Music

Uncool Britannia: Radiohead's 'The Bends' vs. Britpop in a Battle for the Soul of Britain

The successors to Radiohead and The Bends are a generation who liked how the film started, but lost the script halfway through.

In the year of our rockist neoliberalist lord 1994, Britpop poised itself as music's savior, though it was unclear who it was saving us music fans from. Blur and Oasis, declaring modern life and modern music to be rubbish, set out with brash confidence to prognosticate their brand of distinctly British identity politics as the solution to this predicament. It was a familiar narrative seen a hundred times before, one that marketers and politicians would leapfrog onto in the ensuing years: exploit an ambivalently arrived upon sentiment that something has been "lost", and then piggyback victoriously in on the tides of nationalism, populism, and nostalgia that come with its return.

For Britpop, this "something lost" was British music as a cultural force, a sound with both mass appeal and gravitational weight which could ring loudly beyond the isles while bringing dignity and esteem back to its epicenter. British indie music had a long history of appealing to American appetites, even going so far as to adopt American accents to accompany its rock swagger, but here were the cockney rebels armed to the teeth with melodies and power chords, proudly parochial but hellbent on world domination, ready to take back England and take down any sods who dare doubt the intrinsic dominance of glorious rawk 'n' roll. "England is mine," one of the forefathers of Britpop had opined, "It owes me a living". Just as it was with Morrissey, so it went in the book of Gallagher.

The Oxford-bred band Radiohead were ten steps removed from this process. As all this nation-building had been going on in their home country, Radiohead were being catapulted back and forth between two continents by the machinations of a massive hit single. This big hit, "Creep", was the angst-laden Platonic ideal of grunge, an anthem of self-deprecation that sat comfortably on the radio dial alongside similarly themed songs like Stone Temple Pilots's song of the same name, Beck's "Loser", Soul Asylum's "Misery Inc.", and the bulk of Nirvana's output.

Despite this Pixies-indebted single, Radiohead were hardly grunge. A continent removed and art-school educated, they didn't fit the "slacker" profile, but they nevertheless rode the crest of a historical moment only to be swept out with the bathwater in their attempts at a followup single. It's little wonder that when they were calculating their next steps, the band was hesitant to attach themselves to an alternate emerging movement. "I don't belong here…", their megahit told us, and the band seemed destined to feel perpetually out of place.

"If punk was about getting rid of hippies," Damon Albarn of Blur professed to the NME in 1993, "then I'm about getting rid of grunge". Though infinitely quotable on the subject, Britpop's attitude on grunge was a bit two-faced. On the one hand, the stars of the scene were reluctant to brand the American-based scene as villainous (Noel Gallagher even cited Nirvana's dynamics as an influence on Oasis's debut Definitely Maybe), but British bands who copped to the grunge style, including, assumingly, Radiohead, were seen as sellouts to rock and country. Concurrently, grunge's dominance on British shores was chastised as an impediment to a rising new wave, one carefully calculated in the pages of the British music press. The NME, Select, and Melody Maker had been hastening the return to British rock for years via a celebration of inferior earlier incarnations (the scene that celebrates itself, the new wave of new wave, Madchester, et. al.), but now the tunes they promised were actually arriving in the form of big, generation-defining singles by Supergrass, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, the Boo Radleys, and, of course, Blur and Oasis.

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