Indie Music

Mad fer it! The young musicians flying the flag for Britpop

For some, Britpop was a high point for British guitar music: that time when Blur, Pulp, Suede and Oasis thrilled the world with wit and brio. Others argue it has aged worse than Loaded magazine: blokey, beery, conservative and still clogging up the charts. Indeed, there’s perhaps something a bit dismal about the fact that James and Shed Seven have both had No 1 albums in 2024.

Nevertheless, a crop of young artists are turning to the energy and iconography of mid-90s Britain for inspiration. The jungle artist Nia Archives, 24, wears a dazzling union jack on her teeth for the cover of her debut album, Silence Is Loud. “No one’s really making Britpop at the moment,” she told the Face in February, “but I have a feeling 2024 is gonna be the year.” Dua Lipa has said she was “looking through the music history of psychedelia, trip-hop and Britpop” while making her new album, Radical Optimism, adding that Britpop “has always felt so confidently optimistic to me, and that honesty and attitude is a feeling I took into my recording sessions” – although you’d be pushed to notice the influence on the new singles she has released so far.

AG Cook, once head of the avant-pop collective PC Music, turns “Britpop” into a hooky slogan on his triple album of the same name – Charli XCX hypnotically chants it on the title track, while the cover is a warped pink and green remix of the union jack. Then there’s the songwriter Rachel Chinouriri, 25, whose cover for the album What a Devastating Turn of Events is very Britpop, with its picture of a council estate festooned with St George’s Cross bunting. Is this just another rotation of the nostalgia cycle, or can these artists help recontextualise what Britpop was – and is?

The BBC 6 Music presenter Stuart Maconie is credited with coining the term in a 1993 feature for Select magazine’s Yanks Go Home! edition. It described a hyperspecific period when a wave of bands arrived with a similar eccentric British sensibility, seeming like an antidote to US grunge.

“I would always distinguish Britpop from what we call Cool Britannia,” he says. “The burgeoning economic climate, Tony Blair – that becomes bullish and slightly swaggery. Then you get the Spice Girls, you get Oasis, you get all the frankly horrible stuff associated with Britpop – the laddishness, the replica football shirts. One is outsider, it’s underground, it’s witty, it’s enigmatic, it’s poetic, it’s sexy in a very un-thrusting way. The latter is football, beer, Three Lions.”

But over time, the distinction between Britpop and Cool Britannia has become lost. “What we think of as Britpop wasn’t what it was like,” says Kieron Gillen, co-creator of the Britpop-influenced comic book series Phonogram. “It was much wider. Especially early on, it was more female, queer, late-1970s. Later, it was more male, straight, 1960s and leaden.” Gillen based Phonogram on “the frustration of ‘I was fucking there!’” – a time when most people’s tastes were much broader than lads with guitars. “I was obsessed with everything that happened in music. Everyone went down to the Good Mixer” – the Britpop scene pub in Camden. “Everyone liked jungle records.”

Though jungle was also an upsurge of new British music, which happened at pretty much the same time as the explosion of guitar bands, it wasn’t part of the Britpop conversation. Nia Archives connects the dots on her debut record, which pairs jungle with songwriting inspired by the Beatles, Blur and Oasis. “Jungle was the punk of dance music – it’s rebellious. It’s also Black British music,” she says. “I liked the loose link from jungle to Britpop. In the 90s, you’d have the Gallagher brothers hanging out with Goldie and Björk.” Noel Gallagher and Goldie also collaborated on a record, Temper Temper, though it isn’t exactly a highlight of either’s catalogue. “That mismatch of people, like David Bowie going to the Blue Note on a Sunday night in Hoxton” – for the influential jungle club night Metalheadz – “I love that culture.” So what does Britpop mean to her? Like Lipa, she says “it’s a feeling of optimism. When listening to Britpop, there’s a feeling of togetherness.”

While displaying the union jack and England flags caused unease among some music fans in the mid-90s (Noel Gallagher brandished the former on his guitar), today the flags are perhaps even more heavily politicised thanks to Brexit and the rise of popular nationalism. “I have a different connection with the union jack as opposed to the St George’s Cross,” Nia Archives says. Growing up in Bradford in the early 2000s she saw it co-opted by the far-right English Defence League. “That to me is where I associate that flag.”

Chinouriri, however, decided to use the St George’s Cross as an act of reclamation. “For Black people and POC, that flag’s not something people are proud of,” she says, adding that some people around her discouraged her from using it on her album cover. But on her single The Hills, Chinouriri sings about rediscovering her British identity after feeling lonely during a period spent in Los Angeles. “No matter the trauma I’ve had from being raised in the UK, being Black British and being the only Black person in my neighbourhood, it’s made me the person who I am,” she says. “There is a culture within being Black British that is distinct and strong, and harbours creativity.” Using the flag is “a celebration – taking back this thing and saying: you can’t get rid of me”.

AG Cook also drew on Britpop during a period of isolation. He spent lockdown in rural Montana with his girlfriend, where he was the only British person in town. Britpop became a way of discussing his personal and national identity. “What justified using ‘Britpop’ on my record is the word being so loaded,” he says. “That’s a lot of fuel to mess with. Pop is already something that people can’t agree on. It reminds me of the confusion of: what is Britain? What is a Brit? The British Isles, United Kingdom, England – people arguing about boundaries and about genre.”

Cook recast the union jack in pink and green to give it “an alternative universe quality”, but he isn’t worried about backlash. “My audience is different to the audience watching the back of the England shirt,” he jokes about the recent controversy around Nike’s revamp of the St George’s Cross on the new England football kit.

Still, he sees value in artists claiming the flag for themselves. “Now we have this spectre of populist nationalist thinking, interesting musicians are using it in another way; maybe it declaws it from just being one interpretation.”

Cook also points to the fracturing of pop culture since the advent of the internet as another reason that Britpop is a reference. “We live in a completely different media to the one 90s Britpop was responding to,” he says. “Even if a lot of those bands weren’t on the same page, they would be on the same front pages. Once you’ve got this broken up mainstream and everyone’s existing in these subcultures, anything you can do to latch on to something more universal” – such as Britpop – “is very useful. It creates an interesting dialogue between artists.”

It’s clear that bands who once defined the monocultural mainstream sit differently in today’s broader culture – just look at the nonplussed reaction of gen Z to Blur’s 2024 Coachella set – and the very notion of Britpop is becoming broader again, too. With their diverse perspectives and hopeful songwriting, this new wave of artists is moving Britpop away from its association with laddism and jingoism, and closer to the original anything-goes feeling.

“History is a long game – you can absolutely redefine an alternative history of Britpop,” says Gillen. “If it’s popular enough, history changes. That’s the magic of pop music.”

Comments Off on Mad fer it! The young musicians flying the flag for Britpop