PRINT May 1997


Hawking of Britain

I RECENTLY RETURNED from the US to a British news media dominated by a by-election in the Northwest of England. The point about the Wirral contest was that 1) it was an ordinarily safe Conservative seat that seemed about to fall to Labour (which it did); and 2) it was the last by-election before the general election, which by law must fall at most five years after the last one (i.e., by this May). With the possibility that eighteen years of Conservative rule are ending, politics had suddenly become charged. I knew this when I looked at the Labour graphics on the telecasts, and there, right in the middle, was a Union Jack.

In America, where the flag is an object of reverence, this would be of no account. But to many Brits the Union Jack has been a loaded, ambiguous symbol. Many late-’70s leftists and punks remember that the fascist party of that time, the National Front, promoted its rhetoric and activities with Union Jack-emblazoned stickers and posters, making the flag, until recently, a no-go logo. So for the left-leaning Labour Party to feature the red white and blue so prominently was a real turnaround, the latest in a bewildering blur of Union Jacks across the media: what began as a half-serious polemic—to boost British pop in the face of grunge and techno—has become a political battleground.

Pop is again at the center of British life. Four years ago the UK media pronounced it “dead”—killed off, so the argument ran, by computer games and falling sales—but for the past eighteen months Britpop has been a self-propagating buzzword. First Oasis, now the Spice Girls, have been number-crunching sensations. The Spice Girls, whose first four records have gone to number one in the UK, are now a national issue, courted by politicians of both left and right, routinely offering political opinions. Their international success—number one in thirty-one countries—was recently emphasized by a picture of head-Spice Geri at the Brit Awards in red platforms, black undies, and a Union Jack minidress. Move on UP!

The Spice Girls’ recent US number one, “Wannabe,” has come at the end of a long line of pieces like Newsweek’s canonization of London as “the coolest city on the planet” and Vanity Fair’s twenty-five-page special, “London Swings! Again!” In our postmodern moment, even these puff pieces were self-consciously referential, with VF’s David Kamp freely sourcing Piri Halasz’s famous April 1966 Time cover feature on “London: The Swinging City.” But the resurgence of Britain as a cross-media promotional package—containing art, music, fashion, cuisine, even literature—has also drawn on that last moment when London was considered hot in global media terms: the high modernism of 1966.

Many factors have come together to create this illusional reality, but let’s trace a cartography through one symbol: the Union Jack, that same red white and blue that plastered the Time graphic in 1966 and now not only appears in VF, draped around actress Patsy Kensit and Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, but was also turned into a cashmere top by Clements Ribeiro and flaunted by Naomi Campbell at London’s “Fashion Week” this February. The Union Jack is an ambiguous icon, however: although it may have symbolically united Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland (by fusing the crosses of their respective patron saints—Andrew, George, and Patrick), it is a permanent reminder that this is not an equal union. In a country where the resources are dominate by London and the richer Southeast, it is hardly surprising that the national symbol has in the past been hijacked by Conservatives and Little Englanders.

The Union Jack was first twinned with pop in the mid ’60s, after the unprecedented international success of the Beatles alerted industry to the fact that national identity was salable; slogans like “I’m Backing Britain” followed. In 1965, Pete Townshend of the Who wore the first Union Jack jacket, an Op art coup so stunning that it features front center in the Time cover illustration. This combination of music, fashion, and attitude—“We stand for pop art clothes, pop art music, and pop art behavior,” said Townshend in 1965, “We live pop art”—helped to make Britain a media-friendly concept: a country of total pop, where, as Piri Halasz noted in Time the following year, “in a once sedate world of faded splendor, everything new, uninhibited and kinky is blooming at the top of London life.”

Halasz had also visited London in 1949, when it was in the depths of postwar austerity, and this gives her analysis some kick: the ’60s were, after all, the moment when the UK started to shrug off World War II. “Britain has lost an empire and lightened a pound,” she wrote. “In the process, it has also recovered a lightness of heart lost during the weighty centuries of world leadership.” Bookended by contrasting photos of traditional and of trendy London, her copy celebrated casinos, nightclubs, writers, filmmakers, actors, designers, and pop stars, offering a handy map of metropolitan pleasure palaces like Tiles, The Scotch of St. James, and Granny Takes a Trip. It marked the high point of mod and British pop confidence, the summer when England won the World Cup and the Beatles released Revolver, that febrile time brilliantly caught by Antonioni in Blow-Up, filmed in London that season.

The following year, 1967, the pop torch passed from London to San Francisco, and the next time it returned to the UK it was not a simple celebration. Announced by Jamie Reid’s cut-up Union Jack graphics for their singles “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen,” and fronted by the Irish/English Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols offered nothing less than a national polemic, backed up by incendiary records and performances: if the flag is a symbol of British identity, so the noise went, then let’s talk about that identity as it really is, not as our royalty and businessmen would like it to be. At the same time, the National Front too gained prominence in that autumn of 1977, and the Union Jack went into a representational nosedive from which it has barely recovered. Even in 1992, when Morrissey unwisely unfurled the flag in front of a skinhead audience, he was first booed offstage, then treated like a pariah in the UK press.

