‘Music’s Coming Home’
In 2014, the BBC put on a week of programming mark Britpop’s ‘twentieth anniversary’; it demonstrated that the 1990s were seen as ripe for heritagisation, albeit only a particular version of them.
This post is part of the newsletter’s ‘The Long Nineties’ series, reflecting on the culture and politics of the period roughly between the end of the Cold War and the start of the Great Recession, and its ongoing legacies.
Content warning: Suicide.
I recently completed a chapter on Britpop as heritage rock, for a volume I am co-editing on the uses of the past in contemporary Western popular culture.1 My fascination with this topic really kicked in about a decade ago. I couldn’t help but notice at the time that the cultural touchstones I had grown up with in the 1990s were now beginning to be seen as old enough to be more regularly revisited as artefacts of the past. I was then fast approaching thirty, and really at a sweet spot for getting nostalgic about this. That era now felt truly in the past, my childhood and adult selves similar but cruelly disconnected by the passing of time. But it was not yet so long ago, and I was not so old, that I couldn’t enjoy it all in a manner that bore some approximation to how I consumed it all as a tween and teen. Paradoxically, there was also some novelty to this type of retro. Having grown up seeing the 1960s, 70s, and 80s getting continually revisited, it seemed only fair that it was now my generation’s time.
As an historian with a particular interest in cultural memory, it was also pretty fascinating to see how this all played out in real time, the retrospective mythmaking that occurred around my formative decade: what narratives were being told, what was being included, what wasn’t. So, when the BBC in April 2014 ran a week of programming marking ‘the twentieth anniversary of Britpop’, both the music fan and academic in me were excited to have the opportunity to examine it as a case study.
Nine years on, the second of those things is still very excited by the subject, but the music fan in me is rather jaded. Taking Britpop as a microcosm of the music of 1990s, as this week of broadcasting did, has become ubiquitous to the erasure of countless other genres from the era. With hindsight, that week’s programming on Britpop was in fact a real insight into how certain insular, White masculinist narratives came to stand in for the history of British culture in the 1990s more generally, as well as how their hegemony was contested even within that same institutional space of the BBC.
Britpop’s and the BBC’s interlocking histories
In the early 1990s, Britain’s music papers were in thrall to grunge, a subgenre of American alternative rock typified by abrasive guitars and angry lyrics. Some music journalists, however, unable to identify with grunge, instead began championing unabashedly British bands like Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, and Supergrass, who they classified as ‘Britpop’. These groups were connected by tending to create unashamedly melodic music heavily indebted to a classical British pop tradition, and lyrics strongly evocative of ordinary British life. In March 1993, Suede’s eponymous debut album topped the charts, as did Blur’s third album Parklife in April 1994 and Oasis’s debut Definitely Maybe in September 1994. The following year, several Britpop acts enjoyed number one albums, while August 1995 also saw Blur and Oasis fight a highly publicised battle for number one in the UK singles chart, with Blur’s ‘Country House’ pipping Oasis’s ‘Roll with It’. Britpop stars like Oasis’s Gallgher brothers, Blur’s Damon Albarn and his partner, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker were by now fully fledged celebrities. Yet by 1997 the movement’s heyday was drawing to a close. Blur and Pulp recoiled from fame and pursued new musical directions, while Oasis’s critical standing no longer matched their commercial success. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Britpop bands split or went on hiatus, including Pulp, Blur, Suede and Elastica.2
Intertwined with Britpop’s history is that of the BBC – particularly Radio 1. From 1993, the station underwent drastic changes under new controller Matthew Bannister, who supplanted its previous cross-generational appeal with a focus on playing new music and attracting younger listeners. This also involved replacing Radio 1’s existing roster of longstanding DJs with a new generation of presenters, including Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley, who took over The Evening Session show. The patronage of Radio 1 – and Lamacq and Whiley in particular – helped propel Britpop acts up the charts. The BBC’s lionisation of Britpop continued into the twenty-first century, making several radio and television documentaries between the early to mid-2000s that were subsequently re-broadcast on several occasions.
BBC music radio in the mid-2010s
The BBC in the mid-2010s operated six music radio stations: Radio 1, still targeted at a youth audience; 1Xtra, aimed at a more ethnically diverse youth audience; Radio 2, targeted at over-35s; Radio 3, specialising in more niche musical forms such as classical, opera, world and jazz music; Radio 6Music, specialising in ‘alternative’ popular music; and Asian Network, aimed at a young British Asian audience. Roughly half the population listen to at least one of BBC Radio music station each week, although reach is weaker among ethnic minorities and younger listeners, the latter who increasingly use alternative formats like MP3s and streaming. As part of efforts to save £35.5 million between 2012 and 2017, BBC Radio also had to reduce real term spending on musical programming, with budget cuts prompting greater collaboration between stations.
