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Look back in anger

Fifteen years ago, a teenage Jude Rogers was enchanted by a new pop sound and a new politics.

Summer 2009. In a house just off Edgware Road in London, if the rumours are true, a man with a bright, beaming smile is trying to become president of the European Union. Nearby in Hyde Park, Blur are performing together for the first time in years. They are playing a song called "Out of Time", from their 2003 album Think Tank - released the same year as Tony Blair, the smiling man who lives around the corner, announced Britain's commitment to take troops into Iraq.

Standing in fields where the Chartists and the suffragettes made their opinions known, Blur's frontman, Damon Albarn, is just a few hundred yards away from Speakers' Corner. He has already told us how this space inspired his band's best-known album, 1994's Parklife, but now he reminds the audience that this is also where two million people ended their march against the Iraq war. The younger members of the crowd, busy with beers and mobile phones, barely blink in response. And as Albarn sings, his words are heavy with irony: ". . . you've been so busy lately/That you haven't found the time to open up your mind/And watch the world spinning gently out of time." For those of us who remember the first stands of Blur and Blair, 15 years ago this summer, the last chorus is particularly crushing: "Tell me I'm not dreaming but are we out of time?"

Both Blair and Blur tried to change how we think about Britain. For teenagers at the time - and I was one of them - they did. But as one looks back, now that New Labour is old news and Britpop is long gone, it is unclear if their actions have had any long-term effect on our sense of nationhood.

Anyone in their early thirties and of a left-wing persuasion will remember how exhilarating it felt to be young in the summer of 1994. To this wide-eyed teenager at a Swansea comprehensive, everyone seemed to care equally about pop music and politics. Two deaths helped this happen: the suicide of Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, in April, and the death of John Smith, the Labour leader, in May. Here were two people who spoke for the common man, if in wildly different ways.

After them came new creatures that acted like new types of everyman. There was the revived and reconditioned Blur with their third album, Parklife, a record about civil servants, debt collectors and bank holidays. And there was a new band from Burnage, Greater Manchester, called Oasis, whose vocalist Liam Gallagher sang strange and spiky songs about "cigarettes and alcohol" with the ire of the pop legend John Lennon and the punk icon John Lydon. These were our people; they sang songs for, and about, us, in a language that was uncompromisingly un-American.

Right behind them, rather surprisingly, was the MP for Sedgefield, a snazzy 41-year-old with rolled-up shirtsleeves running for the Labour leadership. This was good, we agreed, lolling behind the skip in the schoolyard, across the road from the old pits and steelworks. We needed Damon, Liam and Tony. Not only were we young people who had lived our whole lives under Thatcher and Major, being told there was no such thing as society, but we'd never seen interesting, independent British music cross over to the mainstream. We knew we'd never had it so good.

Blair became Labour leader on Thursday 21 July 1994 - the day before I left school for college, dreaming of higher education with a full student grant. Simon Hoggart wrote in the Guardian about the room where the party made its leadership announcement being full of "glossy suits, silk ties, expensive haircuts - [and] that was just the trade union leaders". Even though our fathers worked in in­dustry, we didn't mind; to us pop-obsessed post-pubescents, image was everything. So were slogans. Watching that October's Labour Party conference, we lapped up the idea of "New Labour" being the "people's party", and we whooped a year later when Blair talked about his vision for a "young country". We loved his speaking style, too. Hoggart wrote: "The result is . . . less of a speech than a chant: 'Decent people. Good people. Patriotic people.'" A chant like a song, I now realise, delivered by a politician who behaved more like a pop star.

As John Harris recounts in The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock, Britpop became much bolshier as the Nineties rolled on. So did party politics. In the summer of 1995, after Blair accused John Major of following the Conservative Party rather than leading it, news reached me through the fields at the Glastonbury Festival (then a peculiar oasis without mobile phones) of Major resigning as leader of his party. Working our way through A-levels, we loved the bunfights between Blur and Oasis - the middle-class and working-class bands of Young Britain who both supported New Lab­our - and their chart battle for No 1.

We lapped up the five-star reviews of Blur's fourth album, The Great Escape, released in September 1995 and featuring tracks about modern British characters, such as "Top Man" ("It's never cheap or cheerful/He's Hugo and he's Boss") and "Ernold Same", the story of a miserable commuter narrated by Ken Livingstone, then MP for Brent East. We adored Oasis's second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, and didn't mind that the Gallagher brothers were bragging about their success like Little Lord Fauntleroys.

