From the start, the music scene known as “Britpop” was about wanting to be indie, celebrating the specificity of England’s culture, and dreaming of being bigger than Jesus. In the same way that the generation that invented the post-punk of the early ’80s shared a communal childhood memory of shared a communal childhood memory of watching David Bowie and Mick Ronson perform “Star Man” on Top of the Pops in 1972, the Britpop generation came of age a little over a decade later, watching the same deathless TV program when the Smiths sent adolescent hearts into a tizzy, in 1983, with a blouse-y, rose-shaking rendition of “This Charming Man.” From David Bowie’s interstellar ambition, to Stephen Patrick Morrissey’s council estate heartache, to John Major declaring the end of the longest recession in English history since the 1930s, to Tony Blair shilling for rock ’n’ roll and the Iraq War—U.K. rock at the end of the century was always destined to be a wild ride, a slippery slope from a romanticized past to a debauched mod con. An embodiment of what Philip Larkin, the ur–poet laureate of Britpop, called “everyone young going down the long slide to happiness, endlessly.”

While ’80s subculture largely embraced leftism, the indie movements that immediately preceded Britpop shied away from it. Acid house rock (Madchester’s Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, etc.) favored the least political aspects of rave culture, while shoegaze supported a distortion-drenched vagueness of spirit that made Cocteau Twins seem like Sham 69. Britpop, in turn, began as a rejection of shoegaze’s unfab blurriness and as a continuation of Madchester’s hedonism, adjusted for the times.

Britpop kept the cool, tightened the pants, greased the hair a bit. Britpop sang about Britpop, about England, about being English, about being Britpop, and about being ambivalent about the latter. And sex. A lot. They were, after all, in their 20s and in rock ’n’ roll bands, and getting famous.

Twenty-five years later—with sex, solipsism, and sing- ing ambivalently about nothing still in style—Britpop is back. At least, in a big enough way to justify all the young hardcore frontmen copping Oasis melodies and dressing like Paddington Bear.

The core of Britpop was Brett Anderson’s Suede, Justine Frischmann’s Elastica, Damon Albarn’s Blur, and Blur’s archenemy, the “Beatlesque” (the descriptor applied to every ’90s band that harmonized) working-class rock outfit led by the rambunctious Gallagher brothers, Oasis. The core included Jarvis Cocker’s authorial Pulp, sparing the band from spending another decade in obscurity. (That’s because Britpop required a perpetual outsider like Cocker to both disdain and exemplify it.) There was Louise Wener’s Sleeper, an archetypal alt guitar band talked down to by critics for the usual reasons, despite her being a better author than most who’d dismissed her. There was the Auteurs, Shed Seven, Dodgy, Gene, Echobelly, and the endlessly charming Supergrass. There was Kenickie, a better-than-solid power pop band treated as fluff; a warning to all who’d dare to be feminine and Muffs-esque catchy in a country with no Clueless soundtrack. There was the mournfully epic the Verve and there was Cornershop, the latter of whom hit the charts just under the wire before Britpop’s implosion and whose catalog stuffed in enough Britpop signifiers (Beatles cover, Norman Cook remix, Noel Gallagher guitar, John Peel approval) to be Britpop’s platonic ideal. There were the cool uncles of Tim Burgess’ Charlatans, and the slightly less cool uncles of Ocean Colour Scene, a band that I suspect was actually a single Rod Stewart divided among four trench coats. Finally, Britpop had its very own boy band: a quintet of cuddly bears called Menswear who were signed when they had only six songs.

Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn play soccer in 1996.
“What, I can’t lean here?” Liam and Damon play nice in ’96. Photo via Getty

Britpop was at least a dozen others, all championed as model-faced ruffians, as art school misanthropes, all real lads, all the face of the New Sound of London, or Manchester, or Sheffield. And “all of them, every man jack of them,” according to Louise Wener’s memoir, Different for Girls: My True-Life Adventures in Pop, “committed to being famous, desperate to get to number one. They would all sell their grannies to get a higher chart position than the other and while they’re all skulking around in their leathers and Adidas, archly pretending ‘the music’s all there is, man,’ a thousand backroom deals and deceptions are taking place...”

