Britpop’s Back. But What Happened to Cool Britannia?

In 1994, Luis Chuva was 14 and on summer vacation at his grandparents’ home in Costa Nova, Portugal, when, one Saturday, he glimpsed something on TV that changed his life: a music video for “Girls and Boys,” by the British band Blur.

Onscreen, Blur’s singer, Damon Albarn, dressed in a track jacket and wearing a hint of eyeliner, glanced seductively at the camera, and then launched into an upbeat song about British tourists on promiscuous, beer-fueled Mediterranean holidays.

The swaggering track couldn’t have been further from Chuva’s simple teenage life: It featured Albarn singing in a regional British accent about “Girls who want boys / Who like boys to be girls.” But Chuva recalled in a recent interview that he “was hypnotized.”

Damon Albarn in the 1994 music video for Blur’s “Girls and Boys.”

Soon, the teenager was scouring Portuguese music magazines to find out everything he could about Blur and the other so-called Britpop bands, which included Pulp, Suede (known as the London Suede in the United States) and Oasis. He taped their songs off the radio. He got hold of bootleg tapes of their concerts, which he dreamed of attending.

And Chuva made a decision: At the first opportunity, he would move to London. Viewed from sleepy ’90s Portugal, Britain looked optimistic, exciting, colorful. “It just felt like the place to be,” he said.

Now 44, Chuva has lived in London for almost two decades, and, this summer, he’s busy — because Britpop is back. Some 30 years after the genre emerged, paving the way for the wider phenomenon known as Cool Britannia, some of its biggest acts are playing major gigs across Britain again, and headlining festivals from Mexico to Japan.

This month, Blur released “The Ballad of Darren,” the group’s first album in eight years, and played two sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium, a London soccer venue that can seat 90,000 people. Chuva went to both concerts.

Pulp, another Britpop mainstay, has also re-formed for a major tour. (Chuva saw them, too.) There was even chatter about a potential Oasis reunion — although Noel and Liam Gallagher, the brothers at the heart of that boisterous rock group, quickly knocked the idea back, pointing out on separate radio shows that they don’t talk to each other.

Wembley Stadium, where Blur performed their London shows, holds 90,000 people.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

The comebacks have received euphoric reviews, but they are occurring at a starkly different moment for British pop music, compared with the ’90s. Although Britpop never reached the same heights of popularity in the United States that it did in Australia, Canada, Japan and continental Europe, it coincided with a high point for British soft power. In 1996 Newsweek declared London the world’s coolest city. In 1997, Vanity Fair devoted 25 pages to the bands, artists, chefs and designers making Britain “the place we must all look to.” The same year, The New Yorker called Britain’s music scene “a scary paradise.”

Today, however, neither British nor global news media are portraying Britain as the musical place to be — despite it giving the world current stars like Ed Sheeran, Adele and Harry Styles. Instead, news articles about the country’s music scene are more likely to touch on venues shuttering — at a rate of one a week this year, according to the nonprofit Music Venue Trust — or the country’s bands, DJs and rappers struggling to tour abroad after Brexit brought in a tangle of red tape. Local news outlets have also lamented the British government’s cuts to arts funding, and warned about the decline of music teaching in schools.

Sitting in his West London recording studio recently, Albarn said some things hadn’t changed since Britpop’s heyday. He was still “completely obsessed with this country,” he said, and writing songs with lyrics that were “chipped out of that blue stone of Stonehenge.”

But there were also big differences, he added. He was now 55, and wore knee supports onstage. And the challenges facing the country’s pipeline of musical stars were clear: “The soul of the nation is in danger, if you want to get dramatic about it,” he said, adding that music was “pivotal to our international place.”

Chuva, the Portuguese music fan, said he felt a change, too — not just in Britain’s music, but in the national mood. “The weather here’s always been gray,” he said. “Now everything is.”

Damon Albarn said he was still “completely obsessed” with Britain, and still wrote songs that were “chipped out of that blue stone of Stonehenge.” Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
But there were challenges to the country’s pipeline of musical stars, Albarn said.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
“The soul of the nation is in danger, if you want to get dramatic about it,” Albarn said, adding that music was “pivotal to our international place.”Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

The emergence in the early 1990s of Britpop — a catchall term for almost any guitar music that came out of Britain at the time — was, in many ways, a reaction to America. At the end of 1992, Blur traveled to the United States for a 44-date tour, only to find a country gripped by grunge music and indifferent to the band’s danceable indie charms.

Not long after British journalists labeled the style “Britpop,” and highlighted its rejection of American tastes, it became a pop juggernaut in Britain, with bands vying to top the country’s pop charts.

Blur’s music seemed to typify the genre, with cheeky singles about life in modern England. But it quickly expanded to include a variety of acts, including Elastica — a sneeringly cool punk-influenced band — and the anthemic Oasis. Each had different ideas about Britishness, but they all seemed united in a swaggering sense of self-belief.

