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  1. Politics
1 May 2017

What we were really listening to in the Cool Britannia era

Britpop might have dominated the headlines... but it didn't dominate the charts.

By Kate Mossman

“Candle in the Wind 1997”: Elton John

The biggest-selling single of 1997 – and of all time, should you discount “White Christmas”, which came out before the singles charts were invented. It shifted 33 million units. Half the country has it in the attic but few are likely to have played it since Princess Diana died. The song was an act of protest, in a sense – the feeling public takes on the emotionless monarchy – and it lingers in the mind in its live form, at Diana’s funeral, Elton distraught with his eyebrow a-wiggling.

“Barbie Girl”: Aqua

It spent four weeks at number one during Tony Blair’s heady first months, so let us say that “Barbie Girl” was the real soundtrack of New Labour – along with D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” and “Love Shine a Light” by Katrina and the Waves (our last Eurovision win, a goodwill vote from the other countries). Scandinavians have since taken control of pop songwriting across the world. Aqua, from Denmark and Norway, were unsuccessfully sued by the toy company Mattel for “turning Barbie into a sex object” by referring to her as a “blonde bimbo”.

“I’ll Be Missing You”: Puff Daddy and Faith Evans

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Second only to “Candle” in sales in 1997, Diddy’s Sting-borrowing death anthem was released in tribute to the rapper Notorious BIG, assassinated in March on his way home from presenting an award to the R’n’B singer Toni Braxton (who was also huge that year). You didn’t have to know the story behind it: the nationwide love for this invasively sulky hip-hop eulogy shows how mawkish Britons were in an era that history has recast as one big party. Well, it was that or Chumbawamba.

“Three Lions”: the Lightning Seeds

One of the least tasteful of the Britpop anthems, this Euro ’96 rallying cry featured two tone-deaf comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, plus various other Cool Britannia celebrities, alongside actual musicians – rather as Blur’s “Parklife” enlisted the acting talents of Phil Daniels. Tony Blair adapted the lyrics at the Labour party conference in the autumn of that year. “Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming,” he said. “Labour’s coming home.” Would never happen now.

“Unchained Melody”: Robson and Jerome

Two fictional fusiliers from a TV show put an ancient pop song at number one for seven weeks in 1995. A sign of the cohesive power of terrestrial television, perhaps: the equivalent today would be Miranda Hart releasing a cover of “The White Cliffs of Dover”. “Unchained Melody” outsold “Country House” by Blur and “Common People” by Pulp. But then, so did “Boom Boom Boom” by the Outhere Brothers. And “Don’t Stop (Wiggle Wiggle)”.

“How Deep Is Your Love”: Take That

Take That stalked the Top Ten with four number ones in a row. This Bee Gees cover came with a sadomasochistic video in which the model Paula Hamilton tied them up and stowed them in a van (eat your heart out, Rihanna). It was Take That’s last number one before they split in early 1996. For a teenage public that still bought records, there were still Boyzone, the Backstreet Boys and more to come. Whatever the wider cultural moment, boys on stools will keep the charts afloat. 

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On