At a time when England was providing some of the most mind-exploding sounds yet heard in pop—dimension-warping blues from artists like Goldie, Portishead, and Massive Attack—Britpop was, in terms of innovation, reserved. The music drew from the past with nods to studio technology advancements and the existence of dance music only when it felt like it. A number of the acts were pure Smiths pastiche. But then, confusing things further, the distinctly un-Moz-ish, wildly un-rock, proto–Spice Girls pop duo Shampoo, made up of two peroxide-blond teenagers in half shirts and oversize sunglasses, were also glommed into the scene.

Which raises the question: If all these artists were so different, what made them part of the same genre?

the defInIng chArActerIstIc Of All brItpOp bAnds wAs thAt brItpOp bAnds were nOt AmerIcAn, And they dId nOt plAy grunge

Surely it extends beyond the lasting cultural impression of Oasis and Blur hating one another. (And they did.) With Elastica’s pop brutalism and Suede’s extra extra Diamond Dogs-esque dystopian melodrama thrown in the mix, how can the term “Britpop” have any meaning at all, outside of being a cute name for a bunch of attractive misfits cast together by place and circumstance? Like The Breakfast Club, if the Breakfast Club soundtrack was 10 different versions of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and all the kids in detention’s bag lunches consisted of warm lager and paracetamol. Naturally, its practitioners loathed the term itself. Besides wanting to be sexier than shoegaze and having an uncanny knowledge of English geography, the defining characteristic of all Britpop bands, the one factor that gave the scene its impetus and righteousness, was that Britpop bands were NOT American, and they DID NOT play grunge.

In the early ’90s, the biggest band in the world was Nirvana. On its own, they would have been fine with the English press and musicians, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had not invaded the island by itself. It brought along legions of unkempt groaners, grunge copycats with a Stooges/Sabbath riff and an addiction to cry about. The Not Nirvanas didn’t dent the U.K. charts, but they influenced the indie scene to an uncomfortable degree. For a nation that had historically taken American rock ’n’ roll, given it an English-accented version of a fake American accent, and sold it back to the credulous colonies, the mere presence of a resurgent American rock ’n’ roll was an affront to decency.

All these thudding longhairs and their flannel shirts were seen as an existential threat. By 1993, the anorak-sporting denizens of London were sick of it. As Blur’s Damon Albarn declared, “If punk was getting rid of the hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge.”

Suede’s 1993 profile in the British music magazine Select is considered the opening salvo in Britpop’s war against grunge. The mitigating detail, that grunge’s success was in no small part due to the U.K. press’ initial hyping up of bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana—another chapter in the centuries-long story of America’s tastemakers looking to England and Europe for aesthetic validation—was left unsaid. From that moment on, all the Britpop artists, twee criers, and bar rock moaners alike would be the U.K.’s line of defense against the knuckle-dragging symbol of American hegemony.

If the U.K. bands involved in this counter-grunge-revolutionary movement appeared to be getting high on their own supply of Englishness—when Britpop went from Suede singing simple songs about androgynous make-out sessions, to Damon Albarn exhorting America from the podium of the 1994 Q Music Awards to “wake up,” to 1996’s The Beautiful Game, a two-disc Britpop tribute to football—the artists can’t be blamed entirely.

After all, from that same Q Music Awards podium, Tony Blair, the great Clintonian Hope of center-left England, said, “It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy. British bands storming the charts. British music back once again in its right place, at the top of the world. And at least part of the reason for that has been the inspiration that today’s bands can draw from those that have gone before. Bands in my generation like the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks. Of a later generation: the Clash, the Smiths, the Stone Roses...”

The punchline is of course that, for all its purported otherness, Britpop was grunge by any other name. It embodied the same spirit. It followed the template of nostalgia, set in stone sometime at the dawn of youth culture, where two/ three decades would pass and kids would again go mad for whatever jitterbug the previous time period had to offer. And Britpop was, outside the hard drugs and members of Blur being jerks, somewhat innocent. In its romanticization of sharp suits and tunes from 20 years prior, Britpop wasn’t denying the dream of human progress, it was just adhering to the same DNA that made Grease and Happy Days a phenomenon for bell-bottomed teens looking to tighten up in 1974.

