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Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Bygone World of Britpop

2015 is turning out to be a big year for anniversaries. The one most in my mind on January 1st was Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 1985 and 2015 (and I feel it's a shame I'm not visiting Vietnam this year to commemorate that poster in the background of one of the shots).

But more recently I read something that reminded me of a more personal anniversary. 2015 marks two decades since the apex of the Britpop movement of music, which was so important to me as a teenager. December 26th will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my first time stepping on British soil (at least outside Heathrow), which was accompanied by a frenetic CD-buying expedition to pick up the exciting new albums by Blur (The Great Escape), Pulp (Different Class) and... er... Menswear. Guess they can't all be winners.

So when I realized that, I decided to reread The Last Party, John Harris's account of the Britpop years, informed by his own experiences in the thick of it, when he was a music journalist. But the interesting thing is, as I read, it occurred to me that not only was I reading a chronicle of a bygone time, I was also reading an artifact of that bygone time's last gasp.

I got the book in 2004, toward the end of my first stint living in Britain. Despite the fact that we were then almost a decade removed from Britpop's glory years, it didn't feel like 1995 was that remote. For a couple of years, for instance, I'd revived the old Blur v Oasis debate with my flatmate Ian, who claimed to be northern (despite being from Telford, in the Midlands), so he was an Oasis partisan. My next flatmate, Dave, was a few years older and had the original LP singles off Suede's first album, which I remember handling with the due reverence the one time he brought them out to show off.

More importantly, 2004 was before YouTube and Facebook, and before iTunes had effectively killed physical music sales and the album as artistic statement. As such, it was also the year I bought the most CDs I've ever bought before or since - 48, to be precise. I once held the lofty ambition of averaging a new CD each week, but I don't think I ever achieved it. More to the point, I spent 2014 (and all of 2015 so far) without buying any new music, so it's unlikely I ever will hit that magical number of 52.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that 2004 had more in common with 1995 than it does with 2015. Listening to Radio One on Sunday mornings with the paper, poring over the Observer Music Monthly's list of the 100 best British albums of all time, seeking out those British albums whenever I went to Camden Town or Oxford Street... these are all activities that I had long ceased to participate in by the time my second stint in Britain came to an end two years ago (although I do still have a look at that Observer list from time to time).

The way The Last Party talks about the music industry, it's clear that those dynamics were effectively still valid - guitar bands could still storm the charts, and it mattered when they released an album, rather than a bunch of singles. And it was possible for mainstream British culture (which I guess means white people) to coalesce around this shared musical heritage that drew on familiar sources like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, 2004 and 2005 were effectively the second wave of Britpop, when a bunch of bands (eg Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads) drew inspiration from the likes of Blur and Pulp to once again emphasize the importance of Britishness in their music.

Now it's hard to see anything like that happening again. I mentioned in that previous blog that most of those bands from 2004-05 failed to live up to early promise. At the same time, the indie network that made possible the rise from nowhere of Blur and Oasis is long gone - and nobody's willing to throw stupid money at guitar bands because there isn't any money left to throw.

What's equally disappointing is that even if such bands could break through, there are no places for someone like me to encounter them, at least here on the West Coast. I first heard Pulp's single Underwear on Live 105's Import Cafe, and sat wide-eyed watching MTV videos of Common People and Blur's Country House. Now Live 105's new music is all shoved into the Sunday evening ghetto, and MTV realized long ago that nobody watches music videos.

Britain is also, I think, a very different country than it was eleven years ago. Back then you could talk about Suede's inspirations, which were the crumbling parts of the country ignored by over a decade of Thatcherism, and people knew what you were talking about. Now Britain's back in the hands of the Tories, and will be for at least another five years, and those old politics are coming back. It may be more inclusive of people of color or of the LGBTQ community, but Maggie Thatcher's spiteful treatment of the poor is back with a vengeance, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity politics.

The difference between now and the 80s, though, is that 30 years ago there was a welfare system that budding musicians could sign onto. Without glorifying dole culture, it is worth noting that a lot of the music that came out in the 90s had passed through life on welfare - these were effectively marginalized people. Now it's hard to see where the next Pulp or Oasis will come from - the next version of Blur should be okay, because they represented a very middle class type of Britishness that was the opposite, in many ways, of the bands from the north.

But who knows - maybe in a couple of years another Labour leader will come along who, like Tony Blair, headed up a band in college. And if he or she draws from this decade's dubstep, rather than guitar-based music, maybe it'll be the key to breaking British music out of its current doldrums.