British Popular Music and National Identity in the 1990s

Thesis (M.A.) 2004 113 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Collective identities

3. National identity

4. National British identity

5. Popular music theory

6. British pop and national identity before 1990

7. Indie rock and Britpop in the 1990s

8. Black British music in the 1990s

9. British dance music in the 1990s

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography

12. Lyrics

1. Introduction

Irish blood, English heart

This I'm made of

There is no one on earth I'm afraid of

And no regime can buy or sell me

I've been dreaming of a time when

to be English is not to be baneful

to be standing by the flag, not feeling shameful

racist or racial

Irish blood, English heart

this I'm made of

There is no one on earth I'm afraid of

And I will die with both of my hands untied

I've been dreaming of a time when

the English are sick to death

of Labour, and Tories

and spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell

and denounce this royal line that still salute him

and will salute him


These lines are taken from the song “Irish Blood, English Heart” by the British singer Morrissey. Released in May 2004, it immediately entered the official UK charts at number 3. The record not only draws public attention because it marks the long- awaited return of a popular artist, but also because it stimulates discussions on national identity, especially at politically sensitive times like during the stationing of British troops in Iraq. Obviously a reference to the difficult Anglo-Irish relationship, the lyrics also criticize general symbols of Englishness, like political parties or the royal family. The title of the song implies that national identities can be a mixture of several cultural backgrounds (Morrissey originates from the Irish community in Manchester). At the same time, this form of Englishness is also depicted as a possible source of pride and courage. Above all, the song creates the vision of a new English identity. The performing character wants to re-signify the flag into a symbol that does not, unlike as it implies nowadays, raise “baneful”, “shameful”, “racist or racial” connotations. In this way, “Irish Blood, English Heart” provokes various questions: Is it actually possible to re-signify national identity in such a way? Or would this simply be a re-interpretation and thus denial of the past? Should national identity maybe instead take a step further and leave the realms of already established symbols? And how does a song like this relate the public opinion within a country? Has music the power to actually influence people’s outlook on the world?

Questions like these cannot be answered for just one record, I much deeper enquiry back into the history of popular music and discourses on national identity is needed. Therefore, this thesis will try to evaluate the relation between British popular music and national identity. I will concentrate on developments during the 1990s, bringing together all genres of popular music during that period. Within academic research, this genre-exceeding approach has previously been rejected. There are a few essays on the Britpop discourse, and many books on black music as well as dance music, but hardly any writings have compared these genres.

Taking into account theoretical considerations on popular music, I will try to apply theories of collective identities in general and national identity in particular to Ninities pop. I will try to compare the discourse within popular music culture to general discourses on questions of national identity within Great Britain. And I will, as far as possible, try to examine what role popular British music actually plays within general discourses on national British identity.

2. Collective identities

Identity as a “Plastikwort”

In recent years, identity has become one of the most talked-about subjects in all kinds of fields in society, be it politics, the media, or the academic discourse. However, as Lutz Niethammer has pointed out, the term “identity” has turned into a so-called “Plastikwort”, a word that means so much that it doesn’t actually mean anything at all any more1. According to Niethammer it is mainly this vagueness which actually arouses a need for “identity”. In general, identity is understood as the condition or rather the process of being an individual person or distinct collective. Identity is about how we are constituted and how we see ourselves as subjects. Thus, an identity promises coherence, continuity and stability. Identity links the individual’s personal experiences of the world with the social structure of society. However, society has been fragmenting and segmenting, and individuals feel they are accompanying more and more different social fields2. Whenever these social roles overlap or contradict each other or determine a power struggle, conflict and crisis are at hand. It is this growing uncertainty, which has turned identity into an issue, or, as Niethammer has put it: “Identität ist wie Gesundheit, positiv nicht bestimmbar, tritt sie erst bei Verlust ins Bewußtsein.”3 Discussions about identity have ranged from demanding a return to stable identities to the facilitation of flexible and multiple identities. Within this thesis, I too, will try to evaluate the accuracy of such demands and its potentials and dangers.

Different categories of collective identities

Individuals tend to identify themselves as a part of collective identities. Such collective identities can be apparently natural and innate like gender, class, race, ethnicity or nationality, but also apparently self-chosen categories like lifestyle or subculture.

Gender studies differentiate between biological sex and social gender. Thus, the category “gender” is viewed as a construct, that does not automatically result from the category “sex”. Gender has established a binary opposition between male and female, which has throughout history been connected to other binary oppositions such as culture/nature, active/passive, reason/emotion, mind/body. The first is always perceived as the “normal”, the second has always got a negative, “other” connotation. According to gender theories, even languages and the structure of society are determined by constructs of gender and male domination. In a lot of ways, gender can therefore be seen as the most fundamental collective identity.

