If you were not aware, I am American. I think that out of the four people who will end up reading this piece, three will be American. I know this because one will most definitely be my Louisianian Father, the second will be my Californian roommate whom I force to read it, the third will be my editor, and the fourth will be my Swedish friend, Mildred, just to add some diversity.
I am a firm believer that you can experience American music as a feeling, but the feeling shifts depending on if you’re an American yourself or someone who is experiencing it outside of the bubble that is the States. I also believe that the same can be said for British music, specifically the music of Blur and Oasis, who dominated the British music scene in the ‘90s, establishing a genre accurately called “Britpop.”
Britpop was very British, but as an American born after the heyday of the ‘90s (2001 if you want to feel really old), I experienced it through the lens of history; that is, all of the drama along with all of the hindsight.
For some context, Oasis and Blur were not friends. Though they both hailed from the same island, they embodied very different people, that is, the middle class “art school student” Blur and the working class, brash, “get into a fight at a pub” Oasis. The rivalry made sense, as though there were very clear differences in their sound, two groups of relatively attractive young men with guitars and angst were sure to butt heads. This all came to a head when Blur decided to move the release of their single Country House to the same day as Oasis’ Roll With It, which was, as you may have guessed, very much on purpose. Although I wasn’t there, I imagine that the general public’s reaction was something akin to “Oh, snap, they just went there.”
Blur won the battle with Country House climbing to #1 on the charts, but it could be argued that ultimately, they lost the war. Oasis emerged as Britain’s band, something that everyone could all get behind to a certain extent. So, why hadn’t it been Blur?
To answer this question, I got in touch with Thomas Beller, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and a Professor here at Tulane. In the midst of my Blur hyper-fixation, I had stumbled upon a 2015 piece in the New Yorker by him called “That Time My Band Opened for Blur” in which he recounts the time in the early ‘90s that his band opened for the budding Britpop powerhouse during one of their shows on their North American tour. Like me, Professor Beller has a deep respect and appreciation of Blur, and I trust his judgment considering he had crossed paths with the group several times; not only as a musician but as a writer and fan.
I lock myself into an empty study room and wait for him to call. When I answer, he begins with a statement of fact:
“Parklife was the beginning of Britpop.” And just like that, a genre was born. The song is so overwhelmingly British that when I first heard it, there were certain concepts within the song that I couldn’t understand. Blur had chosen Actor Phil Daniels (who is the most stereotypical UK-looking and sounding person ever) to speak the lyrics within the various verses, which speak of everything from a character named John having a “Brewer’s Droop” – fancy English for erectile disfunction – to being “rudely awaken by the dustman” – fancy English for a garbage man.
As you may have guessed, the song held a tone of irony that continued through their various other releases like Country House, which tells the story of a man whose life is filled with money and prescriptions, yet he still needs a break in the countryside. Similar to the cultural stylings of Parklife, I can appreciate Country House, but not necessarily relate to it. The British countryside and the American countryside are two very different things, as the only thing that I could equate to it would be maybe rural Nebraska, and nobody wants to go there.
Blur’s “Britishness” was not lost on some Americans who were privy to the UK’s music scene at the time. My parents met while both working in a record store, so they were exactly who I needed to ask in order to get a first-hand account of the average American experience with Britpop.
My Mother answers and doesn’t immediately want to partake in my survey. I ask her to hand the phone over to my Father.
“Blur was very British and a lot of Americans didn’t really get them until they had put out their most ‘American’ sounding song, Song 2,” he says.
“I love that song,” my Mother mentions excitedly, “Blur wasn’t my deal, but I love that song.” She then proceeds to headbang, sending her blonde hair flying across the screen.
I get it though. As much as I love the almost adversely British-ness of Blur’s Parklife, I can almost feel Song 2. It resonates with my deep-seated need to smash everything around me and just yell into the void. I can’t even explain it, I can just feel it. My cultural identity as an American manifests itself in anger and loud guitars, though my friends tell me that this is not being an American, but instead needing therapy.
So, you want to talk about Oasis. Understandable. My British roommate from the first semester of my freshman year, when asked if she preferred Blur or Oasis, told me that Oasis was Britain’s band. They were the working class, Manchester-raised bad boys of Britpop, and God do they do it well.
“The guy’s a walking powder keg,” Professor Beller tells me of Liam Gallagher, the lead singer of the group. I believe him wholeheartedly, not only because of the hours worth of footage and secondhand accounts revolving around his anger, but also because Professor Beller had spent time with the guy. His cover story for the October 1997 issue of SPIN magazine chronicles his brief time spent with the group. One quote in the article, from Liam, sticks out, which was said in an enraged tone after Professor Beller commented that he liked their record quite a bit:
“You liked it quite a bit? What do you mean you liked it quite a bit?”
Liam then proceeded the storm off. This sudden and aggressive shift in his mood was not unusual. Liam is infamous for his proclamations that he is the reincarnation of his hero John Lennon, as well as his aggressive and swift mood swings, which have resulted in everything from threatening to stab Sacha Baron Cohen to his daily incoherent rants on Twitter.
The point is, Oasis represented a harsher reality than what Blur produced, so they resonated more with England’s population than that of America’s.
“Oasis’ fans were more men than women, I would say,” my Dad tells me. That is to say, that there weren’t only men who crowded their concerts, but Oasis, and especially Liam Gallagher believed that they were on par with gods, which is a feeling that men seem to relate to, in my opinion.
Over the phone, I continue my chat with Professor Beller.
“We can’t discredit Liam’s charisma though,” he explained. As scary as Liam was (and still is), his long hair, grungy, oversized-outfit persona made him into the quintessential bad boy. While Damon was artsy and pretty, Liam was manly and handsome, though one could argue that they both fit into the mold of the ideal British man of the time. I personally believe that Oasis’ (specifically Liam and Noel, his brother and bandmate) grunge-like fashion sense translated better in America at the time, due to the fact that the height of Nirvana had been happening simultaneously.
In terms of their music, Oasis’ lovely pairing of Noel’s guitar playing and lyrics with Liam’s distinctive voice created a stronghold on the British psyche.
“Noel was trying to be both the songwriting duo of McCartney and Lennon all at once, but Liam was basically a co-writer because they wouldn’t have been Oasis songs if it was just Noel singing them,” Professor Beller explained, which he expands on in his ‘97 SPIN magazine piece. “They are England’s national band, a cultural phenomenon to be cited in the same breath as the Tory party relinquishing its grasp to Tony Blair and New Labour.”
The glory days of Britpop have long since left, but the feeling of excitement that both Blur and Oasis evoke still rings true today. In modern times, we Americans have come to know Oasis through beginners-level guitar players who decide to whip out a little Wonderwall at any previously unpretentious moment (Jesus, Chad, how did you even get that thing in here?) and Blur through the speakers of our sports arenas, blasting Song 2. Britpop has been integral to all of our lives, whether that be an American or British one, and whether we realized it or not. Regardless, I think I can speak for us all when I say that Blur and Oasis had some, as the kids would say these days, absolute bangers and I will stand by that until I die.
Cover photo: MagazineCanteen.com & Mercedes Ohlen