Britpop and Kurt Cobain 20 years on - don't look back in anger

As the music world marks two anniversaries, Alexis Petridis looks at the impact the death of the Nirvana star and birth of a musical phenomenon had on pop culture

• Rock stars on the death of their musical heroes

April 2014 brings with it two musical anniversaries. This Saturday it is 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. The 25 April, meanwhile, marks 20 years since the release of Blur's third album Parklife, the vast commercial success of which – it went straight to No 1, stayed in the charts for 90 weeks and went platinum four times over in Britain alone – seems as good a marker as any for the beginning of Britpop as a mainstream phenomenon.

In the UK at least, the arrival of Britpop is being commemorated with considerably more gusto than the departure of Kurt Cobain. The BBC has announced a Britpop season, a week of shows across radio and TV, including documentaries, repeats of archival concerts and, with a certain inevitability, a poll to find Britain's 30 favourite Britpop anthems. Such is the mood of celebration for what the BBC website calls "this phenomenal period" that 6 Music DJ Matt Everitt is billed not as an acclaimed broadcaster, but under his old mid-90s job title: "drummer from Menswear.".

In one sense, it seems a little strange. Cobain's death had infinitely more lasting global cultural impact than the rise of Britpop: in 2014, you never see a teenager wearing a T-shirt with a vintage photo of Liam Gallagher on it, but you see teenagers in T-shirts featuring Martyn Goodacre's 1990 shot of Kurt Cobain all the time. But in another sense, a Britpop nostalgia-fest seems rather fitting: after all, Britpop's most pervasive cultural legacy might be its obsession with nostalgia. No musical movement that was not explicitly a revival had fetishised history in quite the way that Britpop did.

Aside from Noel Gallagher's fleeting guest appearances with The Chemical Brothers and on Goldie's admittedly awful attempt to meld drum 'n' bass and rock, Temper Temper, it resolutely ignored the musical innovations happening elsewhere in 90s Britain in favour of venerating "classic" rock – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Sex Pistols, the spiky art-punk of Wire. Ironically, Britpop ended up bearing out Damon Albarn's line about why he'd called Parklife's predecessor Modern Life Is Rubbish: "[The past] dictates our thoughts … there are so many old things to splice together in infinite permutations that there is absolutely no need to create anything new."

You could, were you so inclined, draw a direct line between Britpop's combination of union flag-waving patriotism and dewy-eyed reverence for a mythic version of the mid-60s and today's penchant for bunting-and-cupcake strewn Keep Calm and Carry On folksiness: both deal in idealised visions of Britain's past.

Besides, you might reasonably argue, a death like Cobain's is a far trickier thing to construct a celebration around than the arrival of Britpop. Cobain presented his suicide as an act not just of personal despair but artistic defeat. His suicide note began by discussing his inability to square Nirvana's vast commercial success with what he called "the ethics involved with independence". "All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses … [have] proven to be true", he wrote: it was impossible for an "alternative" rock band to become as successful as Nirvana had without losing something important in the process.

It is an idea that is central to the posthumous myth of Kurt Cobain – that huge success and integrity are incompatible and that Cobain was an artist so principled he would rather kill himself than compromise his integrity. But Britpop and its practitioners suggested that precisely the opposite was true. At the time, it certainly seemed as if the success of Parklife indicated that mainstream pop culture had shifted to accommodate music that would once have been confined to the margins, rather than the other way round: a year after its release, a single such as Pulp's Common People – a scabrous dissection of British attitudes to class debuted as part of a John Peel session – could crash land in the charts at No 2, in between Robson And Jerome's cover of Unchained Melody and Michael Jackson's Scream and quickly achieve popular anthem status.

But with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to avoid the sense that British alternative music changed in pursuit of a mass audience rather than vice versa. Every big alternative rock band in the 80s – from the Smiths to the Cure to Happy Mondays to the Pixies – made capital from a sense of otherness in their sound, their lyrics, their appearance or some combination of the three. They were resolutely not "ordinary blokes", their appeal was to people who felt in some way marginalised by mainstream popular culture. This was the world Cobain understood and tried desperately to cling on to as Nirvana got bigger and bigger: towards the end of his life, he could be seen peering balefully from magazine covers wearing makeup and a dress. Britpop artists, on the other hand, tended to play up their ordinariness.

To say they dumbed down is perhaps overstating the case: the popular image of Blur circa Parklife – faux-Cockneys trowelling on the have-a-banana oompah – dramatically undersells the album, which today sounds artful, diverse and remarkably fresh. But the popular image exists for a reason. Blur had started life as an art-school quartet influenced by the abstruse cult band the Cardiacs, but by 1994, they were wearing tracksuits and talking about football and dog racing in interviews: "Lads with a capital 'L'," as one tabloid newspaper put it. Similarly, the vague sense of queasy, drugged weirdness in Oasis's first singles, Supersonic and Shakermaker, would swiftly be excised while Suede abandoned the darkness and sexual ambiguity of their first two albums in favour of music they variously described as "communicative and understandable" and "big and obvious" and were rewarded with a No 1 album that contained five hit singles, 1996's Coming Up.

Of the big Britpop bands, only Pulp retained a sense of oddness and outsider-dom at the apex of their fame. The rest sent out the message that the kind of success that once seemed beyond the dreams of an indie band could be yours if you sanded off the edges, did not do anything weird, cleaved to the idea that you were an everyday bloke and made music that reminded audiences of music from the past. This was a notion from which some of Britpop's participants, most notably Blur themselves, would subsequently recoil, making arguably the best music of their career in the process, but it was advice that subsequent generations of British guitar bands very much took to heart. Kurt Cobain, of course, would have been horrified.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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