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Tracey Thorn: the unbearable whiteness of Britpop

Britpop ended up giving comfort to those who wanted to reassert “traditional” songwriting styles and band structures.

At the 1998 Brit Awards, New Labour’s love affair with Cool Britannia got a drenching when Danbert Nobacon from Chumbawamba tipped a bucket of ice- cold water over the head of John Prescott, the then deputy prime minister. It was such a comedown. Less than a year earlier, in July 1997, shortly after Labour’s general election victory, Tony Blair had triumphantly hosted a glittering music biz reception at No 10, cementing the link between the new government and all things groovy. Although, according to Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Blair was worried even then about rock’n’roll behaviour, and felt that Noel Gallagher “was bound to do something crazy”, the Creation Records boss Alan McGee assured him Noel would behave, saying only that “if we had invited Liam, it might have been different”.

Poor Tony, though, trying so hard to be down with the cool kids and yet so scared of what the cool kids might do. I was at the 1996 Brits, where he gave a speech, and the room had filled with a frisson of both approval and the opposite. The party on the table behind us were heckling and I remember turning to shout at them, “Well, who would you prefer?” feeling some sense of loyalty and gratitude towards Blair for the unexpected optimism he’d introduced into the Labour voter’s life. A row broke out, drunken and par for the course at the Brits, but it was telling that it was about politics rather than drugs or rock’n’roll.

In his ill-fitting Nineties suit and spotted tie, Blair made a speech that was a celebration of the renewed chart dominance of British bands, putting their success down to the inspiration they’d drawn from the past – “from bands like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks . . . or the later generations, the Clash, the Smiths, the Stone Roses . . .” Well. You don’t need me to tell you the kind of people who are missing from that list. It’s a ­version of music history that sums up precisely what went wrong during the Britpop years.

I’d attended the Brits in 1995, too, and wrote later in Bedsit Disco Queen about how proud I was to be sitting with Massive Attack: “Protection was up for a couple of awards, and though it was the height of the Britpop Oasis v Blur battle, I felt that ours was the table to be on, with Massive and Tricky and Björk. The rock kids seemed to be trapped in a dreary rehash of the past, still repetitively harking back to the yawn-inducing Sixties, while we were with a group of people who were looking forwards.”

By 1996, the two strands of the music scene were in direct competition. Our song “Missing” was up for Best Single and “Protection” the single for Best Video. Massive Attack won Best British Dance Act, while Batman Forever, featuring Massive and me singing a Smokey Robinson cover, won Best Soundtrack. But Oasis won Best Album and Video and Group, beating Blur and Pulp and Radiohead in those categories, and when Massive went up to collect their award, 3D made a sardonic comment, saying, “It’s quite ironic, ’cos none of us can dance.” It was a joke but he wasn’t laughing, and I think he was making a point. He might have said, especially given the most recent album that they’d made: “Why are we in a different category from Blur and Radiohead? Why is Protection a ‘dance’ album? What is ‘dance’ code for?”

It was a classic piece of Othering. The implication of the awards, and of Blair’s speech, was that the white boys with guitars were the Norm, and deviations from that were the Other, and certainly not the main story. How great it would have been if, for instance, in celebrating the successes of British music, Blair had cited the Stones, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Denny, the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, Soul II Soul, the Specials and Sade. That’s a list that reflects the diversity of UK pop brilliance, and it’s just artists beginning with the letter S.

The other event of the 1996 Brits was the Jarvis Cocker/Michael Jackson incident. It was over so quickly that no one knew quite what was going on, and a huge “what just happened?” rumbled round the room. But by next morning it had gone down in pop rebel history – punky Brit sticks two fingers up at superstar narcissist. Looking back now, I’m less comfortable, and can’t help wincing at the thought that in fact Cocker had insulted the only black artist performing on stage that night, winner of the Artist of a Generation Award. In retrospect, it has a whiff of archetypal lad-culture boorishness, another of the worst aspects of the time.

Britpop may have started as a reassertion of home-grown indie over American grunge but it gave comfort to those who wanted to reassert “traditional” songwriting styles and band structures in the face of the recent success of rave and dance culture. The industry, alarmed by collectives and DJs and “anonymous” guest vocalists, leapt to the defence of the new bands that looked just like the bands of yore. They recognised this genre as a type that would sell albums, where the money was. Hooray for Britpop! It presumably came as a relief after the 1994 Brits, where awards had been won by Dina Carroll, Stereo MCs, Gabrielle and M People, and where two women, Björk and P J Harvey, had performed a radically deconstructed version of the Stones’ rock classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

There was so much happening. Spectacular releases by Portishead, and Tricky, and the forming of Goldie’s Metalheadz label, and the birth of drum’n’bass. It was a progressive scene, and reminded me of the Eighties, when in the wake of punk the charts filled up with boy/girl duos, multiracial groups, androgynous singers and gay electronic cabaret performers. For some reason, though, in the mid-Nineties a form of nostalgia began to hold sway, and we let it. In 2017, with the arguments about grime at the Brit Awards, I realise that we’re still having the same conversations about how to reflect and respect successful underground scenes, and we’re not much further on. Maybe the rot set in when we let the news lead with an item about two rock bands releasing singles on the same day and pretended that it was a groundbreaking story.