The term “class” describes groups with an economically similar situation. Especially in Great Britain, the distinction between different social classes has been very influential since the Industrial Revolution. Little by little, there was an increasing consciousness that these social positions are “made rather then merely inherited”4, and that categories5 such as “class” not only describe an economic situation, but also education, work sphere, or cultural values and activities. Already since the theories of Marx it has been heatedly debated how these different aspects interrelate with each other and whether “class” is merely an external attribute or rather a conscious formation that might struggle for its own needs.

The term “race” originally means “a common stock”. Race categorizes people according to physical features like the colour of their skin, and often, these features were believed to carry radical scientific differences, which lead to ideas of a competitive struggle for existence and the superiority of (white) races. Today, “race” has been identified as another cultural construct rather than scientific fact, but, as Raymond Williams has noted, even though the term keeps dissolving, racism continues:

It is clear that the very vagueness of ‘race’ in its modern social and political senses is one of the reasons for its loose and damaging influence. It has been used against groups as different in terms of classification as the Jews, American Blacks, ‘Orientals’, ‘West Indians’ and then, in different ways, both Irish and Pakistanis, where the ‘Aryan’ (Indo-European) assumption is stretched literally to its limits, but in excluding ways. Physical, cultural and socio-economic differences are taken up, projected and generalized, and so confused that different kinds of variation are made to stand for or imply each other.6

Closely related to race is the concept of ethnicity, which can be defined as belonging to a certain race, people or nation. In this way, ethnicity stresses the political and cultural determination rather than a supposedly scientific “nature”. Both race and ethnicity are intimately intervened with the concept of “national identity”, which often relies on categorizations via race or ethnicity.

Many researchers have claimed, that today’s growing internationalisation goes hand in hand with a growing importance of regional identity. A region is always defined as a distinct area as a part of a bigger area (i.e. a nation). On the one hand, this relation implies a subordinate status of region, especially as the term “regional” is usually applied to provincial rather than metropolitan areas. On the other hand, however, the idea of regional cultures acknowledges distinct ways of life and is therefore often used to substantiate demands for local self-government.

Modernity has also pushed forward the idea that you can choose your identity, rather than just be born into it. However, “choosing your identity” is usually connected with “buying an identity”. Consumption means social distinction, but as Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out, “taste” is still determined by education, class, etc., and the possibilities for consumption are still dependent on a person’s economic situation. Even if lifestyles are chosen relatively independent from social class, there is still the problem presenting only a surface phenomenon. Subcultures in popular music, for example, are usually perceived as a certain style of fashion and music, and even though there might be more to subcultures than just consumption (like the spirit of DIY and independence in punk), they tend to be reduced to their style and conspicuously consumed. As Holert and Terkessidis have pointed out, today’s society hails identities which display difference. Provocation sells, and thus, true subcultures are no longer possible but only incorporated into a “mainstream of minorities”.7

All these identities interrelate with each other, nobody is “only a woman” or “only English” or “only a punk”. Black women, for example, have a different status than white women, and in this way the experience of one category is also determined by the other roles an individual takes on in society. The deeper relations between these different collective identities and the concept of “national identity” I will discuss later on.

Identities as a construct

It might already have become obvious that all these identity categories are affected by debates about whether they are “natural” or “constructed”. And indeed, there are two main approaches to identity theory, namely the essentialist and the constructionist approach. Essentialists assume that there is an essential core to an identity which is common for all members of the group. Such a clear set of characteristics which the whole group shares also offers stability and authenticity and thus a basis for solidarity and unity. The constructionist approach on the other hand denies these ideas of “a true self” and essential affiliation. Today, most theorists argue, that identities are constructed through discourses, that they change over time and are therefore unstable, and that they depend on certain contexts. Lutz Niethammer, however, thinks this differentiation between essentialist and constructionist approach to be trifling:

Als essentialistisch erscheint dann ein Blick, der seinen Wahrnehmungen glaubt und naiv, mutwillig oder konventionell [...] mit der Wirklichkeit identifiziert, während jene Wesensaussagen als Konstrukte entlarvt, die man selbst für naiv und falsch hält.8

According to him, identity always depends on the position and perception of the observer, who wants to see a common aspect rather than differences. He concludes:

Identität als solche gibt es nicht und sie kann deshalb (jenseits der Setzung A=A) materiell auch nicht weiter definiert werden. Sie ist ein reiner Operationsbegriff und als solcher leer und kann nur je und je annähernd, subjektiv und differentiell gefüllt werden.9

Instead of the term „identity“ Niethammer favours „we“-statements, because they make its subjectivity visible. Niethammer’s argumentation would render any work on identity that is not one’s own as worthless, but no matter whether identities are “real”, groups do search for and perceive themselves as collective identities, and the processes of such a self-perception needs to be analysed as objectively as possible. Even Niethammer agrees, that collective identities are constructed, and the constructionist approach is the most common in today’s academic world. So how are identities being constructed then? In their introductory book on Cultural Studies, Lutter and Reisenleitner emphasise that identities depend on symbolic representation and culture:

Identitäten werden in und durch Kultur produziert, konsumiert und reguliert, indem Bedeutungen durch symbolische Repräsentationssysteme geschaffen werden: Sie geben den Rahmen vor, innerhalb dessen wir unseren Erfahrungen Sinn geben, indem Identität und Differenz symbolisch markiert werden. Die symbolischen Markierungen haben ihrerseits reale soziale Effekte, weil Repräsentationen immer im Rahmen von Machtverhältnissen stattfinden.10

This idea goes with the „linguistic turn“ that social sciences and arts have gone through since the first half of the 20th century. The „linguistic turn“ implied the realization, that knowledge depends on language, and that history and culture exist only in discourses, and that meaning is therefore only gained on the level of communication, and dependent on its historical place. This means, that identity, too, only comes into being through interacting or even contradicting discourses. The term “discourse” generally means “language in use”, but more specifically it has taken on the meaning of ”any coherent body of statements that produces a self-confirming account of reality by defining an object of attention and generating concepts with which to analyse it”11. The most influential work on discourse has been written by Michel Foucault.12 He emphasised the idea, that discourses are controlled, organised and channelled by forces of power, be they repressive or resistant. Thus, texts always become facts of power themselves. To uncover those structures of power and the means used to achieve power, as well as the relations between different texts, Foucault demanded discourse analysis. Foucault himself mainly referred to written texts, however, every cultural system can be read as a text and they all constitute discourse. Therefore, I will apply discourse analysis to diverse forms of texts throughout this thesis.

Identities as systems of signs

The academic field concerned with how texts actually gain meaning is semiotics.

According to semiotics, texts are systems of conventional signs, that help members of a social group to communicate. Ferdinand de Saussure saw two sides to every linguistic sign (i.e. word), the signified (the concept) and the signifier (the image). The signified only acquires meaning in difference to other signifiers, this meaning is arbitrary and conventional. That means that language does not represent a reality outside itself, but only allows us to access reality. Cultural signs work in the same relational way as linguistic signs. In culture, too, meaning is only constituted through difference and binary oppositions and there is no experience outside cultural sign systems, they determine how we view the world. Roland Barthes applied Saussure’s theories to cultural signs. In Mythen des Alltags he deepened Saussure’s model, according to Barthes there are two levels to both signifier and signified. There is always a literal denotative meaning and a mythical connotative meaning based on the literal meaning. This myth is interpellative, it makes the cultural appear natural, and in this way myths are a means of power. One sign can have different myths, like for example popular music, which can imply freedom and rebellion as well as manipulation and conformity. This ambiguity is due to the arbitrary relationship between sign and myth, and poststructuralists have stressed, that there is actually no signifier which is definitely connected with a signified. Instead, all signs relate to each other and create an infinite web of intertextuality. There is no definite meaning as such, rather, meaning is a continuous process. These processes of producing and reproducing meaning are called “signifying practices”, they need to be analysed if we want to learn how culture works. However, signifying practices alone don’t tell us enough about the influencing social structures, which has been a continuing problem in Cultural Studies in general.

One of the most important objects of analysis in semiotics is style, a system of meaning which is very central to popular music culture. The most influential book on this topic is Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige describes how subcultures use style to position themselves against mainstream society:

Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. It’s transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus.13

In Système da la mode Roland Barthes had applied the terms “metaphor” and “metonymy” to fashion: the paradigmatic axis describes how different clothing items mean different things, the syntagmatic axis describes how a combination of clothes constitutes a new meaning.14 The same phenomenon is described by Hebdige, though he uses the concept of bricolage. The bricoleur takes concrete objects and re-locates them in a different position within a discourse or uses them within a different ensemble and thus creates a new discourse and new meaning. Subcultures do bricolage in bringing together elements from different or even contradicting cultural backgrounds and re-signifying them, and in combination they gain another meta-signification. In addition to that, subcultures change the connotation of social “others”, by for example declaring ugly or black as beautiful. Nevertheless, just as Holert and Terkessidis, Hebdige already points to the incorporation of spectacular subcultures, either through the conversion of subcultural signs into mass-produced objects (the commodity form) or the labelling and re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups like the police, the media or the judiciary (the ideological form).15 This incorporation of spectacular subcultures can be seen in the bigger concept of hegemony. Antonio Gramsci introduced this term to describe how a class-alliance tries to incorporate all world views in a way that the different groups (even the subordinate ones) find their situation acceptable.16 That means, it is not the state or a ruling class which controls society but people form a civil society and agree on a “normal reality” and a “common sense” and, ultimately, a collective will. Hegemony, again, is a process rather than a fixed state, and although it is based on compromise, there nevertheless are dominant and subordinate groups. Whenever two or more groups meet and endeavour to gain or continue their individual hegemonies, collective identities are a disputed subject.

