The 1990s saw the emergence of Britpop, formed as a reaction against the grunge music scene in the United States. Grunge was very popular at the time, but many British musicians felt that they could not relate to these songs and so began to produce their own music. These songs hugely contrasted with the dark, depressing songs produced by American grunge artists such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and were generally more upbeat, optimistic and catchy. Damon Albarn of Blur said in a 1993 interview that: “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge!”. Britpop represented a rebellion against the United States and musical norms of the time.
Britpop wasn’t defined by a specific musical style, but the music tended towards lighter sounds than grunge and included more melodic hooks and choruses. It built on the guitar-based British pop music created by classic 1960s bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks. All Britpop artists seemed to manifest a sense of admiration for the sounds of the past, from the psychedelic Pink Floyd-like sounds heard in much of Blur to the disco influenced pop-rock sounds heard in some of Pulp’s work – like 1995’s Different Class. The glam and punk rock sounds of the 1970s are emulated in lots of the biggest Britpop hits, as well as sounds of the 1980s indie scene – particularly that of The Smiths. Britpop records can be seen as a blend of many subgenres of pop and rock, but most importantly includes features of the Madchester genre, which merged indie music with features of 60s pop and psychedelia, and shoegaze, a subgenre of indie rock distinguished by its ethereal sound created by the use of distortion, feedback and obscured vocals. These were both very popular in the late 80s and early 90s.
Lyrics written by Britpop bands were made to be relevant to young people in Britain, and the songs released during this movement embraced and emphasised ‘Britishness’. Britpop sparked a period of greater pride in the culture of the United Kingdom, in a cultural movement known as Cool Britannia. The success of these British bands contributed to an increased feeling of optimism in the United Kingdom. D:Ream’s single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ became The Labour Party’s song, and they began working towards a ‘rebranding of Britain’. There was much more patriotism seen, for example Liam Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar and Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress at the 1997 Brit Awards. Even the US magazine Vanity Fair published a special edition on Cool Britannia, focusing in on London particularly, headlined ‘London Swings! Again!’. British music dominated during this period, and the praise which many Britpop artists received proved that ordinary working-class people could achieve huge success.
The Britpop movement was dominated by the ‘Big Four’, which consisted of Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp. Suede was one of the first Britpop bands to receive major attention from the media, with their self-titled debut in 1993 winning the Mercury Music Prize. Their sound is a concoction of both glam rock and punk, and has been compared to the early music of David Bowie. The record was unlike most music heard at the time, and the success of the release marked the beginning of the Britpop period.
The Britpop era peaked in 1994-95, with Oasis and Blur competing in what was known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’. In 1994, Blur released their third album Parklife, which made them Britain’s most popular band for a period of time. Oasis then released Definitely Maybe, which received critical acclaim and became the fastest selling album in the United Kingdom. There was a constant fight in the charts between the two bands, and this culminated in 1995 when Albarn deliberately changed the release date of Blur’s latest single to coincide with Oasis’ single release. The feud was referred to as the ‘British Heavyweight Championship’ by the NME, and ultimately Blur won. ‘Country House’ outsold ‘Roll With It’ by a big margin. The media coverage of the struggle between the two bands was extensive and helped to popularise the genre even further.
In the long run, Oasis achieved greater success, and it was the release of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory which catapulted Oasis to worldwide fame. It became one of the best-selling albums in British history – Oasis’ popularity was huge. This album beat Blur’s The Great Escape and Pulp’s Different Class to win the Best British Album award at the Brit Awards. Later in 1996, Oasis made history again when they played a two-night set at Knebworth, which 2.6 million people applied for tickets to. This demand was the largest ever for a concert in Britain. Following this, the charts were inundated with hits produced by Britpop bands until 1997, when the movement began to decline rapidly.
As many of the bands associated with the Britpop movement either lost popularity or broke up, other British bands appeared on the scene, in what was known as the post-Britpop indie movement. Oasis’ third album ‘Be Here Now’ (1997) was criticised by music critics and fans alike, while Blur began to drift away from their classic Britpop sound. They adopted a calmer style and began to sound more like an American rock band. I suppose everything must come to an end – by 1997, the Britpop trend had passed. Bands such as Travis, Stereophonics and Coldplay offered softer sounds which became popular instead, and lots of these groups achieved wider commercial success than the Britpop groups ever had. Alongside this, pop groups like the Spice Girls became popular and helped to push Britpop out of the public eye. The decline of Britpop also meant that bands which had previously been overlooked became more appreciated. Blur’s experimentalism and Oasis’ disappointing album meant that lesser-known artists at the time could step into the limelight. Most notably, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ received the attention they deserved, and their music was met with great praise.
Although the Britpop phenomenon was short lived, a huge number of classic songs were produced by some brilliant bands. It was a fleeting movement, but it completely changed the face of UK music and continues to inspire up-and-coming artists today.
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