies creativity and evolution, oftentimes exactly when it's most needed. Much as I might wish Jarvis Cocker would have a bit of a break from being a National Treasure, and come back with a Pulp album as biting in its politics and pop as those he made in the 90s, I'd rather hear that from a new artist in the charts. As ever with the celebration of Golden Ages, the true casualty is not the slightly embarrassed older listener who is, after all, perfectly capable of switching off, but the younger artist and music fan who is not getting exposure, who is being denied a contemporary culture of their own, and who, worst of all, is being told tough luck, the best things are already in the past. You missed out.
Given the appalling situation with education in our country, increasing inequality, a bleak job market and a ludicrous housing situation, Britain's youth do not need to be fed with the lie that everything was better when Lammo and Whiley were on Radio One and you could pick up a Kula Shaker single for 99p*. 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.
After Elastica left the stage on July 6th 1995 my then girlfriend and I took the train home. We somehow ended up climbing over the fence into the local park where, fumbling and awkward, we had sex on the grass, next to the swings. I saw stars, but they were just the ones through the trees in the clear summer sky. We went home in silence. Do you remember the first time? Me? I can't remember a worse time.
*Yes, I bought a Kula Shaker single for 99p.