So I kick against the official version of what was important, the reducing of those years to The Story of Britpop. It was a strand of what was happening, not the whole picture. The legacy of mid-Nineties music is apparent in current artists from James Blake and FKA Twigs, through Skepta and Disclosure, to Stormzy and The xx. Who, on the other hand, is claiming to have been inspired by Oasis? And it makes me think that whenever the rock-group stereotype reasserts itself, you need to look elsewhere to find what’s really interesting. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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The flirting has got extremely out of hand in the latest episode of Game of Thrones

Game of Bones, more like.

Last week, we discovered the romcom residing within Game of Thrones: this week gave us all that and more. “Eastwatch”, the fifth episode of the season, didn’t have high-octane action scenes or lengthy shots of people scheming around maps. But it did have a whole lot of character building: as old allies returned, new tensions emerged and new bonds were formed. And that, my friends, resulted in truly the best thing of all: lots and lots of good, old-fashion Westerosian flirting.

We begin with Bronn and Jaime emerging from the lake: reader, they did not die. Lying on the grass together, dripping and panting. “What the fuck were you doing back there?” Bronn says angrily about Jaime nobly risking his life in his attempt to kill Daenerys. KISS! KISS! KISS! “Listen to me, cunt,” Bronn continues. “Until I get what I’m owed, a dragon doesn’t get to kill you. You don’t get to kill you. Only I get to kill you!” Possessive much? Bronn leaves Jaime looking sadly out over the lake, contemplating the wars to come.

Meanwhile, Tyrion looks sadly over the ashes of battle, contemplating the wars to come. Daenerys and Drogon are presiding proudly over the remaining soldiers, demanding they swear fealty to their new queen. Lord Tarly and his hot son Dickon refuse, and in a vaguely horrifying call back to her father’s taste for (wild)fire, Dany has them burned alive. RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son.

Dany flies Drogon back to Dragonstone, where they run into Jon Snow. Drogon and Jon’s eyes meet across an uncrowded hillside. Jon is transfixed. He gazes deeply into Drogon’s reptilian pools. He removes the glove upon his hand, that he might touch that cheek! They touch. Jon gasps. It’s steamy stuff. Then Daenerys jumps down and Jon’s attention is refocused. What a love triangle.

Dany seems moved by Jon’s connection with her enormous, dreadful son. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” She sighs. “It wasn’t the word I was thinking of,” Jon mutters, before remembering who he’s talking to. “But yes, they are. Gorgeous beasts.” It’s adorably unconvincing. They chat about her new habit of burning men alive and Jon’s past habit of taking knives to the heart. The flirting is purely restricted to the eyes but, my God, it’s there.

Until, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up. Boy, this love quadrangle is heating up. Dany openly and outrageously flirts with Jorah’s new, smooth, scale-free face, calling him “an old friend”, saying things like “you look strong”. They hug for way too long. Jon scowls. I can’t wait for the scene where they fight in the fountain to the red-hot guitar chords of The Darkness!!!!

That scene arrives sooner than you’d think. After Bran has a vision of ravens flying over the White Walkers as they march on Eastwatch, he sends a raven to Jon from Winterfell. Jon finds out Arya and Bran are alive and that the White Walkers are approaching their destination. After a long debate, Dany, Jon, Tyron, Davos and Jorah all agree that the priority is to get Cersei to believe the White Walkers are real – by taking one captive and bringing it to King’s Landing. Of course, Jorah and Jon use this opportunity to dick swing in front of Dany like “No, I, The Big Man, will go beyond the Wall, because my penis is larger.” Dany absolutely loves it, doing the same facial expression she used to reserve for gazing between Daario Naharis’s naked thighs.

Even after all this, the flirting is not over for the Dragonstone club. Davos runs off to King’s Landing with Tyrion, where he discovers………. GENDRY! And, my dudes, he’s hotter than ever!! My heart truly sings. What we lost with Dickon’s death (RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son) we gain twice over with the return of the sweaty, hammer-wielding bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos and Gendry flirt about Gendry’s love of rowing, Davos’s aging face and being fucked, hard (by Time). Mere seconds later, as they attempt to escape in their comically tiny and unstable boat, Davos flirts with some guards about their massive erections (before Gendry murders them with his larger, harder hammer). Tyrion is impressed, muttering “He’ll do!”

