JULY 28, 2014
THE YEAR 1994 had solid significance for the direction 1990s Britain eventually took. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mutually destructive, deadlocked certainties of the 1980s had given way to a promise of prosperous liberal harmony under capitalist democracy. Thatcherism and Reaganism, their economic and hegemonic shock-troop work complete, were about to segue under Blair and Clinton into a softer and less absolutist politics, one more suited to a decade of getting our breath back after the brutal, titanic bouts of the 1980s. But, beyond the end-of-history platitudes, and before we were quite sold on Blair’s crypto-Thatcherite Third Way, Britain’s path forward was by no means certain. Alex Niven’s retrospective exploration of Oasis’s debut album situates it within these conflicting currents and questions whether the critical dismissal and derision now directed at the band is in fact deserved.
1980s Britain is now far enough away, with enough of a straightforward narrative crammed with cartoon-political heroes and villains, to have been recuperated in suitably filmic form: Billy Elliot, The Iron Lady, the upcoming Pride. The 1990s in retrospect are more confused, their battles less iconic because less obvious. Niven convincingly identifies 1994 as part of an odd interregnum, post-Thatcher and pre-Blair, in a decade marked by “oceanic sensibility,” by the seemingly limitless potential induced by the breaking of Cold War barriers. This sea of possibilities did not quite reach British high politics; after the Conservative Party’s win in the 1992 general election, their administration continued Thatcher’s program of privatization and de-industrialization. 1994 for the Labour Party, meanwhile, saw the sudden death of John Smith and his replacement as leader by the slippery messianic figure of Tony Blair, whose ascension was marked by Labour’s official abandonment of socialism, complacent acceptance of the post-Thatcher settlement, and pursuit of middle-class votes at the expense of their working-class base.
Outside party politics, however, as Niven notes in The Guardian, 1994 saw the blooming of a popular culture whose mood was “much angrier, darker and more radical than we have come to remember,” and which “gave expression to a kind of surging, utopian longing that was both a desperate reaction to the effects of neoliberalism and an optimistic assertion that an alternative Britain was possible.” Oasis, breaking the surface of British alternative guitar music in August 1994 with their debut single “Supersonic,” went on to ride the crest of this wave. While there were more interesting, more progressive, and more worthwhile cultural players in the 1990s, nothing else in mainstream British music got anywhere near as big as Oasis, as fast as Oasis, and the question remains of how to explain that phenomenal mass appeal. After 1994, the band underwent rapid industry co-option and a cliff-fall decline, palace-storming insurgents warping into bloated rock royalty in a narrative that is both familiar and predictable. Niven’s argument is that — for however brief a moment — the band was more than this, and in particular that it supplied an “oasis” of collective yearning in the arid individualist desert of British culture and politics in the 1990s.
If the 1990s went wrong by capitulating to unfettered capitalism instead of upholding any alternative, then one of these abandoned alternatives can be glimpsed in some aspects of Oasis. Niven sees the Gallagher brothers as rooted in the version of Labourism lost along with John Smith, a position they shared in early-90s Britain with an instinctively socialist — or collectivist, at least — Old Labour heartland who did not figure at all in the Blairite narrative, but who nonetheless embraced Blair as a long-awaited great redeemer.He sees Oasis as, like Smith, the expression of a possibility we failed to grasp, a populist, proto-socialist road not taken. History is full of such failures, losses, and defeats. Part of what Oasis provided, along with the reminder of that loss, was a reminder of how it feels before you know you’ve lost, when there is still a chance you can soar rather than the certainty of being crushed to earth.
John Smith’s place in the Labour left’s martyrology — the belief in his potential to bring about a substantially alternative politics through parliamentary, reformist means — might require a leap of faith, but it pales alongside the work needed to redeem Oasis in the popular imagination. Niven’s attempt at this apostasy is heartfelt, and not shy of sincerity. The book is intriguingly structured around the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) and the band’s relationship to them, and it is written in a measured, clear, and generous style. Niven displays a thorough appreciation of what made Oasis good while remaining aware of their shortcomings, explaining without excusing them. In response to accusations of derivative 1960s recycling, he observes Definitely Maybe’s debt to both grunge and shoegaze, making it musically “a product of the 90s zeitgeist rather than a blinkered reaction to it,” and compares Noel Gallagher’s musical pilfering with the sampling techniques of contemporary hip-hop. He deals similarly with accusations of doggerel, noting that Gallagher’s lyrical fragments and catchphrases, however glib or nonsensical, made an effortless impact on the national discourse. In part this comes down to their sheer greeting-card cod-profundity — and while it would be a beautiful world if rock stars were also poets, philosophers, and politicians, it’s hardly a requirement of the job — but in part it’s because they genuinely capture some near-universal attitude or truth. The perspective expressed in “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” incidentally — “Is it worth the aggravation / to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?” — is a resonant interrogation of late capitalism that, for most, likely says more about life than the latest obscurantist aperçu from Žižek.