The very next year, however, in the spring of 1993, cutting-edge rockzine Select put the Union Jack on their cover. Emboldened by the rise of that most exaggeratedly Brit of rock groups, Suede, the editorial team of Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, and Andrew Harrison placed a pouting picture of that band’s Brett Anderson over a Union Jack, with the tag “Yanks go home! Suede, St. Etienne, Denim, Pulp, the Auteurs and the Battle for Britain.” “We don’t want plaid,” they wrote, “We want crimplene, glamour, wit and irony.” Suede loom large at the very start of Britpop: for three terrific singles and a great debut album in 1992–93, the band showed a winning mixture of mythmaking androgyny and musical savvy, while lines like “the love and poison of London” (from “He’s Dead”) paved the way for a concentration on the metropolis.

As importantly, the success of the band’s chart-topping album Suede offered an exit from the failure of Manchester groups like Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. Others like Blur, who had tinkered with “a New British Image” in 1993, developed this London-centricity on 1994’s Parklife, an album that mixed the jauntiness of 1966 Kinks with the crunch of punk and early’80s cheesy electronica. In May 1994, Damon Albarn featured on a Face cover with a Union Jack. The cover strap, “Brit up your ears,” recalled the title of John Lahr’s famous Joe Orton biography and film. “America had won with Nirvana,” says Face and Rolling Stone writer Chris Heath; “There was a desperation whether anything British would ever mean anything worldwide again. So this was like trying on a jacket to see if it would fit.”

It was in 1995 that Britpop and Swinging London Mark II came together. The previous year had seen the simultaneous rise of Blur and Oasis: once the latter’s great “Some Might Say” debuted at number one in the spring, the gloves were off. A contest developed over the two bands’ subsequent singles, released the same week in September: Which would debut at number one? Aided by a Damien Hirst pop video (the first by this artist-turned-media-star), Blur won with “Country House,” but not until after a storyline that had the tabloids return to pop with a relish not seen since the mid ’80s. The media loves conflict: the Oasis/Blur battle both defined Britpop and limited its potential. “The problem was that their rivalry was seen as class based, which it wasn’t initially,” says Harrison. “Blur were seen as middle-class art schoolers, while Oasis were working-class and authentic. When Oasis eventually won, as they did with (What’s the Story?) Morning Glory, which sold 4 million copies in the UK, Britpop started to become an authenticist phenomenon.”

After the . . . Morning Glory album went US top ten in January 1996, the mood turned triumphal. When “Don’t Look Back in Anger” debuted in the UK charts later that winter, Oasis guitarist and writer Noel Gallagher wore a Union Jack guitar for the band’s appearance on the TV chart show Top of the Pops. A month later, at the UK music-industry-award ceremonies, this triumphalism received a corporate imprimatur with seven awards to Oasis, which passed its warmth on to Labour through Noel Gallagher’s impassioned eulogy to the party’s leader, Tony Blair, during one of his many acceptance speeches. Confidence was the key—the Brits felt like cocks of the walk again—and this euphoria, together with other high-profile events like designer Alexander McQueen’s appointment at Givenchy in Paris, fueled a number of magazine stories that came later in the year in the British press: UK Elle’s November “Great British Issue” with Kate Moss, UK GQ’s December “Great British Issue” with a Union Jack logo and the strap line “Cool Britannia.”

And so to Newsweek and Vanity Fair. The Brits always overestimate their impact on American media—VF’s Patsy and Liam Union Jack cover, for instance, only made it to 45,000 British copies of the magazine—but the “Swinging London” story does represent a substantial endorsement of the hype. After an unconvincing ’60s intro, David Kamp cites pointers that have been common currency in the UK: 1966, Blur, Damien Hirst, Oasis, the movie Trainspotting, Nick Hornby’s football memoir Fever Pitch, the magazine Loaded, the return of the jock mentality in magazine form. In mapping a boosterist capital, however, the piece isolates a central problem: confidence, that most un-British of qualities, is to be welcomed and may indeed move mountains, but hasn’t it also created a climate in which success justifies anything? “It’s like Noel says, ‘My records sell so they’re better,’” says Chris Heath. “There’s no underground anymore.”

National identity and national symbols are always ambiguous and hotly contested. Britpop has succeeded in reclaiming the Union Jack from the far right, but in claiming to represent the UK it has fallen far short, becoming a vehicle principally for traditional white-bread rock groups like Ocean Colour Scene. Its latest symbol, the five Spice Girls, are pure pop, and the current brouhaha about their party affiliation—in a notorious statement they have now retracted, they claimed to be “true Thatcherites”—shows the extent to which British identity is up for grabs. It also reflects the perennial schism of pop politics: industrially Conservative in its celebration of numbers and success, emotionally Labour in its sympathy for the underdog and the dispossessed. On the eve of, as Vanity Fair put it, “Britain’s most important political contest in years,” British pop reflects nothing less than the struggle for the nation’s soul.

Jon Savage contributes frequently to Artforum.