The crowd at a Blur gig, in London, in July. The audience included new and old fans.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

Several of the bands were depicted with the Union Jack flag on magazine covers, and happy to deploy it in their visuals. Among them was Sonya Madan, the lead singer of Echobelly, who was born in India and moved to Britain as a child. She once appeared in a music video wearing a Union Jack T-shirt with the phrase “My Country Too” scrawled on it. “It was such a positive explosion,” she said in a recent interview, “with people exploring their self-identity and having this positivity about being British.”

And it didn’t take long for Britain’s politicians to see an opportunity. In 1995, Tony Blair, then the leader of the opposition Labour Party, invited Albarn for a meeting in the Houses of Parliament. Over gin and tonics, Blair and a spin doctor peppered the singer with queries. They included, Albarn said: “What do you think young people are looking for in their governance?”

“I didn’t understand,” Albarn recalled. “I’d just thought he wanted to meet me.”

Two years later, when Blair became prime minister, Albarn turned down an invitation to a drinks reception for British cultural figures at 10 Downing Street, having decided that the new government was just using musicians for a photo opportunity.

Some fans wore throwback British fashions including bucket hats. A handful even draped themselves in the Union Jack.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
Luis Chuva, a Portuguese Blur fan who relocated to London in the ’90s and still lives there. He attended both Blur gigs.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
Blur’s latest album, “The Ballad of Darren,” is named for their former bodyguard. At a Wembley show this month, fans wore masks bearing Darren “Smoggy” Evans’s face.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

If Britpop made Britain feel good about itself, it also made people abroad feel positive about Britain.

Derek Miller, a 46-year-old American actor, said in an interview that he became “immediately smitten” with Blur when he heard them as a teenager in Chicago. The music didn’t have the machismo of American rock, he said. “There was something about it that was just fun.”

While studying at Indiana University Bloomington, he met other Britpop obsessives. (The college radio station had a Britpop show, and the presenter was prone to speaking in a fake British accent, Miller said.) After graduation he moved to Britain. He now lives in Yorkshire, in northern England, and has a son named Jarvis, after the Pulp lead singer.

In recent interviews, a dozen other non-British Britpop fans offered similar tales. Jess Mo said that, at age 18, she moved to London from a village of “literally five houses” on an island off the coast of Sweden, because of her love of Blur. Anne-Sophie Marsh, a Frenchwoman, said she wrote to Pulp’s fan club for advice on what British college to study at, and then moved to the city of Brighton.

Blur played hits including “Song 2” — known in U.S. sports stadiums for its “Woo-hoo!” refrain.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

Most expert interviewees for this article — musicians, academics and journalists — said they felt that Britain’s music scene was today less likely to draw fans to the country. Their reasons didn’t involve the quality of British music. Albarn said some of Britain’s younger, ever-online music stars were writing songs filled with such “universal references” that fans may not even realize they were British. That applied to his own group Gorillaz, too, he said. “I don’t think there’s any sense of it being English,” he said. “They think it’s American in America,” he added. “I think in England they think it’s American, too.”

The only interviewee who didn’t seem downbeat about the prospects of Britain’s musical influence was an American, but one who knows a lot about soft power. Joseph Nye is a political scientist and a former Pentagon official, who in the late 1980s pioneered the idea that countries don’t need to use force to get what they want, but can achieve influence by building popular affinity. By phone, Nye said that, at first glance, it did seem Britain’s musical star was waning. “I hear a lot about K-pop,” he said of Korean artists like BTS. “I don’t hear much about Britpop.”

But, he added, people would still be listening to touchstone British bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles for decades to come. It almost doesn’t matter what Britpop’s legacy was; the country remains a cultural powerhouse by virtue of its earlier history. “I’m not saying Britain can rest on its laurels forever,” Nye said. “But laurels don’t wither.”

A Times reporter at the show spoke to fans from Estonia, South Korea, Italy, the United States and France.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

At one of Blur’s recent homecoming shows at Wembley Stadium, fans had begun lining up outside long before the scheduled showtime. Nye seemed to have a point. Many wore Blur T-shirts. Others were dressed in throwback British fashions, including bucket hats and Fred Perry polo shirts. Few of those die-hard supporters were British. Instead, they said, they were from Estonia, South Korea, Italy, the United States and France, and many had flown over especially for the concert. Chuva, the Portuguese fan, was among them in the line.

A few hours later, Chuva was at the front as Blur played hits like “Song 2” — known in U.S. sports stadiums for its “Woo-hoo!” refrain — and his teenage favorite, “Girls and Boys.” As the band finished with “The Universal” — a euphoric song from 1995 — Albarn put his hands on his knees, emotionally and physically spent.

It was a “truly special” evening, Chuva said. He just hoped the band’s aging members hadn’t exhausted themselves. He had tickets for the next day’s gig, too.

Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
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