Different for Girls: My True-Life Adventures in Pop

In the mid-1990s, something peculiar happened to the pop charts. The genre known as "indie" - guitar-based songs written about in the alternative press, often made by people who were geeks or swots at school - became the stuff of the mainstream. But when what would later be called "Britpop" is written about today, it is usually reduced to a battle between its two biggest bands, Blur and Oasis: a macho class war between four middle-class southerners and a group of working-class northerners.

This crude sketch ignores all the frontwomen who emerged at the same time. They include Lauren Laverne of Kenickie, now a radio and TV presenter, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, now an artist in the United States, and Sleeper's Louise Wener, now an author of bestselling
fiction. Different for Girls is Wener's riveting memoir of that time, a period full of promise which slowly expired.

Rather than begin with the bright lights, Wener starts her story in the east London suburb of Gants Hill, where she was born, and where her love of music first took hold. Her style is a breezy mix of self-deprecating geekiness and wit that fans of Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons will recognise. As she takes us through her early years, when she preferred the Rocky soundtrack to the work of punk bands such as Stiff Little Fingers, it is clear Wener is more interested in puncturing notions of coolness than polishing them. Slathering herself with tanning oil before watching David Bowie at the Milton Keynes Bowl, she nails the gap between her girlish gawkiness and her aspirations for glamour ("that heady mix of sunburn and scorched suburban lawn, with a top note of Jerry Hall and the south of France"). She also writes very acutely about the way young people respond to pop stars, describing Bowie as "the sticking plaster I apply to my teenage awkwardness". Few have written this personally about pop music, but it is an approach that says much more about its effects in the wider world than any musicological critique of chord sequences or earnest anatomy of club scenes.

After many years of Wener playing in different bands to general indifference, her four-piece Sleeper - named after the Woody Allen film - finally get signed by a major label in 1993. She is unforgiving about the conservative bias of the independent music scene, and holds the media in particular contempt. In the band's first interview with the New Musical Express, she is infuriated by a self-professed "revolutionary Trotskyite revisionist Leninist" who directs all his questions to her male bandmates, and later dismisses her as a "mad, ranty pop bird on the loose".

Wener was certainly seen as unreliable at the time, but it speaks volumes that her willingness to challenge hypocrisy meant she was, as she puts it, "sowing the seeds of a cartoon persona" as she did so. She is constantly asked what it's like to be a woman in a band, and what it feels like to know that men masturbate over her photograph. When she responds by enquiring why objects of desire such as Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn aren't asked the same thing, the question gets lost in all the casually misogynistic white noise.

Wener also dismantles the myth that the likes of Blur were intelligent pop revolutionaries. She describes their rudeness, their ruthless ambition and their "easy, bohemian, moneyed odour". And then there are the groupies. Wener leaves nothing out. The bassist Alex James tells a young woman, "You're ugly, but I'm going to fuck you anyway," while their tour manager is despatched to select attractive girls from the audience and give them after-show tickets, known as "Blur-job passes".

It's as if Wener is mourning a moment when everything and everyone was meant to be changing, and seedy freebies for the famous should have been a thing of the past. You get an especially acute sense of this when she writes about Sleeper's support slot for REM (at the same venue where she had tried to tan herself for David Bowie). Reading about the moment when Michael Stipe leads Wener on stage by the hand and sings "Happy Birthday" to her, you could be forgiven for thinking that fame and friendliness need not be distant cousins after all.

But as Britpop waned, and the media's interest in feisty female performers gave way to the debased culture of the "ladette", even Wener found herself posing in a shiny leather catsuit "like sexy liquorice" (Frischmann and Cerys Matthews of Catatonia also took their clothes off). There is another book to be written about how female liberation in music became "girl power", and Wener would be the perfect person to write it. But, for now, this clear-eyed examination of the realities of fame is more than enough to be getting on with.

Different for Girls: My True-Life Adventures in Pop
Louise Wener
Ebury Press, 320pp, £11.99

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask