Saturday, April 27, 2013

BRITPOP AND THE BRITPRESS
Request, May 1996

by Simon Reynolds


Right now, the British weekly music press--New Musical Express (NME) and Melody Maker (MM)--is going through one of its periodic phases of feeling self-important. The reason, of course, is Britpop. The weeklies didn't create the movement, but they did name it, and for two years now they've given Britpop their unconditional support. The official line is that 'we've never had it so good' (an echo of a famous political slogan from the '60s); that Britpop is a golden age for UK music, and that if you want to keep tabs on this fast-moving scene, you've got to buy the weeklies.

Grunge wasn't a bad time for the UK music press (in fact Melody Maker
was way ahead of American publications in picking up on what was happening in
Seattle). But the Brit-press is happiest when it can cover stuff happening
on its own doorstep, on a week-by-week basis. If a band is local, it's so much easier to kickstart the hype-cycle that so appals Americans: the group's discovery at a live gig by a cub reporter ('I have seen the future'), its endorsement by a more established writer, the granting of 'Single of the Week' honors, the pricking of major label A&R interest, the full-page debut album rave, the front cover, and so forth. So accelerated is the hype-cycle these days that stages are often
skipped; buzz bands sometimes make the front cover before they've even released a
record.

Being so USA-based, grunge interfered with this process. NME  and MM rely on record companies to pay for trips outside the UK, which means that most American bands are already signed by the time the press write about it. Grunge also goaded the Britpress' patriotic pride, triggering its reflex-resentment towards America's domination of pop culture. After an initial anti-grunge backlash in '93 (Suede's defiantly Anglophile blend of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey),Britpop really got rollin' in '94. There was the neo-Merseybeat swagger of Oasis, Blur's unexpected self-resurrection out of the 'has been/never-was' dumpster, and Pulp's strange and wonderful ascent to cult popularity, after 15 years in the wilderness. In '95, Britpop went into overdrive: Elastica, Supergrass, Bluetones, Cast, Gene, Shed Seven, Menswear, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

The Britpress will seize on any excuse for a fit of chest-swelling, tub-thumping jingoism. Britpop was ideal, since its aesthetic base--the mid-60's, filtered through its late '70s echo, New Wave--had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the province of the weeklies. At the same time, Britpop bands are overtly anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine a playsafe 1966-meets-1978, three minute pop aesthetic with a doctrine of stardom-at-all-costs, making them highly desirable to record companies and extremely radio-friendly. Because the bands it deals with now hit the charts,
the prestige and morale of the Britpress has been boosted; for the first time in 15 years, people turn to them as tipsheets on future stars. For instance, this January a grubby little gang of sub-Oasis oiks called Northern Uproar appeared on MM's cover one week, and on Top Of the Pops the next (TOTP being the UK's premiere pop TV show, based around that week's new chart entries). Furthermore, Britpoppers behave like pop stars; they make strenuous efforts to give good face and good quote, all of which makes the music papers' job much easier.

That job is basically to convince the readers that stuff is happening. Now, you might think that ain't so hard, given the plethora of scenes and sounds  generated by the merry postmodern tumult of the 1990's. But the Britpress readership is deeply conservative, and its idea of what's relevant
is decidedly narrow. Look at the NME and MM annual readers polls in the last 15years and you'll invariably find the Best Band position occupied by a white, all-male, British guitar band: the Jam, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Suede, Blur, Oasis. The Top 10 Band, Album and Single categories usually feature no women, no blacks, no dance music, and rarely any Yanks (although REM and Nirvana did briefly challenge the Anglocentric bias).

The Britpress has to give its readers what they want, i.e as many pieces as possible on the 10 or so Big Brits (pegged around the single, the album, the tour, any excuse whatsoever basically), plus features on Brit-pop 'contenders'--younger bands waiting in the wings for fame and fortune to take its toll on the established Brit biggies. That still leaves a fair number of pages which have to be be filled by token coverage of 'minority' interests like techno, hip hop, weird guitar experimentalism, American rock, and other stuff which market research shows the readers are simply not interested in.

The big problem for the weekly music papers right now is that the very commercial success that's vindicated their Britpop boosterism is also making their own role redundant. A few years ago, NME started its Brat Awards as a sort of parody-cum-riposte to the Brit Awards (the UK record industry's official, Grammy-like honors). In the beginning, NME could justifiably argue that the truly vibrant pop of the day was being ignored by the Brits, in favor of MOR artistes like Elton John and Phil Collins, whose awards were basically rewards for their contribution, via international sales, towards rectifying Britain's trade deficit. These days, both Brits and Brats are alarmingly similar in their fixation on the triumvirate of Blur/Oasis/Pulp; yesterday's alternative has become today's mainstream.

