The End of the British Invasion

Why can’t Britpop crack the Billboard Hot 100 anymore?

Apparently we no longer want to hold their hands.

For the first time since the Beatles yeah-yeah-yeahed their way into the American Top 40 in January 1964, there are no U.K. acts on the Billboard Hot 100. (Old-timers will remember the Hot 100 as the “singles chart,” although these days most radio hits are not actually released as singles.) The Brit-free chart, published in the music-biz trade journal’s April 27 issue, may be a one-week fluke. But it ruffled London’s music-industry establishment, causing British news service Reuters to report that “Britpop is a flop in the United States.”

It can be argued that the Hot 100’s Brit drought is not terribly significant. The chart is less central than it was in 1964, when the 45 RPM record was rock ’n’ roll’s essential currency. These days, hit-radio airplay (the primary basis of the Hot 100) reflects only a narrow slice of the music market—mostly teen pop, R&B, hip-hop, nu-metal, and country.

Yet Britons have also dwindled on the Billboard album chart, which more accurately conveys the breadth of music that Americans are currently consuming. Among the April 27 issue’s top 100 albums are only five by acts that might be considered British—and only one of those, neo-soul singer Craig David, fully qualifies. The other four are Enya and U2 (both Irish), Ozzy Osbourne (U.K.-bred but a longtime U.S. resident), and Kylie Minogue (musically a product of Britain’s dance-pop factory, but legally an Australian).

This is not an overnight development. British acts have been spotted infrequently on the Billboard charts in the last few years. The U.K. still produces bands that develop stateside cult followings, and those cults occasionally swell to commercially significant size. (One notable contemporary example: Radiohead.) But America has ignored some of Britain’s biggest recent bands or reduced them—as it did with Oasis and Blur—to the status of one-hit wonders.

The musical split between the United States and the U.K. sunders one of pop culture’s most venerable alliances. Great Britain has been a reliable source of pop and rock since 1964’s British Invasion, continuing through psychedelia, heavy metal, art-rock, punk, new wave, and beyond. Most of the groups that inspired breathless superlatives—”world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band,” the Rolling Stones; “only band that matters,” the Clash—were British.

To some extent, the breach represents a disparity in musical taste. The many styles of arty post-disco grouped under the heading “electronica,” for example, are more popular in Britain than in the United States. The Brit drought also reveals limited U.K. expertise in some of today’s best-selling genres, notably hip-hop, country, and nu-metal, and a general flagging of invention among British rockers.

Just as significant, however, is an American music industry that’s become a formidable oligarchy since the days when it was upended by “She Loves You.” The Beatles themselves were initially rejected by Capitol, the U.S. arm of their British label, for being too alien to American tastes. Then Vee Jay, a small independent label, picked up the band, and U.S. Top 40 DJs embraced the fresh new sound. That wouldn’t happen today. Five multinationals control the CD business, and one company—Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 radio stations—dominates American Top 40 and rock radio. Local DJs and program directors rarely decide what songs to play.

Some recent U.K. chart-toppers actually embody the sort of traditional rock values that supposedly appeal to stateside audiences: aggressive guitars, catchy melodies, and distinctive singers. Yet such bands as Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Stereophonics, and Super Furry Animals—all of them from Wales—have had limited success even getting their music released in the United States. Not all these groups have worked hard for American acceptance, but even the ones who have toured the country repeatedly have been overlooked—in part, apparently, because their accents and origins are considered peculiar.

“A lot of British talent is seen as quirky,” an anonymous “industry expert” told Reuters. A generation ago, however, British popsters were appreciated precisely for their idiosyncrasies and regional identities; bands like the Kinks and the Who, although not consistent hit-makers, had distinctive sensibilities that American admirers couldn’t hope to copy. Quirkiness can actually lead to long-term appeal, but oddball performers require time and exposure to grow on potential fans. In this age of manufactured pop and short-term marketing, singularity is considered a design flaw.

Ironically, popular boy bands like ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are modeled on such made-in-the-U.K. predecessors as Take That, East 17, and Wet Wet Wet. Yet the only British assembly-line pop group to conquer the United States was the short-lived Spice Girls. The American music industry quickly realized that such acts are so easy to clone that there’s no need to import them.

The primary focus of today’s music biz is young teens who aren’t ready to declare their individuality by listening to musical weirdos. In a few years, though, they will be. Unlike previous generations of U.S. rock fans, these kids may not find many U.K. musical nonconformists to treasure. The London-based music press relentlessly hypes next big things, but most of its recent picks that have clicked—the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Hives—are not British. The April 27 British album chart is about 60 percent American music, with only one English eccentric, a singer-songwriter who records as Badly Drawn Boy, in the Top 10.

Cookie-cutter teen pop has been very, very good to multinational record labels, but its spell is fading. In 2001, global CD sales fell for the first time since the format’s introduction; so far this year, U.S. album sales are down 9.4 percent. High CD prices and competition from other media are partially to blame, but so is boring music. If a Brit-free singles chart is an American victory, it’s a Pyrrhic one. In fact, the U.S. music biz may soon be praying for a new British Invasion.