Britpop, braindance and broken politics — How 1990s optimism became passé

A panel of icons split in two - a light side and a darker side. On the light side, a brain with two feet representing braindance, stylised Royal Air Force symbol representing britpop. On the darker side, the britpop symbol turns into a bubble bursting. Next to it is a warning triangle.

Britpop has been having a moment again this summer. Pulp and Blur have both enjoyed huge live comebacks. (I watched Pulp perform in Glasgow a few weeks ago. The show was superb. I’ll maybe write about it soon.)

This has prompted much nostalgia for a genre that peaked nearly 30 years ago. Britpop was more than a musical genre. It was a cultural phenomenon that served as a metaphor for a moment in Britain’s history when it felt optimistic about its future because it was proud of its past.

But the scene shone brightly for only a couple of years before fizzling out. The death of britpop is widely remarked upon.

BBC News recently asked: “What prompted the end of britpop?” Like most investigations of the period, it concluded that britpop’s main protagonists got hungover in the wake of their success. As such, they made depressing, bloated, unappealing albums in the aftermath. In doing so, they inadvertently killed the genre.

This theory is unconvincing, skirting around the fact that Blur actually made some of their strongest and most popular songs in the post-britpop period. Blur didn’t become musically hungover or bloated. They instead showed the way forward by eschewing britpop tropes.

You need to look beyond indie music to see what was really going on. Because electronic music was undergoing a similar shift — albeit one that gets far fewer column inches dedicated to it.

Before the shift, electronic music was optimistic, futuristic, and euphoric. Afterwards, it has become dystopian, nostalgic and pensive.

So what was driving this all?

Britpop then

At the peak of britpop, in 1995, I was 9 years old. Everything was normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the world works, as Douglas Adams put it. But before I turned 15, the age at which Douglas Adams said things become new and revolutionary, britpop died.

The inflection point came early in 1997, when Blur, one of the scene’s main protagonists, released their self-titled album. Conspicuously, it took inspiration from US-based lo-fi alternative bands. It was a deliberate swerve from the britpop scene they had done so much to define.

A few months later, Oasis released Be Here Now. The follow-up to the decade’s biggest-selling album, it was hyped up to be literally the biggest album ever. But critics, listeners and even the band itself came to bemoan it for being bloated and over-produced.

Britpop’s third pillar was Pulp. Following the explosive success of Different Class, they also radically changed direction. This is Hardcore struck an ambitious, moodier tone. It was largely written in New York hotel rooms. There wasn’t much Brit, and there was very little pop. The album was met with a wary music-buying public.

New faces of British pop

Amid all this, the Spice Girls began to take the spotlight away from the guitar-led bands. When they took to the stage at the Brit awards in February 1997, with Geri Halliwell clad in her iconic union flag dress, there was no doubt where the centre of gravity of British pop was — and it was no longer britpop.

The Spice Girls’ star shone even brighter than britpop’s. But even that began to burn out in 1998 when Geri Halliwell left.

Meanwhile, Radiohead, who had managed to avoid associations with britpop, released OK Computer. One of the decade’s most critically-acclaimed albums, it set a more experimental, political, even dystopian tone. Its critical success ensured that nobody could seriously adopt the britpop template again.

Politics and pop

I have always found it difficult to ignore the fact that this all coincided with a political shift in the UK. Tony Blair’s New Labour won the 1997 general election. This meant Labour saw power for the first time since 1979.

Any optimism that surrounded the advent of a Labour government quickly subsided. People soon grew weary of the cynical, PR-driven nature of Tony Blair’s administration.

The mid-1990s represented an optimism around seeing the back of a floundering Conservative government. But this quickly gave way to disappointment in the alternative that was on offer.

That was certainly on the minds of Pulp. During the This is Hardcore sessions, they recorded Cocaine Socialism, an acerbic song that squarely targeted New Labour.

By Jarvis Cocker’s own admission, the band bottled out of including it on the album itself, fearing it too close to the bone. Instead, a sanitised version with completely different lyrics called Glory Days made the cut. But shortly after the album’s release the “proper version” was unveiled as a B-side.

Electric dreams

Throughout all this, a similar shift was happening in electronic music. Up to this point, electronic music had largely represented an optimistic techno-futurism. It was even in the names of some of the artists.

The Future Sound of London produced some of the genre’s most important music in the mid-1990s. After peaking in chart popularity with 1996’s Dead Cities, they took a lengthy hiatus, after which they were never as vital again.

