Not So Special Relationship

Down with preferential treatment for British bands! 

“The Empire Strikes Back” declared Spin’s July issue, heralding yet another supposed British Invasion set to render the American music-buying public prostrate. Good thing the magazine gave us the heads up: Otherwise many of us would have missed this latest offensive since judging by sales this latest onslaught is apparently a covert operation. As with fabricated BIs past (Remember when the Manic Street Preachers had their run of the States? Me either.), the bands enlisted in this current insurgence have been more celebrated in the press than at the cash register. Even when Oasis reigned on our hit parade, after all, their reinforcements were scarce. Couple or three hits from Blur and the Verve, and then who?

This current Brit incursion comes on the heels of the success of Amnesiac, another mush of experimental doodling and hyper-emotive dawdling by a British band called Radiohead you’ve probably heard of (and heard of and heard of) and maybe even heard. But the other troops Spin reviewed were a bit obscure. If you count Welsh neo-folk Lite FM mewler David Gray, whose fuzzy, electronic-abetted strum-alongs have inspired people to call him “techno-folk,” then why not include drippy Irish pinups the Corrs? And while Coldplay did actually garner a hit with the mellow “Yellow,” a tune that sounds an awful lot like the Dave Matthews Band, second-tier college radio habitués Travis, the main objects of puffery in the Spin piece, have yet to go TRL as promised.

Even the most vacuous hype is often generated by some free-floating social anxiety. You know that nibble of insecurity that drives lonely housewives to moon over the corpse of St. Diana or Merchant-Ivory fans to transpose the r and e in “center” and insert vestigial u’s in “color” and “honor”? Well, a variant afflicts every import-shopping subscriber to a Brit music glossy like the NME or Midwestern power pop front-man who affects a fey McCartney accent. Some 225 years since we severed ties with the British Empire, Americans can’t help but suspect that their overseas fellows have a monopoly on savvy and class and taste. And, sadly, the Masterpiece Theatre-style snobbery even afflicts us when it comes to rock, which not only originated here, but once promised to obliterate such snooty distinctions altogether.

Why would anyone suspect such profound cultural depth of an island whose chief cultural exports over the past decade include the Spice Girls and the Teletubbies? And that’s not even to mention the proudly cloddish Oasis. For all the Fab comparisons the Gallagher yobs encouraged, Oasis didn’t really sound like the Beatles. No, what they offered was a gentrified notion of arena rock—unwieldy power ballads to inspire Bic-waving among folks who thought they’d outgrown Bon Jovi. When it comes right down to it, preferring Oasis to Matchbox Twenty is as blind an act of cultural chauvinism as preferring Tony Blair to Bill Clinton.

But the new kids from overseas make nicey-nice, even when they’re boasting. For instance: “America defines it,” Travis front-man Fran Healy told Spin. “Britain refines it.” Like most aphorisms, Healy’s witticism not only says less than it initially seems, but it lets on more than it actually intends. What, after all, are the lads in Travis refining? On first listen, their music sounds like old Radiohead, softening the spires of those guitar cathedrals and bringing the tunes, such as they are, front and center. If Thom Yorke chose to use his affected diffidence to sweet-talk college girls into bed instead of scaring away reporters, he’d drawl with the consoling sob of Fran Healy. Or maybe the Travises are refining the Carpenters. Just like those lite-rock pioneers, Travis has a drippy little number called ” Sing“ that makes Richard and Karen sound like some thrashy nu-metal band. “The love you bring won’t mean a thing,” Healy moons, “Unless you sing, sing, sing.” And that’s not even to mention the simpy “Dear Diary” (rhymes with “What is wrong with me?”).

But certain media taste-makers—a cadre extending from college radio jocks to magazine editors, all of whom deplore the crass mass taste of their fellow citizens—apparently think that bands such as Travis do provide an “alternative,” if you’ll pardon that dated industry term. A refined alternative, that is, to unrefined American pop. Never mind that Radiohead is as pretentious as Tool, or that Travis is as syrupy as Celine Dion. The Britsnobs are, in their tetchy and genteel fashion, trying to launch a counteroffensive to the glitz that rules the U.S. charts: discoid bubble gum, aggro-rock thud, and cash-proud hip-hop. In short, a need to counteract those aspects of American culture that the most culturally insecure Americans have always felt insecure about—that we’re juvenile airheads, that we’re violent thugs, that we’re shallow nouveau consumerists.

And so, when Radiohead unexpectedly landed atop the charts last summer with Kid A, the press that had been hyping that band for months prior patted the American music-buying public on its collective back. We’d done the right thing and endorsed dystopia. And yet, British art rock doesn’t douse us in bitter reality. In fact, it seals itself off from the muck of American culture in which, like it or not, each of us is embedded. From the grasping sexual haggling of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style (Oops!)” to the consumer feminism of Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” American pop takes into account the fact that economics and politics and the outside world do infiltrate our most intimate desires, that “love” doesn’t exist in a special box. By instead looking overseas to for a bedtime story of faux-classy fairy tales, we’re just buying into one more British evasion.