Like grunge, Britpop was music makers seeing that the ’70s were on deck for reenactment. Even in their ’60s musical collages, the main players eschewed early Beatles or Dylan going electric in favor of the darker, more anthemic visions from after the Summer of Love, from when the ’60s “felt” over even if the ’70s hadn’t started yet. Even in their nods to post-punk, not a single Britpop band acknowledged the existence of a Wire album past Chairs Missing.

The band Suede.
Brett Anderson’s tendency to piss at weird times has been a constant source of tension for the other members of Suede. Photo via Getty

The conflict between grunge and U.K. indie was received by the American population as we do all our foreign conflicts: with indifference and only a vague awareness of the opposing combatants’ existence. Outside of Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan attempting to beat up Liam Gallagher, America not paying much mind to a foreign micro-genre was a foregone conclusion. Even in the second tier alt-fandom drawer where all the Anglophiles were kept, it was a hard sell to move on from My Bloody Valentine and the Smiths to Blur. (It doesn’t help that Modern Life Is Rubbish sounds like surly carnival barkers covering the Jam covering “David Watts.”) U2 may have been Irish up the wazoo, but they at least came with a walking instruction manual, telling the listener exactly what to feel at every step of the way. To American ears, Blur just sang stuff they didn’t mean exactly.

While the American coasts had enough Anglophiles to support weekly Britpop nights (using the term in the broadest possible way, enough that Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” was as much an official anthem as the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”), and Oasis’ second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, made it to No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart on the strength of “Wonderwall,” U.S. reception to Britpop was largely contained to the critic and cardigan sweater classes.

Pulp had a semi-hit, with “Common People” being miraculously semi-popular despite its focus on the American third rail of acknowledging class. The afore- mentioned Verve single was huge. Blur would later break through with “Song 2,” the band’s sonic capitulation to grunge and American football. A couple other English rock bands (Radiohead and Bush) made the Billboard charts, but only with songs that were indistinguishable from the alternative national anthems coming out of Boston or the Pacific Northwest at the time. Only Elastica, the dark- horse Wire-punkers, would make a Britpop record that Americans embraced enough to officially incorporate it into the fabric of the national dreamscape. That album, their self-titled debut, didn’t chart, but “Connection” was used in a Budweiser commercial that aired during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Britpop was viewed, overall, as an adorable and essentially pointless curiosity. (Look at all those funny talking weirdos trying to bring sand to the beach, holding rock ’n’ roll guitars in their tiny hands. Aww, like they think they’re people!) There was still a Nirvana catalog to be mined, pop-punk, and a thousand faceless goatees doing their best Eddie Vedder impersonations to be adored in the mid-’90s.

Justine Frischmann plays guitar and sings.
Justine Frischmann, this Bud’s for you. Photo via Getty

Over the years, Oasis’ increasingly middling arena rock would consistently chart. Liam Gallagher appeared on MTV’s Total Request Live in 2000 to promote the band’s fourth studio album, commenting on his LP’s New York City skyline cover art by telling a bemused Carson Daly, “Yeah, I thought I’d pay you respect and that before you get blown up and yeah.”

It wouldn’t be until the mid-aughts—when coastal hipsters were still using post-9/11 trauma as an excuse to be people who enjoyed cocaine, and the States had decided an apt soundtrack to their own personal Trainspotting should be the Killers—that warmed-over Britpop reenactors like Arctic Monkeys washed over the States in a way that Suede and Blur could only have dreamed of.

Unlike grunge, the ’00s “new rock revolution” of American bands like Interpol, the Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had been done in full collaboration with the British press. In a show of gratitude both for Britpop’s good works and for Rough Trade Records signing the Strokes, the youth of America even sent the second Libertines album to No. 111 on the Billboard Top 200. In Virgin Megastores, the debut CD of Lily Allen, a dancehall pop singer who carried forth a spirit of cool Britannia as well as any of the genre’s originators, flew off the shelves, resulting in her LP Alright, Still going gold. For a brief shining span, America and the United Kingdom’s vaunted “special relationship” was reestablished at last, with bands like Franz Ferdinand bringing the world together. Just like their namesake.