Now I see that these records were, on the whole, far less exciting and much less revolutionary than their predecessors. The Great Escape brimmed with musical nods to Britain's past - woozy cinema Wurlitzers on tales of suburban life ("Fade Away"); oompah brass on songs about wealth ("Country House") and the National Lottery ("It Could Be You") - but many of its lyrics oozed with humourless kitsch. Oasis evoked the past differently, but equally spiritlessly, aping Gary Glitter's "Hello" on their album's opening track and stealing the opening chords to Lennon's "Imagine" for "Don't Look Back in Anger". Even then I noticed these tics, but I wouldn't accept their cynicism.

Deep down, we knew there was no longer any urgency to these bands, but still we clung to them. We adored other acts such as Orbital, Underworld, Portishead and Massive Attack, acts that made music for our dancing bodies and our moody minds, but we needed people to speak for our sense of nationhood. We were too young to remember the last truly troubling times for the nation - the Winter of Discontent, or the economic gloom that surrounded punk and post-punk, the music of protest. We loved bands that harked back to a rose-tinted Britain touched by Sixties pop and Seventies casual attire (worlds in which, crucially, Blair had grown up), and loved it when they said they wanted Labour in power.
We didn't know, as Harris would reveal in his book, that a Labour researcher, Darren Kalynuk, had been schmoozing Albarn and the Gallaghers behind the scenes (though Albarn, to his credit, shrugged the party off very quickly). Nor did we know that no one in Blur registered to vote in the 1997 general election. Back then, we believed that pop and politics went hand in hand. Now, as grown-ups, we find it a struggle to identify moments of sense in that mid-Nineties language of meaningless posture and pronouncement.

Back to 2009. Blur are bringing their set to an end in Hyde Park with "The Universal", one of the few enduring tracks from The Great Escape. It is at this point that I find a moment of sense, though it's my fault I didn't find it earlier. When we were young, my friends and I took its catchy chorus at face value, like a slogan, and the words "it really, really, really could happen" took on a veneer of promise and hope. Listening to the lyrics now, I realise they said something very different, something terrifyingly prophetic. "This is the next century," Albarn sings, "Where the universal's free/You can find it anywhere/Yes, the future's been sold."

Blair and Britpop emerged in the early days of the internet, when the information superhighway, as it was known, was only just beginning
to snare our collective imagination. Back then, young people didn't have the world at their fingertips. Now they do, and they spend hours of their day, as everyone else does, in a parade of virtual communities detached from real life. About politics, we are similarly unengaged.

“The Universal" was released as a single the month after Blair's Young Britain conference speech, when the party leader spoke of a future in which every child would have access to a laptop computer. The alienation that seeps from its lyrics feels uncomfortably sinister: "it really, really, really could happen" now sounds more like a threat than a promise.

Albarn, it seems now, was always a reactionary at heart. When Blair finally did what Labour had been trying to do for 18 years, making this first-year undergraduate and her friends scream with joy in a junior common room, Albarn turned down his invite to the victory reception. Noel Gallagher did attend, but even that once-staunch supporter eventually strayed, telling BBC2's Newsnight in February 2007, "I don't really think there's anything left to vote for."

When Gallagher made that comment, four months before Blair announced his resignation, it took me back to the days when my dreams started to die. In 1997, I was a state school girl empowered by the political beliefs I had gained through the Nineties. Two months after Blair's election, I became president of the student union at Wadham College, Oxford - a perfect success-story statistic for Blair's Young Britain. Less than a year later, in the same month as the NME put a picture of Blair on the cover and asked if we felt cheated, I found myself leading a crowd of fellow students on a march against tuition fees and getting my photograph taken by police as I asserted our right to protest.

Five years later, I was also at Hyde Park, and that memory still scalds. My generation were the young adults who were meant to be represented in New Britain. In the eyes of New Labour, it seems, we were merely the teenagers who supported the pop groups who supported them. But perhaps there is still hope. Perhaps, in the year after New Labour finally died, killed off in November as Alistair Darling made his emergency Budget statement, we can at last look beyond the slogans and go somewhere genuinely new.

As we do so, Blair will no doubt be trying to repeat his past glories, just like the biggest bands of Britpop have been doing this summer. Now, some might say, is his best chance at a brilliant comeback. But for politicians, unlike pop stars, there are no easy nostalgia trips. The time for smiles has long gone. After all, it really, really, really did happen.

View an archive of Jude Rogers's past articles and reviews for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War