It's Nothing Special
I bought Blur’s Parklife upstairs in a windowless newsagent in Liverpool on a chilly October evening in 1994 during the twilight of the Conservative government. A friend had been feeding me a steady succession of her tapes of American lo-fi and British shoegaze, and I was in that wild zone, wide open to everything. It was one of the first times I consciously bought music that was brand new. It was also my great fortune—or depending on your position, my dire misfortune—to have arrived at adolescence concurrent with a form of popular culture that prized irony as a default response. Part of the lightness and magic of teenagehood is that one can throw off an irreconcilable problem with a univocal solution or, if that fails, a sneer— “so what? it’s nothing special”—and I could feel the zeitgeist hugging me like my autumn coat.
The releases of Blur’s Parklife, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and Pulp’s Different Class between 1994 and 1995 are a strange British analog to the impact of Nevermind in the US in 1991—a sudden supercharging of the independent directly into the pop mainstream, one framed publicly as the coming dawn after the long night of grunge. Musical subcultures had traditionally acted as a bulwark between generations; my cousins, nearly a decade older than me, were never going to start bopping along to The Smiths or Soft Cell with their parents. Much of this pre-‘90s, pre-pop indie self-consciously navigated a delicate balance between irony and sincerity, deriving much of the former from the gulf across which it looked, eyebrows raised, at the gauche primary colors of mainstream music. That same situation was the foundation for its sincerity—it was different, “realer” for its separation and sometimes wilful obscurity. Your parents simply didn’t know who The Pastels or Felt were—if you wanted these records you had to go to certain shops staffed by people who knew certain things, ready to negotiate the myriad social pitfalls of labels, inscrutable record sleeves and that ever-deferred quality of cool.
The wave of ‘90s British popular indie broke the generational dam. It was influenced more directly by the poppier end of the ‘60s and ‘70s guitar music beloved by our parents, and thus brought with it a revivalism less present in the alternative musical cultures of the previous decade. Parents liked it because it reminded them of their pre-jaded teenage years, and its popularity foreshortened that ironic distance once so beloved of indie; many of these records loudly and proudly embraced their use of pastiche and knowing reference. The broadsheet papers registered their disquiet with this rehash, but to a fourteen year-old nostalgia for music doesn’t really compute: you’re experiencing everything for the first time, so the gap between ‘60s songwriters and the bands that ape them reduces itself to the sliver of time between hearing the records. Put Blur on, then The Kinks. Then Blur again.
I wasn’t alert to this sixties-refried-until-the-yolk-bursts postmodernism that was present in much of the era’s music. I hadn’t yet read Fredric Jameson’s portents of pastiche as “speech in a dead language […] a statue with blind eyeballs.” If I had, I would have argued that he was missing out on the benefits of community and generational unity that we experienced through our weekly combing of NME and Melody Maker for details of the latest lime-green 7-inchs and bootleg t-shirts. I felt a profound and innocent coincidence with the culture. To see the pictures of Damon, Graham, and co at the racetrack on the back of the CD was to be on the threshold of a strange city—London, that behemoth down South—at a time when horizons are opening up beyond the roads and buildings you’ve spent your whole life inside. It also brought with it a new vocabulary, the lingua franca of “bands,” and all the adulthood and belonging that came with that.
Parklife walks a mazy line between technicolor pastiche and melancholy. Its early singles, with their self-possessed jauntiness, elbowed out the sadness that suffuses much of the record. The public legacy of the album remains stubbornly attached to the images in the videos for these songs: the cheapo Ibiza chroma-key of “Boys and Girls” and the cartoon singalong of “Parklife.” This cultural blindness is echoed in contemporary revisions of the era, which is frequently reduced to a best-forgotten gor-blimey-knees-up cliché. An accurate survey of British music in the mid-90s should include albums such as Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dreadzone’s Second Light, Portishead’s Dummy, Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do, Goldie’s Timeless, Mogwai’s Young Team and Tricky’s Maxinquaye. The nuance and diversity of this scene is often buried under the retrospective application of Britpop, a term coined for a late-night band showcase, “Britpop Now,” broadcast to an army of semi-interested parents on a balmy Wednesday night in August in 1995 while their kids were out somewhere. I remember it playing in the corner of a room during a house party, the TV surrounded by the drunk and sceptical, while a friend cried into a rotary phone in the hallway.
Britpop is the cuckoo that redecorated the nest. A term unused and disliked by pretty much every band associated with it, Britpop came instead to stand for a particular wearying non-musical culture—the sexism of the lad’s mag, the Blur vs. Oasis chart battle that made headlines on the evening news, endless four-lads-with-a-haircut guitar bands, a ballooning manufactured irony detached from any sense of feeling and empathy—all the while clinging leech-like to the music itself. Eventually, Britpop culture became inextricable from the coming centre-right wave of Blairism—though Tony Blair’s own campaign song was D:Ream’s anodyne pop anthem “Things Can Only Get Better”—and the appearance of a certain Oasis guitarist at a Downing Street drinks reception, splashed over the pages of the papers that thrived on the B-word, sealed the deal. As early as 1996 antipathy was making itself heard in the music. Luke Haines, on The Auteurs’ wonderful folk-horror snarl After Murder Park, sang of taking out the garbage at the Columbia hotel, a location name-checked in an Oasis song and associated with some of the grubbiest excesses of the era.