According to data published by the BBC in 2015, Radio 2 had the broadest audience reach of any BBC station, listened to by more than 15 million people per week. 83% of its listeners were over-35, with an average age of 51; its audience were also overwhelmingly White, something the station had striven to change in recent years. Roughly half its output was pop music, but other genres like rock, soul and singer/songwriter are also well represented. Approximately half the music Radio 2 played was from the 1980s or earlier, while just under a quarter was new music. The station also had a commitment to education and debate, providing 135 hours of new documentary programming in 2013-14. 6Music at that time had an audience of 2.1 million people per week. Its listeners were predominantly White, male, middle-class, and aged between 25 and 44. Its selection of music was highly varied and bore little resemblance to that of most commercial or other BBC stations. It was committed to dedicating no more than 30% of its playlist to new music, while session tracks from the BBC’s archive accounted for 15% of its programming. Possessing a relatively small budget, 6Music also made extensive use of archive documentaries.
Many of both stations’ rosters of DJs formerly featured on Radio 1, having eventually moved on while that station repeatedly blooded new presenters to try and win over new generations of young listeners. Ex-Radio 1 DJs included Tony Blackburn, Sara Cox, Chris Evans, Paul Gambaccini, Janice Long, Simon Mayo, Trevor Nelson, Annie Nightingale, Jo Whiley, and Steve Wright on Radio 2; Mary Ann Hobbes, Liz Kershaw, Steve Lamacq, and Marc Riley on 6Music; and Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe, who presented shows on both stations. Given the age compositions of their respective audiences, it is likely many Radio 2 and 6Music listeners were former Radio 1 listeners familiar with these DJs from their stints there.
‘Britpop at the BBC’
In March 2014, the BBC announced that between Sunday 6th and Friday 11th April, it would host a week of programming on Radio 2 and 6Music, as well as television channel BBC Four, to commemorate the ‘20th anniversary of Britpop’. Steve Lamacq explained that ‘for me, this is the week 20 years ago that the musical tectonic plates shifted’, with Oasis playing live on Radio 1 for the first time on the Tuesday, while on the Friday news broke of the death of Kurt Cobain, frontman of leading grunge band, Nirvana; according to Lamacq: ‘It was as if one scene had announced it had arrived, as another began to lose its way. Without Kurt, grunge lost its momentum, while Britpop was building by the week. Blur's ‘Girls And Boys’ was all over the radio ahead of the release of Parklife and Elastica had just had their first hit. But this was the week when you thought ‘music’s coming home’.’
From Monday to Friday, Lamacq’s 4–7pm show on 6Music had a prominent Britpop theme. Each evening’s show included a segment entitled the ‘Britpop timeline’, running chronologically through an individual year in Britpop’s history; moreover, the show also featured interviews with the likes of former Supergrass lead singer Gaz Coombes and Justine Frischmann. Monday to Thursday, Lamacq was also reunited with Jo Whiley on her Radio 2 show between 8 and 10pm. These featured live session performances from both former Britpop stars like Coombes and Albarn, as well as live covers of Britpop songs by singer/songwriters Josh Record and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Finally, on his Friday 6Music show, Lamacq played the top 30 ‘Britpop anthems’, as voted for by listeners throughout the week, with Pulp’s ‘Common People’ topping the poll.
There were also several one-off documentaries and specials. On the Sunday afternoon, music writer Miranda Sawyer presented a programme entitled How Britpop Changed the Media on 6Music. On the Monday evening, after Jo Whiley’s show, Sawyer’s former Select magazine colleague Stuart Maconie presented a documentary called Britpop: A Very British Pop on Radio 2. At the same time Tuesday to Thursday there were three shows entitled Not Just Britpop, playing selections of music of other genres from 1994: Zoe Ball hosting one on dance; Mark Goodier on pop; and Trevor Nelson on R’n’B and hip-hop. On Friday night, BBC Four ran an hour-long programme called Britpop at the BBC, screening various bands’ performances on BBC TV from the era. Moreover, Britpop permeated other parts of 6Music’s programming throughout the week. Tom Robinson’s Now Playing @6Music show on Sunday 6th enabled listeners to put together a collaborative Britpop playlist. Gideon Coe’s 9pm weekday show and the 6Music Live Hour at 2:30am included archive live performances by Britpop acts. Early morning programming also featured re-runs of 1990s Radio 1 Evening Sessions, and of the early 2000s documentary Oasis – What’s the Story.
