Britpop


Britpop
   Britpop was a label given to a number of British guitar-based groups who either emerged or achieved their first commercial success in the period 1993–4. The most well known Britpop groups were Blur, Pulp and Oasis. As with other generic terms, Britpop was partially a construction by the UK’s weekly pop press. Unlike punk, there was no coherent set of values within Britpop, and the movement remained fundamentally musical rather than subcultural.
   Despite the inevitable stylistic differences between the various groups, the vague term ‘Britpop’ does encompass certain common characteristics. Britpop tended to be traditional in terms of instrumentation and song structure. Great emphasis was placed upon songwriting craft, melody, harmony and lyrical content. Britpop’s influences lie with earlier groups operating in a similar vein: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Small Faces, Slade, T. Rex and Madness. For the most part, Britpop placed the importance of the song and live performance above dance music’s values. Sam-plers and other computer-based modes of composition and performance had a very low priority. Britpop groups harked back to the somewhat mythical notion of a ‘golden age’ of pop when groups wrote well-crafted pop songs, performed them live and dealt with ‘real’ concerns and emotions in an authentic, ‘honest’ manner. As noted, the term ‘Britpop’ was coined by the weekly music press—principally Melody Maker and New Musical Express (NME) —in early 1994. They had been struggling to come to terms with the success of dance, particularly since the explosion of rave culture in 1988. Forms of dance music such as techno are largely DJ and club-based, rather than being reliant on live gigs and ‘pop stars’. The weeklies, having a long history of championing music with a ‘radical attitude’, found themselves unable to deal with the more anonymous and blatantly escapist elements of dance music. Grunge did fit many of the criteria for credibility to the weekly press, but chauvinistic elements needed to champion a new, home-grown guitarbased movement. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a succession of these—Riot Grrll, Queer-core, New Wave Of New Wave—were given extensive coverage, but all failed commercially. Throughout 1993 the weeklies continued to focus on grunge, but also covered new British groups such as Radiohead, and more particularly Suede, a key bridging band whose success did much to pave the way for Britpop.
   Pulp and Blur were not new bands, but 1993 saw both begin the transition towards mainstream success. In November Pulp released their first single for a major label, ‘Lipgloss’, and Blur released their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish. Both groups have a ‘retro’ sound and laid great stress on their ‘Britishness’ in terms of style, delivery and lyrical concerns. One of the main themes of Blur’s album was an explicit critique of the Americanization of British life, and rock music in general. This was to remain an important aspect of Britpop. In January 1994, an unnamed reviewer in Melody Maker touted Creation Records’ new signing Oasis as having a big future. In a four-line feature, Oasis were said to ‘plunder the vaults of golden Psychedelic Britpop with shameless glee’. Oasis were given their first major press coverage in the same week that Kurt Cobain died, effectively robbing Grunge of its only international figurehead. By the time Oasis’s first album, Definitely Maybe, was released in August, entering the British charts at number one, it was obvious that the combination of hype, chauvinism, the media-friendly frontmen of the most popular bands (Blur’s Damon Albarn, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the Gallagher brothers of Oasis) and some pop songs in the classic vein would ensure that the Britpop movement had become a genuine phenomenon. Pulp’s His’n’Hers, Definitely Maybe and Blur’s hugely successful third album Parklife each spawned hit singles, and these three bands, alongside others drawn into the Britpop catchment area—Elastica, Supergrass and Sleeper— began to gain success worldwide, although the North American market proved the most resistant to the sounds of Britpop.
   In the summer of 1995 the British media succeeded in their attempt to set up Blur versus Oasis as representatives in some kind of heavyweight boxing bout, with their assumed differences (selfconscious southern pop stars versus bluff northern rock realists) adding spice to the campaign. Although Blur won the battle to the top of the singles charts when ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’ were simultaneously released, from this point onwards it was Oasis who gained the critical and commercial ascendancy. Their second album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, was a huge international success, remaining in the bestseller lists for many months, while Blur’s The Great Escape was a disappointment, such that they (ironically) turned to American music for inspiration on their next, self-titled album. Pulp’s headlining appearance at the UK’s premier festival— Glastonbury— in June was one of the musical highlights of the year, although the release of Different Class at the end of 1995 brought them good reviews but less commercial success than His’n’Hers (subsequently Pulp have done very well both critically and commercially).
   By 1996, the sights and sounds of Britpop were an established worldwide phenomenon, with Oasis in particular topping the charts in all major music markets and selling out large outdoor venues in their hometown of Manchester in a matter of hours. Both the single ‘Wonderwall’ and their second album made the American top ten, and the band received the pop press’s biggest accolade when they made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in May. There is little doubt that Britpop to a large degree defined the state of white British guitar pop in the mid- 1990s, with tracks such as Blur’s ‘Boys And Girls’, Supergrass’s ‘Alright’, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ and Oasis’s ‘Live Forever’ set to become the Karaoke staples of the next decade. However, many would claim that despite the hype, the strong songs and the genuine star qualities of many of Britpop’s best performers, the characteristic sounds and values behind the Britpop phenomenon were essentially conservative and reactionary. Nevertheless, in commercial terms Britpop provided a huge lift to the whole British music industry, boosting singles sales in an era of general decline, and increasing success for a variety of British bands throughout the world.
   See also: pop and rock
   Further reading
    Leigh, S. (1996) Halfway to Paradise: Britpop 195562, Folkestone: Finbar.
   RON MOY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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