These complications floated around without sticking to me. How tied teenagers are to the business of not knowing. I don’t mean a deliberate ignorance of oppression or misdeed, but a joyful overturning of the table for overturning’s sake. It’s an all encompassing so what, one that nevertheless contains a kernel of profound openness to the world from its small corner; a seen-it-all pose that can only result from having seen, and experienced, nothing. This doubled mindset allowed me to drink in the album’s sentiment without attention to the troublesome or played-out elements of the scene. I often think Would I get Blur now? Would I have got them at twenty-eight? and it’s impossible to answer, but I got them at fourteen and so I have them for good.
For a record made by young men, it’s surprising how much of Parklife addresses middle age. Among the many sad scenarios on the record—midlife crises, nervous breakdowns, retreats into fantasy—“End of A Century” chimed loudest with me. It’s on “End of a Century” that the brattiness and sadness of the album find their purest form, and where the narratives of aging and disappointment coincide with the glibness and joy of youth. The song begins with a drifting guitar melody, a musical shrug that emotionally characterises Parklife’s synthesis of tenderness and resignation. Damon Albarn retains little of his vocal swagger, singing here for melody and sentiment. Each line of the chorus is bookended by Graham Coxon’s arpeggios and a swooning backing vocal which rises and falls like a long sigh. For me, “Parklife” is Blur at their broadest and least interesting because that song exists only as an inch-deep singalong. It’s fun, but it doesn’t age; the pastiche eats away at it over time. “End of a Century” and its bedfellows “Badhead,” “This is a Low” and “Clover over Dover” allow instead that shallowness and irony that attends life in one’s teens—don’t bury me, I’m not worth anything Albarn muses on the latter—but marry it to something that is beautiful, subtle and sad. “End of a Century” places this deliberately at its heart, right at the shout-along moment that ends the chorus—End of a century, oh, it’s nothing special.
For years I misread the song’s meaning. I listened to lyrics as having rough equivalency to instruments; a phrase or sentiment would jump out, but I took the noise and length of the words to be in the service of the song’s feeling, and not always as important on their own terms. I read the first-person plural in the chorus as a declaration of generational solidarity—we wear the same clothes ‘cause we feel the same—and found great comfort in it as we sang along to it together when it was late and we were variously ragged. The end of the century held about as much portent to me as Monday morning. It truly was nothing special, in the way that one can suspend something’s specialness when you have so many years to live ahead of you. Adulthood, parenthood: these were distant stars. In fact, and as I came to realise as the years blew by, the lines in the song are the expression of a dying relationship, of two people slowly hiding within their ironic nonchalance as a mode of self-protection; the “we” as a defence against the waning of both “I”s, as postponement of a death to come.
The paradoxical slow-fast unfolding of teenage life, where an afternoon can seem like an eternity but each moment is freighted with the possibility of first-time experience, made the next century seem an epoch away. Some of us would likely be in college, some of us would have full-time jobs; it was something in the distant future. The actual end of the century, when it came, would see us marooned in the same-but-different political landscape that developed in tandem with the old-but-new culture that birthed Parklife, and brought with it the unpleasantly novel business of listening to cabinet ministers obfuscating about their favorite guitar bands; cultural engagement as an empty signifier of progressiveness. In 1995, though, the waning of a generation-long government and that promise that Things Can Only Get Better (the pointed indeterminacy of that “Things” gets sharper and more sour every year), with a forthcoming election in which we were all voting for the first time, bestowed on us a feeling of euphoric and directionless agency. Our chosen nightclub played “End of a Century” to ring in 1996, and we all bellowed along. The club later caught fire while we were in it, and we all traipsed nonchalantly down to the pavement. We took it in our stride; it’s nothing special.
Dad would lie on the bed and I’d play him tracks off Parklife. This sounds like Ray Davies, he’d say, and would play me some of his old tapes in return. It was after the second round of his chemo, and he was weak but gaining strength. For each track I played he would play one in return. As anyone who has played this game knows, it’s a way of communicating without speaking directly. We both knew the stakes, and the way in which life had changed so suddenly—the way in which every day was now suffused with a different song, a background noise that played insistently, one that you could hear when it got quiet. The dialogue between the ‘60s and the ‘90s played out in my bedroom without irony. In retrospect, Dad’s experience of ‘60s radicalism must have recognized some of the shallowness of the music, of those ironic pointers to the culture of his own youth— he was not old—but he said nothing of that, and I understand that now to have been a gesture made of love. The luminous energy of being fourteen helped in its own way—the ability to be ironic, to be glib, to not know what you were talking about but to pretend that you did, to leave the house and to forget what was going on there even if only for an evening, singing along to “Boys and Girls” or whatever they threw on. He didn’t make it to the century. In the face of some things, words are nothing special.
In 2009, I saw Blur live for the first time. Teenage disorganization had failed my earlier attempts, and the moment was heavy not just with anticipation but with lived history. The audience—teenagers, indie kids grown old, hen and office parties—testified to the immensity of their popularity in a way I hadn’t ever considered. I’d seen a live show by Coxon, whose solo music I’d fallen in love with in my twenties, but never the full quartet. Then the lights went down and they were all there—Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave. Fifteen years since Parklife; enough time for a kid to grow up. That early swagger and distance—the needing to prove it while pretending not to—had gone and was replaced by something more direct, more communicative—a shared understanding that we were going to be together and it was going to be alright. They played “Tracy Jacks” and it was wonderful; they played “Country House” and it was, as ever, terrible. Towards the end they played “End of a Century” and I was back in that newsagent, in that party, in that room. Albarn changed as you get closer to thirty to as you get closer to fifty. The audience roared, unironically, as one.
We all say “don't want to be alone”
We wear the same clothes 'cause we feel the same
We kiss with dry lips when we say goodnight
End of a century, oh, it's nothing special
It was, and it is.