Go with a smile!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Britpop and Nationalism

Ever since the 2011 elections, there has been a change in the “terms of the dialogue”. I had a friend, Nat, who told me that he didn’t really understand what it means. He didn’t understand why everybody was suddenly talking about the elections. It wasn’t a big deal. Well it was a big deal in Singapore. People who had grown up in Singapore, and who had seen what it was like in the past, suddenly know. I can imagine that Indians are not very enthusiastic about elections because a lot of politicians are venal and corrupt. And Singaporeans are usually not very enthusiastic about elections because the outcome is boring and pre-ordained. But once in a while, the wind changes direction. It’s like being in a tropical country, and when a storm is brewing, the air actually smells different, the wind is whipping up, and the atmosphere becomes electric for a little while. That was what the 2011 elections was like. For once, there was a real possibility that the PAP was going to be embarrassed, even if it was in some small way. It was like a guy who never had a date in his life getting to hold a girl’s hand. Most people wouldn’t think that it’s a big deal. But if you really understand the situation, you would know that it is a big deal.

But I’m not really here to talk about politics. And anyway, my main aim is to talk about something else. As part of the change in “terms of the dialogue”, people have finally, spontaneously, started to think about what nationhood means – partly because what we used to know as “nationhood” is starting to disappear. Is Singapore a nation? I don’t really know. Thing about a nation, is that it is usually not defined by (quoting the Singapore pledge) language, race or religion. It is defined by geography. It is something that is highly tribal. A nation is the second largest category, which means, it encompasses the whole landscape, but there is an understanding that there is another place not covered by that nation. So there must not only be a self, but also an “other”. Singapore was a budding nation: we are fairly cognizant of our neighbours, although I wish we were more so.

I do not consider China or the USA to be nations. They are empires. There’s not a great consciousness of the outside world for people who live in those two countries. Furthermore, their geographical scope is so vast and broad that they seem more like a few nations bound together. For the USA, New England is not the same as the Mid Atlantic, which is not the same as the Plains, the Mountains, the Midwest, the South, California, or the rest of the West Coast. But at least they still speak the same language. In China, people speak different languages which are disguised as one language. The friction between the dialect groups was such that you can understand why LKY forced everybody to speak Mandarin.

UK – you could think of it as a mini-empire, since they acknowledge themselves as four different nations, and they sorda behave like a nation. I was reminded of this when I saw this documentary on Britpop in the 1990s. Of course, it was about the music, but I also felt that in those few short years (1993 – 97), Britain came together as a nation most prominently. There was already a budding subculture of Indie music during the 80s. The UK had an unusually prominent pop music scene: there were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zep, Deep Purple, the Who, the Kinks, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix (who’s American but first became famous in London), T Rex, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Slade, Queen, Elton John, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, Elvis Costello, Joy Division, Duran Duran, Madness, Eurythmics and the Smiths. Then came the Stone Roses, who was inadvertently the flag bearer for many of the great bands of the 90s.

What distinguished the bands of the 90s was that they were actively celebrating their own Britishness. Many of the earlier bands I mentioned were fairly outward looking. Yes, the Beatles may never be mistaken for anything other than a Liverpool band (although you could also say they are a Hamburg band). But they and the Rolling Stones were inspired by American music. The heavy metal bands in the UK appealed to both sides of the Atlantic. The glam rockers and the punks principally had a British audience, although punk had taken root in New York before becoming big in the UK.

So there was something fairly nationalistic about Britpop. It’s almost like they suddenly looked at the great musical heritage they had and decided that they weren’t going to pretend to be “international” or “American” after all. The fact that Oasis became popular everywhere outside of America just tells you how insular the Americans are.

The biggest bands of the Britpop movement represented different aspects of British pop culture. Suede took after Bowie and glam rock. Blur took after the Kinks, Madness and Wire. Oasis took after Slade, Stone Roses, the Verve with a bit of T Rex thrown in for good measure. Pulp took after Roxy Music. Elastica took after Wire and the Fall. There is another segment that included the trip hop triple threat of Massive Attack / Portishead / Tricky, although that is a separate thread, but an equally rich seam of music.

An entire subculture was celebrated. The townhouses, the afternoon tea, the walks in the parks, the council estates. Everybody reveled in the fact that it was suddenly cool and hip to be themselves. An analogy would be if people suddenly decided that Singaporean HDB life was worth celebrating: the old uncles in the corner of the coffee shop with their beer bottles and their piles of peanut shells. The old wrinkled cobbler in the corner. The bitter smells of the medicine halls. Eating kaya toast with one leg perched up on the stool.

The laddishness was celebrated. The football, the cigarettes, the rudeness, the dry wit. The occasional loutishness and drunkenness. Perhaps, for the first time, the shackles of the Thatcher years were thrown off. Perhaps there was a temporary prosperity partially brought about by the North Sea Oil boom. For a while, it was tremendously liberating, until it burnt itself out, inevitably.

And why? Because first, there isn’t that much to British culture. There is a lot of sterility and boredom involved in it, and for a while, paradoxically, it was that sterility that was celebrated. But there was only so much to it, only so much you could say about life in a relatively small country, about which so much had already been written before you were done.

Another reason it burnt itself out was because New Labour used them as a platform to their popularity. There were three events in 1997 that signaled the end of this great run: Labour winning the elections, Princess Diana perishing in a crash (the hysteria could have been something unleashed by the Britpop years), and Oasis releasing “Be Here Now”, an album that had “excessive use of cocaine” written all over it. Celebrities who never expected to become famous and were therefore not prepared to do so could not handle the fame and many self-destructed in fairly appalling ways. Pulp documented the self-loathing of the end of the Britpop years in their album “This is Hardcore”.

Yet in those few short years, there was an astonishing burst of great music – OK, not astonishing by the standards of the 60s and 70s but undeniably great. And that nationalism wasn’t of the jingoistic sort. It wasn’t racist. Blacks and Indians participated as well.

And for the last few years, the British music scene has been awful. I don’t know if this is a symptom of something larger that’s taking place elsewhere in the world, or if the UK as a country has gone downhill so fast that there wasn’t anything left to celebrate. In the first decade of the 21st century, you had “reality TV” and plenty of awful and untalented people wanting to have their 15 minutes of fame: you had “Big Brother”, “Britain’s Got Talent” (remember Susan Boyle?) and overpaid Premiership footballers. It was quite horrible compared to what Britpop had.

So what kind of nationalism do I want to see for Singapore? I want those 3-4 years that the UK had at the height of its Britpop craze. That would be enough for me.


Blogger 7-8 said...

In other news, Britain has topped the years' rankings when it comes to soft power.

7:34 AM


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