Then there is the early output of Warp Records. While britpop was emerging, Warp spearheaded a more leftfield cultural phenomenon by releasing eight revolutionary electronic music records in a series called Artificial Intelligence.

Taking inspiration from techno-utopianism combined with science fiction tropes, it celebrated “electronic listening music”, a new form of techno designed for your mind as much as your feet. It was also notable for spotlighting artists that would come to define alternative electronic music including Autechre and Aphex Twin.

(Coincidentally, Warp also gave Pulp a vital boost to their careers at the same time by releasing three singles on a spin-off label called Gift. That put Pulp on the radar for a major label deal. Warp can genuinely claim to have initiated both britpop and IDM in 1992 — an incredible impact on 1990s culture.)

The music that spawned from the Artificial Intelligence series came to be called “intelligent dance music” or IDM. Some called it braindance.

It didn’t attract the attention of the tabloids as britpop did. But the rise of internet mailing lists meant the word spread among those connected. IDM continued to grow for a few years, in parallel with the heights of britpop.

Up to this point, electronic music of all genres was indelibly linked with the future. As Simon Reynolds wrote:

From drum ’n’ bass to trance, from gabba to minimal techno, the music promised the sound of tomorrow, today. Each scene saw itself as a vanguard—dancing to these beats, you were in some sense already in the future.

One of the artists featured in the Artificial Intelligence series was B12. Their 1996 album Time Tourist is good. But its aesthetic — complete with artwork depicting a giant 22nd century spaceship — would not have washed just a few years later. Its then-futuristic style dated badly, and transpired to be indelibly linked to the 1990s.

Field music

Music Has the Right to Children album cover

The line in the sand was drawn in 1998, when Boards of Canada released Music Has the Right to Children (also on Warp). It represented a radical departure from their future-centred contemporaries.

Boards of Canada struck a nostalgic vibe. Melodies warbled, wowed and fluttered, mimicking the deterioration of analogue recordings. They wanted it to feel like you had discovered a decades-old tape in a field.

But this wasn’t a rose-tinted view of the past. The album artwork featured a family photo with the faces spookily redacted. In the music, subliminal messages seeped their way into the listener’s consciousness. Samples of nature documentaries were chopped up beyond recognition. Hidden mathematical codes sought to be solved.

In the track Aquarius, set to a sample from the 1960s musical Hair, a Sesame Street counting lesson goes wrong. A numbers station voice from the uncanny valley counts up from one — but after a while starts blurting out numbers in the wrong order, including the made-up number sixtyten.

Other Boards of Canada tracks have evoked public information films warning about energy shortages, nuclear catastrophes and general ecological breakdown.

Boards of Canada may not have troubled the charts, but Music Has the Right to Children was a slow-burner word-of-mouth hit. It has proved highly influential, foreshadowing a whole genre known as hauntology, spearheaded by labels like Ghost Box.

Meanwhile, closer to the top of the charts, the emergence of trip-hop and chill-out underlined that the future was downtempo.

This all meant that the futuristic aesthetic that defined electronic music suddenly seemed rather naff.

In the following decade, the main innovations in electronic music came from early dubstep artists like Burial. They looked towards the future again but with a decidedly dystopian take.

But what made Boards of Canada’s idea resonate so much in 1998? And what does it have to do with the death of britpop? To explain that, we have to go back to politics.

The end of the end of history

The mid-1990s were a period of unusual optimism, both culturally and politically.

In 1992, when the seeds of both britpop and IDM were sown, Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last of Man was published. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he argued that western liberal democracy was the “end point” of ideology.

But even though the 11 September attacks didn’t happen until 2001, the idea that humanity had reached its peak started to unravel before then. Awareness of the millennium bug gave everyday people a tangible, concrete example of technology going bad.

Meanwhile, awareness of the effects of climate change came to a head in the late 1990s. Increasing consensus on the need to prevent environmental catastrophe led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, containing the first legally binding greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Warning about the future

The clues were in Boards of Canada’s Energy Warning. The utopian futurism of electronic music had no place in the actual future.

Optimism as a whole has gradually become passé. An analysis of Eurovision Song Contest finalists over the years has shown a increase in songs in a minor key. Since the turn of the millennium the majority of songs have been in a minor key.

To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, the world had begun to realise: the future that we had mapped out was nothing much to shout about. The optimistic tone of britpop had become a mis-shape.

Maybe, in these tough times, that’s why some people are turning back to britpop. We can remind ourselves of a time when we could still be optimistic.


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