whAt Is Or Is nOt brItpOp nO lOnger mAtters, becAuse It never dId

In the 2020s, whether as revenge for the interminable grunge revival or as part of nostalgia’s grand design, Britpop has returned. Pulp have reunited. Suede toured the U.S. Blur will play Wembley Stadium. In 2023, the Charlatans and Ride are touring America, with a Happy Mondays tour not far behind. (Sadly, the “In Conversation With Bez” spoken-word tour featuring the Happy Mondays’ mascot is U.K.-only.) New music has been released, or promised, from the House of Love, Shed Seven, Sleeper, and even the Boo Radleys. And yes, not all the listed bands are Britpop. What is or is not Britpop no longer matters, because it never did. It was all vibes to begin with, the combined forces of perspective, nihilism, and whatever we choose to call the generous feeling we have for everything that happened, ever, back when we were further from the grave. (And if the Anglophile reader is bothered by the conflation of former adversaries Britpop and shoegaze, be advised that visionaries Lush bridged that gap.)

Jarvis Cocker performs on stage.
Jarvis Cocker pointing out class inequities and all the girls he wants to shag. Photo via Getty

Young acts, too, have welcomed a Britpop revival: like TikTok transforming Kate Bush into a CCP spyware bestie, the Gallagher brothers finally making the equivalent of their White Album (i.e., their Twitter accounts), the eternal shoegaze revival now on its millionth iteration, and recent U.K. big guitar chanters like High Vis, the Chisel, and Chubby and the Gang offering American audiences a taste of hooligan rough and tumble without the accompanying threat of getting one’s teeth kicked in. Or maybe it’s just the new tragic fad amongst American leftists of calling each other “mate.” Either way, there hasn’t been so much Anglophilia in the alt-sphere since Party Ben’s mash-up of “Wonderwall” and Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” made singer Billy Joe Armstrong’s fake British accent the hyperreal soundtrack for rents going up.

What actually dominates the current “alternative” guitar rock landscape is endless “u up?” playlists of interchangeable sad-sack anthems about sliding into DMs like a narcoleptic slumber, made by a variety of doe-eyed man-boy-androids who’ve been manufactured at Spotify HQ out of leftover algorithm juice and grip tape. Those singer/songwriter/eyelash-havers exist only to give proof that the most influential music of the past 50 years was by neither Kurt, Kanye, nor even Radiohead.

The template of popular “alt” music is the delicate finger- banging anthem “Young Folks,” by Peter Bjorn and John. From that perfectly pleasant diversion came Passion Pit, and from there, the tremulously soundtracked hell we currently live in. Where does Pulp fit on Spotify Today’s Alternative Hits Top Twenty list, when 10 of the songs on the list are by Vance Joy, a gossamer-voiced Australian athlete with immaculately tousled hair and a jawline rigid enough to be used as an aircraft carrier? A “Disco 2000” withers and dies in the shadow of that bone structure. It’s unsurprising that, despite Suede’s last album being one of the strongest of their career and the fact that their recent U.S. tour should have sold out in minutes, there were still empty seats available at every date. Even the grunge revivalists have been reduced to the grunge revival equivalent of learning to code: opening a brewery.

So, the romantic future is now, but only for the performatively depressed, for whom bands like Pulp and Elastica might prove a bit subtle. You know, for the lucky few who probably didn’t need Britpop in the first place.

But whatever! Britpop is back, which is how it should have been in the first place: a well-dressed tunefulness—as much wistfulness for some lost past as a celebration—untethered from the sweaty and ambitious demands of youth. Humbled; stripped of money, fame, easy access to Ibiza, even the Queen. Stripped of everything but the wit, ambivalence, and unfuckwithable choruses, Britpop, in 2023, finally makes sense. A formerly purely reactionary scene—addled by the ancient history of the ’60s and ’70s while posturing as the height of modernity—has returned, an amiable remembering of the glories of those bands and those of us who spent that decade (and every decade thereafter) posing like Jarvis Cocker, flashing a peace sign in the bathroom mirror. Now that time is meaningless, and hauntology is the default, we might as well appreciate the rare non-toxic nostalgia and drink it down. Like the lads from London said (I’m paraphrasing), it’s always the end of a century somewhere. Or, as Louise Wener added in her memoir after denouncing the “sickening, delusional mess” of Britpop jockeying for status, “if that’s the way it has to be, you can count me in.”

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Spring 2023 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.




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