The production of musical history narratives across the week’s programming was multifaceted. There was the broadly chronological approach of Lamacq’s ‘Britpop Timeline’ and the How Britpop Changed the Media and Britpop: A Very British Pop documentaries. In addition to their single narrators, these interspersed music, recorded speech from the time and specifically sourced soundbites from Britpop’s key protagonists, to generate a sense of historical momentum. Then there were the interviews of former Britpop stars by Lamacq and Whiley, underpinned by the two presenters’ longstanding familiarity with their guests and personal involvements in the era. This aura of re-enactment underlay reuniting Lamacq and Whiley more broadly. Moreover, show playlists, such as the Now Playing @6Music special, the track-listings on the Not Just Britpop shows, and the rundown of the greatest Britpop anthems on Lamacq’s Friday show all distilled the era into musical highlights, with their own internal ideologies. The BBC’s vast sound archive was also used to reanimate the past, through old session tracks, concerts, and session tracks, all evocative of the era in which they were recorded.
Narratives of nationhood and nostalgia
The narrative they propagated was overwhelmingly one of Britpop as emblem of national ascendancy. One key component of this was anti-Americanism. Grunge’s rejection as irrelevant to British life was a foundational myth of Britpop, and remained central two decades later, to the extent Kurt Cobain’s death helped determine the timing of the BBC’s twentieth anniversary coverage, while many who featured on the BBC’s documentaries remained stridently anti-grunge in their reminiscences. Britpop also appealed as a national symbol due to its perceived localness. Maconie described Blur and Suede in an article for the Mirror promoting Britpop: A Very British Pop as ‘swaggering suburbanites from Essex and Haywards Heath’, while Sawyer claimed Britpop demonstrated that ‘ordinary but exceptional British people can speak to us more directly and fantastically than American super-celebs’. Furthermore, both Maconie and Sawyer’s programmes placed Britpop within the broader context of the 1990s and ‘Cool Britannia’ – the term coined at the time to capture a spirit of national optimism aided by economic growth, British achievement in other cultural fields such as film and art, excitement over England hosting the 1996 European Football Championships, and the increasingly inevitable return to power of Labour after eighteen years in opposition.
Connected to all this was the BBC’s own sense of cultural centrality in relation to Britpop and the 1990s more broadly. Much of its Britpop at the BBC coverage was highly self-referential and illustrated its sense of co-ownership of this musical movement, from the significance of Oasis’s live debut on Radio 1 to the timing of the BBC’s commemoration of Britpop’s twentieth anniversary, to the usage of archive recordings. This relationship had been reinforced by 6Music employing several former Britpop artists, like Jarvis Cocker, former Catatonia lead singer Cerys Matthews, ex-Kenickie lead singer Lauren Laverne and ex-Menswe@r drummer Matt Everitt as regular presenters. In many cases these associations were longstanding: Cocker guest-presented the Evening Session with Whiley back in 1995, in an episode repeated on 6Music during its Britpop week.
The Britpop story told and re-told since the 1990s was one of subcultural takeover of a national mainstream typified by the BBC. Key moments in this narrative, like Top of the Pops appearances and the famous chart rundown in which Blur pipped Oasis, all occurred on BBC television and radio. As Louise Wener, former lead singer of Britpop band Sleeper, astutely noted, Britpop was ‘the last time there was a big huge musical movement without the internet being involved, where it was sort of very traditional, with record companies, press officers, and it was sort of handed to you in a very specific way’. This national mainstream has subsequently fragmented, the BBC’s cultural hegemony been undermined: the web allows music makers and audiences find each other on a global scale; file-sharing and illegal downloading renders national institutions like the Radio 1 chart countdown less meaningful; and young people listen less to the radio anyway.
Similarly, Radio 1’s continual jettisoning of DJs in its relentless pursuit of the youth audience meant many presenters featured in Britpop at the BBC also found themselves occupying a more marginal role in the media than two decades ago, albeit while still having a role to play as guides within this increasingly complex music market for a loyal core listenership. This week of programming offered them an opportunity to revisit an era when they helped dictate young people’s listening choices. Moreover, for listeners and viewers now approaching middle age, it offered an opportunity for them too to revisit their youth. Comments made on Twitter during BBC Four’s ‘Britpop at the BBC’ show revealed nostalgia for the music of the period, with references to preferred bands and songs, as well as other 1990s cultural touchstones, interspersed with wry remarks about the passing of time.