Gendry makes an instant impression back at Dragonstone by refusing to hide his true identity as Davos suggests immediately introducing himself as the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, asking to join the trip to the Wall, and flirting outrageously with Jon by teasing him for being short. Jon absolutely loves it. “Our fathers trusted each other, why shouldn’t we?” Gendry says, cheerfully. (Editor’s note: thanks to the political ramifications of their friendship, both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead.)

Before we leave Dragonstone we pack in three more sexually-charged conversations. Tyrion flirts with Jorah. “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont,” he says. “Nobody glowers like you, not even Grey Worm.” In a gesture of grand romance, he gives Mormont a coin from their past, and insists he promise to make it back from The Wall alive, in order to return it. Then Jorah and Dany exchange syrupy goodbyes, Dany grabbing Jorah’s hands and Jorah kissing hers. Jon turns up and fishes for compliments. “If I don’t return, at least you won’t have to deal with the king of the North anymore.” “I’ve grown used to him,” she replies. It looks like Jorah has won the battle – but Jon will win the war.

Outside of the steamy boudoir of Dragonstone, elsewhere in Westeros, relationships are tested. In King’s Landing, Jaime confronts Cersei about Dany’s unbeatable dragons, and Olenna’s confession that she murdered Joffrey. Tyrion meets Jaime to tell him of the White Walkers and Dany’s proposition of a truce. Cersei responds with the shocking reveal that she’s pregnant, and plans to tell the world that Jaime is the father.

In Winterfell, Arya watches Sansa placate the Northern Lords as they complain about Jon – and finds Sansa not protective enough of her brother. When Sansa tries to explain the importance of diplomacy, Arya is like “just kill em all, bitch” as she is wont to do. Sansa sounds surprisingly like her brother when she says: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.” It’s the first hint we get that while Arya is very good at murdering others and surviving herself, she’s not brilliant at managing other people – a thread that continues when she falls into a trap set by Littlefinger, who, by pretending to hide a letter from Arya, leads her straight to it. It’s the letter Sansa was forced to send to Robb when she was a prisoner of Cersei – asking him to swear fealty to her beloved King Joffrey. It’s intended to poison Arya against her sister – but I don’t buy that she would be fooled so easily

In the Citadel, Sam ignores his smart girlfriend because he’s an idiot. Gilly discovers in one of the citadel’s dusty old books that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage in Dorne (presumably to his Dornish wife, Elia Martell) was annulled and he was remarried – possibly to Lyanna Stark. We know that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son with Lyanna Stark - if Jon was their legitimate child, that’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out if Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne. Sam responds by talking over her, jacking in his maester training and leaving the city with all the useful information in. Good one, ya idiot.

Finally, Jon visits the Wall where he is reunited with the Wildlings. Tormund obviously lusts after Brienne – “the big woman” – which makes Jon chuckle with delight. He discovers the Brotherhood Without Banners in the basement, and they all flirt by insulting each other repeatedly. Jon gets to do his favourite thing of reminding everyone that there real war is the one with DEATH. “We’re all on the same side,” he insists. “We’re still breathing.” It’s a great line on which to end the episode, which closes with a shot of this ragtag bunch o’ misfits striding out beyond the wall. Will this motley crew figure out a way to work together? Will they complete their quest and secure a White Walker? Or will they discover that, all along, the real prize beyond the Wall… was friendship?

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • Bronn calling Jaime a cunt. +11. Same.
  • Jon telling Daenerys her dragons aren’t beautiful. +9. Risky move.
  • Sam just boldly butting in to a Serious Maester convention when he’s essentially their cleaner. +19.
  • Tyrion and Varis sipping wine and reading private letters. +8 each.
  • Dany openly lusting over two men and subtly encouraging them to vie for her affection. +21. This is serious bad bitch behaviour.
  • Davos seriously suggesting that Gendry rename himself “Clovis”. What the fuck kind of weird name is Clovis?! +12.
  • Davos: “Don’t mind me, all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age!” +16. Why does no one ever listen to Davos!!!
  • Gilly just casually discovering some of the most crucial information for the wars to come. +21.
  • Gilly taking no shit when Sam treats her like a total fucking idiot. +17.
  • Sam, being a total twat. -71.
  • Gendry immediately running off with Davos after five seconds in his company again and no knowledge of the task at hand. +14.
  • Gendry killing people with an enormous phallic hammer. +8.
  • Gendry discarding all advice and breezily identifying himself to a potential rival for the Iron Throne. +18
  • Gendry negging the King of the North five seconds after meeting him. +12.

That means this week’s bad bitch is Gendry!!!!! The hammer-weilding, Jon-teasing king of my life. He is closely followed by Gilly, who I strongly suspect will get her day in the sun one day soon. Congrats to both.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.