Continents Update

Britpop’s Back. But What Happened to Cool Britannia?

The comebacks have received euphoric reviews, but they are occurring at a starkly different moment for British pop music, compared with the ’90s. Although Britpop never reached the same heights of popularity in the United States that it did in Australia, Canada, Japan and continental Europe, it coincided with a high point for British soft power. In 1996 Newsweek declared London the world’s coolest city. In 1997, Vanity Fair devoted 25 pages to the bands, artists, chefs and designers making Britain “the place we must all look to.” The same year, The New Yorker called Britain’s music scene “a scary paradise.”

Today, however, neither British nor global news media are portraying Britain as the musical place to be — despite it giving the world current stars like Ed Sheeran, Adele and Harry Styles. Instead, news articles about the country’s music scene are more likely to touch on venues shuttering — at a rate of one a week this year, according to the nonprofit Music Venue Trust — or the country’s bands, DJs and rappers struggling to tour abroad after Brexit brought in a tangle of red tape. Local news outlets have also lamented the British government’s cuts to arts funding, and warned about the decline of music teaching in schools.

Sitting in his West London recording studio recently, Albarn said some things hadn’t changed since Britpop’s heyday. He was still “completely obsessed with this country,” he said, and writing songs with lyrics that were “chipped out of that blue stone of Stonehenge.”

But there were also big differences, he added. He was now 55, and wore knee supports onstage. And the challenges facing the country’s pipeline of musical stars were clear: “The soul of the nation is in danger, if you want to get dramatic about it,” he said, adding that music was “pivotal to our international place.”

Chuva, the Portuguese music fan, said he felt a change, too — not just in Britain’s music, but in the national mood. “The weather here’s always been gray,” he said. “Now everything is.”

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