Because of this, everybody is writing about Britpop--from the newspapers and tabloids to glossy teenybop mags like Smash Hits. With their traditional turf usurped by other mags and by TV, the weeklies don't know where to go next, how to reclaim their unique role. Do they carry on
scrabbling to find the next Blur or Oasis ahead of the slower-moving monthly magazines, a strategy which is already dredging up lame xeroxes and runts-of-the-litter like Northern Uproar? Or do they dare to drift left-field, and discover/dream up a new alternative?

Another reason why the weekly papers have been obliged to narrow their focus is the vast range of music media now available in the U.K., from specialist publications (dance mags like Mixmag and Muzik, metal mags like Kerrang, cutting edge eclectics like The Wire) to the 'general interest' music monthlies like Select, Q and Mojo. The last three are owned by the publishing group EMAP, and are designed to take the reader from cradle to grave: Select is targetted at indie-loving teens and colledge kids, Q is for late twenty-to early thirtysomethings who buy maybe ten CD's a year, while Mojo is
a largely retro-oriented magazine aimed at the 30-plus market who've given up on 'modern music' but are still passionately interested in the graying rock'n'rollers who soundtracked their youth.

NME and Melody Maker are deadly rivals, which is odd because they're owned by the same media conglomerate, IPC, and are situated just one floor apart inside IPC's King's Reach Tower.
Once upon a time, this emnity was based on ideological differences. Today,  the rivalry is sustained out of habit more than anything; Britpop unites all in its engulfing mediocrity. In truth, the papers have a complementary relationship. Since the late '80s, MM has been ensconced in the role of discovering new bands first; the bigger-selling NME bides its time and usually reaps the benefits of timing its coverage closer to the point at which bands break into the mainstream.

Writing for a weekly music paper offers writers cachet and power, but little financial reward or career prospects. There's a constant influx of firebrands who arrive, make their mark (usually by crusading on behalf of a particular scene or genre) and then burn out. There's a definite type that's attracted to the weekly music press: almost always male, almost always middle class, over-educated, a bit emotionally retarded. (I speak as someone who's written for Melody Maker for ten years, and certainly don't exempt myself from this description!). The Fall's Mark E. Smith tagged this breed with his phrase 'hip priest'. Throbbing with will-to-belief and gifted in the arts of messianic
rhetoric, these angsty young men gravitate towards the music press, where in previous generations they might have chosen revolutionary politics, poetry or evangelism.

See, thriving (as opposed to eking out a living) in the Britpress requires a weird sort of doublethink: the knack of participating in the conscious construction of a 'happening scene', while simultaneously believing in the reality and righteousness of the figment you've created. A good example of this syndrome is Romo, the pipe-dream of two of Melody Maker's brightest journos,Simon Price and Taylor Parkes. Short for 'Romantic Modernism', Romo is not, the duo stress, merely a revival of early '80s New Romantic synth-and-eyeliner pop, but "a renaissance" of the quintessentially English aptitude for artifice and androgny. No matter that the one Romo band I've seen so far, Viva, were quite dreadful, a cut-price Roxy Music; Price & Taylor's manifesto-mongering and sheer will to hallucinate into being an alternative to the increasingly prosaic Britpop are admirable. It's what the English music press does best, and doesn't do often enough these days.

British music hacks engage in this kind of scene-making partly for glory, partly out of dissatisfaction with pop's stasis quo, and partly in a purely generous attempt to make things seem more exciting than they actually are. Ideas are thrown down, as a challenge and a reproach, and in the hope that someone will pick up the baton. There's no profit to be had from these crusades; only the bands who get signed by majors thanks to the hacks's efforts, and the A&R scouts who do the signing, make any money out of the hype-cycle.

The weekly nature of the Britpress, the sheer number of pages that require filling, and the swarm of young egos hungry to make their mark--all this contributes to the infamous "hothouse atmosphere" of the UK music scene: the rapid turnover of scenes and styles, the histrionics and overheated prose.
The readers don't particularly like these qualities, but they kinda expect them; they're locked in a peculiar love/hate relationship with the weeklies, and tend both to overestimate and underestimate their power. NME and MM can't break bands on their own, without radio play, nor can they significantly damage successful bands. But the papers do have a huge influence on the record companies' A&R policy (several Romo combos have already been signed!),
and a more subliminal effect on British music culture itself. By creating a critical climate in which certain ideas and attributes become highly charged, sexy, de rigeur, the music papers shape the aesthetic universe in which a young band develops; by the time they're getting written about, the bands are spouting the buzzwords, dropping the references, reciting the litany. Dreampop, the post-My Bloody Valentine wave of Lush, Slowdive, Ride, etc, is a good example of this syndrome.

In the end, the Britpress's virtues are the same as its vices. It is volatile, venomous, fickle, pretentious, lacking in perspective, frothy with premature exaltations and disproportionate fervour, absurdly polarised in its judgements, prey to the most pernicious kinds of boosterism, and an utter stranger to fact-checking. Wholly un-American, in other words.

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