This is a class-conscious book that does not seek to somehow claim Oasis for the sensitive elite from their regrettably lumpen fan base. Rather, it asserts that those who found Oasis worthwhile might have done so for worthwhile reasons, based on affinities and perspectives that are worth reclaiming, or at least remembering. This rescue mission trains its sights more broadly on the dismissal of working-class art, opposing both the concept that mass culture, and its audience, can have no intellectual or political significance and the related double-bind which states that any cultural product considered good enough to be taken seriously cannot have originated from the “real” working class. Taking Oasis seriously as artists involves breaking down the false dichotomy between the products of newly bohemian art-school class escapees and the products of the “real” — i.e., socio-economically immobile — working class, which can be called fun, or heartfelt, or uncomplicatedly life-affirming, as long as they are then dismissed as unfit for any deeper analysis.
For a band often dismissed (and praised, of course) as merely a soundtrack to a good time, early Oasis is suffused with an unmistakeable melancholy, which Niven identifies as both reflection of and response to bad-time Britain. His account of the band’s origins in recession-struck Manchester — whole families standing in unemployment lines — recognizes the disaster that was Thatcherism’s impact on much of Britain without seeking to qualify it, or to hide the fact that those who lived through the worst of the 1980s were left psychologically inscribed with “an acutely ingrained sense of us and them.” This division, between a prosperous southeast England and post-industrial regions permanently laid waste, persisted throughout the 1990s, but the discontent and resentment it generated received no acknowledgement in an official political discourse split between the Conservatives’ neo-Victorian nostalgia and New Labour’s don’t-mention-socialism sunny optimism. The cri de coeur of the Old Labour heartland emerged, instead, in the arena of pop culture. It emerged in Oasis, Niven argues, both in the sense of dissatisfaction fueling a desperate, insistent desire to be someone and somewhere else, and in the yearning for an all-subsuming collectivism by which this unsatisfying present might be transcended.
The escapist nature of early Oasis is irrefutable — Noel Gallagher wanted his band’s debut to sound “like an aeroplane taking off” — but its radicalism is often overlooked. Niven notes how the leap of imagination and aspiration made by the narrator of “Rock n Roll Star” was in precisely the opposite direction to that in which the 1980s working class were encouraged to jump — not an embrace of hard work and mundane routine, but a relieved rejection of it. The song captures how, for those of us the 1980s left bereft of jobs and prospects, in the 1990s the listless, frustrated boredom of adolescence just kept dragging on, interrupted only by narcotic indulgence or not-quite-vicarious fantasy. Niven argues, on slightly shakier ground, for Noel Gallagher as an intuitively political songwriter, reading “Bring It On Down” as the sign of a post-1980s underclass “beginning to make violent incursions into the centre of cultural life,” with 1994 as the year a populist insurrection was headed off at the pass. In the elegiac “Live Forever,” meanwhile, the experience of social abandonment is generalized into one of universal pain — a very 1990s placing of faith in a nebulous healing process after the socio-economic onslaught of the 1980s, but with the emphasis on collective transcendence. The song’s focus on aspiration and ambition does not necessitate competition between individuals — rather than the Thatcherite winner-takes-all mentality, it offers the suggestion that we could all win together.
To his credit, Niven is also acutely aware of the trouble with this kind of quasi-politics. The lyrics of “Bring It On Down” — “You’re the outcast, you’re the underclass / But you don’t care because you’re living fast” — may be an admirably defiant response to a system built to grind you down, but it is essentially a defensive stance from a class backed into a corner. It is making the best of things, putting on a brave face, an exercise in salvaging and consolation. While “Cigarettes and Alcohol” might gloriously communicate the radical possibilities of short-term pleasure, the song also recognizes the futility of these as potential permanent escape, gaining its very ferocity in proportion to the desperation that surrounds it and celebrating withdrawal and refusal rather than active engagement with an unsatisfactory system. Revolutions are not built on either short-lived rage or euphoria, however extravagantly or cathartically expressed.
Definitely Maybe, then, challenges the received wisdom that the turn Britain took in the 1990s was the only one possible. As well as an accomplished assessment of an underrated album from an overrated band, the book is a salutary example of how to interpret politics through culture, and culture through politics. Niven concludes that Oasis was “a socio-political phenomenon that was premised on finality, eulogy, climax, catharsis” — a pretty bleak, if definitive, list, and one that could double as a description of the 1990s’ peculiar zeitgeist. Part of the decade’s finality was the beginning of the end of the postwar welfare settlement: the rescinding of the right to state support, of collective organization, of free higher education, and — in consequence of all of these — the end of mass social mobility and self-improvement. We are now living through the end of this beginning. Socio-economic escape routes, whether through higher education, a professional career, or fame, are less available to the British working class than they were at the time of Oasis, and certainly than they were pre-Thatcher. Individuals who might previously have struggled to escape the dole queue are now enmeshed in the coils of workfare, payday loans, and zero-hours contracts, and access to the channels of political and cultural power increasingly eludes those without independent wealth. Definitely Maybe’s type of radical discontent, with its lyrical theme of wishing to be someone else, somewhere else — the restless working-class tradition that also informed contemporaries like Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers — now lacks any productive outlet. Part of the “climax and catharsis” that Oasis managed to capture was the feeling of Britain throwing off the weight of the 1980s nightmare and moving forward, even if we had nothing more stable or promising before us but the neoliberal chasm into which we now find ourselves cast.