On Pop

Blurred history

Britpop has a bad reputation for stolid, white-boy basicness now, but it’s not a reputation Parklife deserves

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I am a tolerant woman (this is a lie) with a healthy sense of humour about myself (also a lie), but I was roused to uncharacteristic fury recently when I saw that the word “Britpopper” had been adopted as a political insult (another lie, I have usually made myself livid about half a dozen trivial things by the average lunchtime). Number one, how dare you; and number two, I’m not even sure you understand what Britpop was.

They were caught up in that mid-nineties moment when the UK, half-ironically and also not, reclaimed its pomp

The charge sheet against the so-called Britpoppers is this: they were caught up in that mid-nineties moment when the UK, half-ironically and also not, reclaimed its pomp. Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher at Number 10 with Tony Blair. They reclaimed the Union Jack, but they never saw Brexit coming. They laughed at the idea of the “end of history”, but were surprised when it turned out they didn’t live there.

Now they’re in their forties or fifties, confounded by a world that has failed to live up to their theories. Also they’re all called Sarah and the first single they bought was “Girls and Boys” by Blur and the first proper gig they went to was Blur’s Mile End concert in 1995.

Actually I don’t resemble the type perfectly — I’m marginally too young, and couldn’t vote for New Labour in 1997. But I would have done, and I understand what’s absurd about that time as the things that were appealing then, not that I’d have known it as such. What I recognised, from the first squelching bars of “Girls and Boys” in 1994, was something brash, knowing and crucially saucy, which is different to sexy and definitively British.

The song is a celebration of the randy pick’n’mix of the classic 18-to-30 holiday.  “Looking for girls who want boys who like boys who do girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys,” chants singer Damon Albarn, rounding off sardonically with: “Always should be someone to really love.”

I argued with schoolfriends about one lyric: was it “Love in the 90s / Is paradise” or (my take, informed by a faux-worldly knowledge of the Aids crisis and STDs) “Love in the 90s / Is paranoid”? When I found out I was right, I knew Blur were the band for me.

That impression only increased when I got my hands on the album, Parklife, which is the urtext of Britpop. At the time, there was a lot of (deserved) sniping at the class tourism of the album. Blur were a bunch of art students, but the cover is an action shot from a dog race and the title track is a highly mockable Cockney monologue delivered by the actor Phil Daniels playing a salt-of-the-earth character: “I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows [pronounced “sparrers”] too.”

The difference between this socioeconomic camp and the hedonistic hunger of actually-working class Oasis or Pulp was embarrassing once you (I, eventually) noticed it.

But, let us be quite honest, my background had more in common with Blur’s than those other two bands: I was the child of first-generation graduates whose parents had already done the difficult work of scrapping up the ladder, a Veblen good baby being guided towards self-fulfillment. Parklife was both an artefact of a culture I recognised (“Tracy Jacks” is the Reggie Perrin-esque story of a man whose quiet desperation ends in him bulldozing his house, and “This is a Low” makes a lyric of the shipping forecast), and a waypost to a world I wanted to belong to.

Britpop has a bad reputation for stolid, white-boy basicness now, but it’s not a reputation Parklife deserves. While Oasis stacked their support with soundalike guitar bands, seeing Blur at Mile End meant I also saw weirdo electro duo Sparks.

The edgy “London Loves” nods at Martin Amis, and “Trouble in the Message Centre” is droll and paranoid in a Gary Numan way. There was pathos too: “End of a Century” plays out the companionable tragedy of a dying relationship, and the beautiful “To the End” recruits French singer Laeticia Sadier to play the chanteuse in a song that could mark either a new beginning or a termination.

That sense of something shutting down was central to Britpop. So was not being American. Blur’s preceding album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had been a sometimes smart but often clumsy rejection of Atlanticism. On Parklife (barring the snippy “Magic America”, which is the worst song), that turned from a negation to a creation. This wasn’t just a turning away, but a turning into: a map for a country you could belong to, one made up of Donald McGill postcards and bitter novelists and sitcomsand Radio 4. It didn’t last, but that’s the point. This is not a nation with a manifest destiny; it’s one with coastal erosion.

Blur’s next album, The Great Escape, curdled the whimsy into caricature, and as is the way with teenage crushes, my one-time passion became revulsion when I believed they’d let me down. It took me a long time to get back to enjoying them. Caught at the wrong time, listening to Parklife can still make me cringe at the version of me who loved it.

The self-conscious jadedness of Britpop looks a bit like complacency at this remove, and probably deserves the latter-day teasing. But under the disposable smugness, there’s a pang that endures. This is the soundtrack for a time that knew it would disappoint you in the end.

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