Dissonant voices and sounds
Yet there were also elements of dissension from and variation within these dominant narratives. For a start, not all interviewees were as enthusiastic about their experiences of the 1990s, or to accept the significance attached to Britpop and their role within it. Louise Wener for example remarked that ‘I sometimes think [Britpop’s] just over-examined, and over sort of looked at, and it’s become sort of – some people think it’s more significant than it really was’. Others remained at odds with being subsumed within the Britpop canon. Gaz Coombes, in conversation with Lamacq and Whiley, was more comfortable talking about Supergrass sharing influences with other bands of the time than with the idea of their being part of a musical movement. Similarly, on Britpop: A Very British Pop, Brett Anderson voiced his discomfort with Suede being posited at the vanguard of a new British musical movement in terms of a dislike of ‘running with packs’. His recollections about Suede’s confrontational appearance at the 1993 BRIT Awards, describing the ceremony as consisting of ‘old, white businessmen in suits clapping Annie Lennox for two hours’, placed the band in opposition to a mainstream defined in national and racial terms. This was in marked tension with the tone of Maconie’s narration of the same programme, in which he remarked that Britpop ‘was about the renewed confidence in being British, a new found love of our past, an optimism about the future, and an ambition to make it big’, and largely ‘rotated around being a white English male’ – treating both as largely unproblematic.
Moreover, the nature of individual narratives was determinant on the show propagating them. Radio 2’s Not Just Britpop programmes showcased more varied histories of the music of that decade and Radio 1’s role then in promoting different genres. If Mark Goodier’s ‘Pop’ show played to more middle-of-the-road listeners, Trevor Nelson’s ‘R’n’B and Hip-Hop’ show was pitched at the more ethnically diverse audiences the station is targeting. Differences between Radio 2 and 6Music’s shows during Britpop at the BBC also manifested wider contrasts between their music and programming policies. For example, whereas Steve Lamacq’s 6Music show that week mainly interspersed Britpop songs with a broader mix from across several genres, time periods – including a large minority of contemporary tracks – and countries, the playlist for Whiley’s Radio 2 show was almost entirely composed of 1990s British indie. While both stations are to degrees engaged in ‘heritage broadcasting’, with 6Music this is offset more considerably by a greater commitment to playing new and ‘alternative’ music, and a slightly younger audience. Moreover, its greater usage of repeats and archived shows is a product of its lesser budget and the minimal audience for its early morning programming.
To fully comprehend the scale and significance of the BBC’s Britpop’s ‘twentieth anniversary’ coverage, it needs to be contextualised within Radio 2 and 6Music’s programming more broadly. Despite Britpop’s ubiquity that week, its influence on individual shows varied. Furthermore, over the remainder of 2014, there were numerous other major events, both within the BBC and external but covered by the broadcaster, that would filter into Radio 2 and 6Music’s programming to varying extents, such as a Jazz season in May, Glastonbury in June, and The Proms in July. In all these instances, the broadcaster both followed and initiated trends as it strived to maintain its relevance to audience interests and economically generate new and recycle old content for a widening range of formats, to maintain audience share, and ensure it was perceived by a sceptical government as providing value for public money ahead of its charter renewal in 2016.
A few final reflections
There is plenty of music that was contemporarily and subsequently canonised as Britpop that I absolutely love: ‘Metal Mickey’ by Suede and ‘Stutter’ by Elastica, for example, are among my all-time favourite songs. But it was and is a rather deadening, reactionary framework to consistently view the culture of the 1990s through. It imposes an insular, racially exclusive narrative on the decade, which rather jars with the realities of how far Britain and its culture during that period had been shaped so utterly by globalisation and immigration. From a personal perspective, as a schoolchild growing up in Northwest London at Britpop’s peak, while that music and its associated cultural touchstones were a component of our lives, they were nowhere near as pronounced within the everyday leisure activities of myself and my peers as R‘n’B, ragga, jungle, and dance, nor as American comics, cartoons, and sitcoms. The Camden Town of the Good Mixer and other Britpop lore was not distinct from my family’s Camden Town, a hub of Greek Cypriot community life centred on the All Saints Greek Orthodox Cathedral, but their coexistence is a reminder of what is missed through a narrow focus on 1990s Britain through one specific prism.
Indeed, resistance to some of Britpop’s master narratives was implicit and explicit throughout the ‘Britpop at the BBC’ programming, with pushback by interviewees against its most flag-waving and laddish aspects, while the ‘Not Just Britpop’ shows were a clear effort to appeal to a broader audience, albeit impaired by clumsy framing of other genres’ histories in relation to Britpop. Yet the centrality of Britpop to the cultural memory of the 1990s, which that week’s programming was emblematic of, is illustrative of a lack of real pluralism beyond shallow nods to diversity within major cultural organisations like the BBC. The instinct of their demographically narrow gatekeepers, in response to financial challenges and audience fragmentation, is to double down on telling particular histories, to the exclusion of others.
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Tobias Becker and Dion Georgiou (eds.), The Uses of the Past in Contemporary Western Popular Culture: Nostalgia, Politics, Lifecycles, Mediations, and Materialities (London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).
For a fuller account of this episode in British music history, see John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of British Rock (London: 4th Estate, 2003).