The rock’n’roll years: God help us, it’s a state of the pop nation article from The Observer. Sam Taylor’s contention is that you can tell something about the ‘national mood’ from the records people are buying. There’s something a bit pathetically fallacious about that idea – certainly there are occasions when records seem to catch a mood, but mostly the ‘national mood’ is such a nebulous thing that it’s easier to assume records create it, not reflect it. Generalisation is a neccessary journalistic tool, but when a crassly reductive view of the popscene meets a crassly reductive view of the wider scene, little of insight is likely to result.
So Coldplay are drab, yes yes. There are reasons why bands like Coldplay, Travis and the Stereophonics have got big now, but they’re nothing to do with shifts in the British psyche. The culprits are student radio, or rather the well-organised hype machine that serves student radio, and more pertinently, the effect mid-90s Britpop boom had on music coverage in the wider British media.
Prior to that, pop coverage in most papers and non-specialist magazines had either been of frothy popsters or safely bankable rock icons. What’s Elton up to this week? There was a broad unspoken assumption that new bands weren’t that interesting, and leave it to those chaps at the NME to sort out the good ones from the rubbish ones. Post-Britpop, it’s been recognised that new ‘indie’ bands can and do sell, and this led to the collapse of the music press’ role as a unique, gatekeeping voice. Every broadsheet, women’s magazine, and especially men’s magazine has a music page, and they all cover precisely the same things.
They’re still not particularly interested in music – they don’t want to cover too much stuff their readers don’t know – but they know they can’t embrace pop because it’s outside their demographic. So they focus on the vast middlebrow desert of Adult Oriented Indie and tedious retro-soul.
Particularly guilty here are the men’s magazines, which didn’t exist six years ago and reach far, far more people than the music press ever did. If you’re a Maxim reader and you fancy buying a CD, your favourite magazine is pretty likely to recommend something by Coldplay or Travis, because it’s the safest bet, and safety is what men’s mags are all about.
Taylor’s article doesn’t talk about that kind of thing, preferring to suggest that when Tony Blair got in some animal drive led us all down to the record shop to buy Urban Hymns. Even he seems a bit shamefaced when he considers that the 1997 ‘mood of optimism’ was soundtracked by “The Drugs Don’t Work” and bloody Radiohead. While the lyrics to “Airbag” do indeed concern themselves with surviving a car crash, there’s something about the delivery which doesn’t suggest entirely untrammeled joy, i.e. Thom Yorke howling like a man whose leg is being devoured by grubs.