The uncomfortable relationship between Britpop and British Politics
Picture the scene: it is 1997 and being British is, dare I say it, hot. Noel Gallagher is playing ‘Wonderwall’ on his famous union jack guitar, Blur have just dropped a new album, and Ginger Spice is hopping around international TV pairing the flag with some red go-go boots in maybe the best show of diplomacy that Britain has ever seen. The 90s marked the life and death of the Cool Britannia movement, a kind of cultural renaissance that saw a real resurgence of British pride: Fish and chips? Cool. PG tips? Cool. Britpop? The coolest. Coming in the tracksuit-clad form of Blur, Oasis, Suede, and Pulp, Britpop was the soundtrack of the decade, its beating heart. These bands sang us through a nostalgic return to the British pride of the 60s, Blur being inspired by the Kinks and Oasis by the Beatles.
But the impact of Britpop went deeper than sexing up bangers and mash. The 90s had kicked off 11 years deep into Tory rule. A recession was being felt, employment was at a record-breaking low, and a huge surge in drug use was, in true Tory fashion, complimented by a numerical surge in the Police force. Through these Britpop anthems, the working classes were given a voice testament to their experience living in this climate. Social injustice and frustration now sat at the forefront of music. Think Blur’s ‘Parklife’, or the “city dweller, successful fella” satirised in ‘Country House’, or Pulps title track ‘Common people’ of their album Different Class. The Thatcherian RP that characterised the last 11 years was also side-lined. Oasis brought a working class Mancunian (and aggressively nasally) intonation into their songs. Jarvis Cocker sang with his Sheffield accent. Parklife is spoken with a Cockney lilt. These were artists bringing their regional identities and voices to the forefront of British pride.
So how does this world of flags, accents, and go-go boots collide with the political one? Music hits people deep and don’t politicians know it. I’m going to painfully remind you here of Liz Truss revoltingly quoting Taylor Swift in the commons last year. I also personally struggled to listen to The Cure for a good six months after Boris named it his favourite band. Looking to the 1997 election, it’s no surprise that Blair saw Britpop as the key ingredient in an election campaign promised to be the “perfect storm of politics, music, and PR”. In Blair’s pursuit of a Labour victory, Britpop began to see itself co-opted by political forces who maybe didn’t want to “live like common people” but burned to know “whatever common people do”.
The Labour party/britpop intertwinement became most famously apparent with Blair’s appearance as guest of honour at the 1996 Brit awards. The night's progression saw Noel Gallagher floating onstage to announce that Blair “gave a little bit of hope to young people”. Noel might’ve been too hungover to take Labour up on the offer of playing at their party conference, but he did appear at a highly publicised Downing street function on their victory (one which Blur passed on, as did Liam, with the gorgeous words “looks like a s***house”). Oasis’ ‘Magic Pie’ of their 1997 Be Here Now album even contains a direct reference to a line from one of Blair’s speeches. The lines were hazy.
This wasn’t just a Noel/Blair affair — it was something deeper. Blair bizarrely hailed the growth of creation records as a “great example of new Labour”, even reaching out to creation records and requesting access to the Oasis database. When the election was won, it was win-win; creation records soaked up new-found publicity. Blur was similarly kept under Labour’s thumb. “So, what’s the scene out there?” Blair asked its frontman in an exchange that maybe sums up the entire weird relationship. Later in the decade, Albarn actually came out criticising the way that Labour was “no longer interested in artists’ opinions” once they’d ascended to office. Labour were not subtle in their aim to take popular culture and layer on their own message.
I don’t believe that musicians expressing support for a political party is a bad thing — in fact, I’m in favour of it. But the Britpop genre sat at an uncomfortable intersection between social empowerment, British pride, and downright political games. Such a carefully cultivated symbiotic relationship between politics and music seems dubious to me. I wonder who it benefits the most. It’s not the musicians. And it’s definitely not the people.
Illustration by Calum Mayor