Identities as a process of “othering”

This is mainly due to the fact that identities are always constructed through difference and in relation to others. Just as in semiotics, where every signifier only gains meaning by being different from other signifiers, the construction of identities relies on so-called “others”. The ”other” is anyone who is separate from one’s self, and it is needed to create self-awareness. Furthermore, theorists have distinguished between “other” and “Other”17. The recognition of an “other” is needed to create an identity. However, this recognition of the “other” is often connected with a hope for an “anticipated mastery”. Thus, “other” subjects usually gain identity in the gaze of a Smybolic “Other”. Spivak18 brought together these two terms in the idea of “othering”, which describes a process during which an imperial discourse creates its colonized “others” who can only define themselves through the colonizing “Other”. These terms have become especially important to Postcolonial Studies, but they can be applied to all processes of identity construction. There are two main conclusions to be drawn from these ideas of difference and othering:

1. By constructing an “other” a subject exerts power by defining what is “normal” and declaring the “other” as not “normal”. Thus, the “other” is not only symbolically but also socially expelled to the margin.
2. Identity depends on difference and binary oppositions, therefore images about the “other” actually say more about the “Other” within the subject itself. What a subject likes about the “other” is what it desires itself, what a subject dislikes about the “other” is what it fears being itself.

It now should have become clear, that the construction of identity through binary oppositions always includes the notion of dominance and subordination. Therefore, many writers have called for a greater awareness for the fact that identities are only constructed and not natural. However, groups without a stable and coherent collective identity have found it very hard to fight for more power. Subaltern classes are as complex as dominant classes, but their identities tend to be fragmented and episodic, because they never ruled the discourses as the dominant classes did. Subordinate groups have less means to represent themselves, and questions like “How can the subaltern speak?”, “How can the ‘others’ represent themselves?” have become central to identity theory. Subaltern groups are the “other” of the “Other”, a negative difference. Even if dominant groups ascribe otherness a positive connotation19, they still deny the subaltern to speak for themselves. And how are they supposed to speak for themselves, if they only ever have been defined from the outside? In addition to that, there is no such thing as clear subaltern groups, identities overlap, and individuals can only speak on their own behalf, not as a group. Spivak for example found Indian women to be “even more in the shadow” than Indian men, and thus concludes that “the subaltern cannot speak”20, as long as it is considered an essentialist group.

3. National identity

The problem of defining the nation

In one of the most influential books on national identity Anthony D. Smith stated the weight national identities have in today’s world:

Of all the collective identities which human beings share today, national identity is perhaps the most fundamental and inclusive other types of collective identity - class, gender, race, religion - may overlap or combine with national identity but they rarely succeed in undermining its hold.21

If national identity offers such an inclusiveness, it firstly needs to be found out what a nation actually is. However, defining a nation is not as easy as it seems to be. According to Raymond Williams, the word “nation” derives from the Latin word “nationem”, which meant “breed” or “race”, and the word has been in common use in English since the 13th century. As the Latin meaning indicates, the word originally stood for “a racial group rather than a politically organized grouping.”22 The sense of a political formation only emerged in the 17th century, and up till today both meanings tend to overlap. The idea of a nation-state incorporated a nationality primarily defined by race or ethnicity into a citizenship. Already the USA though, like many other nations later on, developed a national identity that incorporated different ethnic backgrounds. Anthony D. Smith distinguishes between a Western idea of nations as culture communities and Eastern Europe and Asia with it’s more ethnic conception of the nation.23 Amongst others, the author Eric J. Hobsbawn points to the fact that a nation as a political entity is also bound to a certain territory, and that the state usually takes on the economic tasks of a „Volkswirtschaft“24. However, another author, T. K. Ommen, who tried to clearly distinguish between citizenship and nationality, stresses that such an unity between national identity, territory and legal and economic status is even today hardly ever reality. There might be people outside a nation’s territory and without it’s citizenship, who might still feel that they belong that nationality. On the other hand, there might be people living within a nation’s territory, who are excluded from sharing it’s nationality or even its citizenship.

Hobsbawn, too, acknowledges such fragmentations, and points out, that a national identity is determined less by citizenship or territory, but rather by cultural aspects like a common language, a common ethnicity and a common religion. At the same time, however, he analyses all these aspects as actually not sufficient enough to clearly define a nationality. He concludes that these aspects are so verschwommen, wandelbar und mehrdeutig und als Anhaltspunkte zur Orientierung ebenso nutzlos wie Wolkenformationen zur Orientierung von Reisenden im Vergleich zu Wegzeichen. Das macht sie natürlich außerordentlich brauchbar für propagandistische und programmatische Zwecke ... 25

This analysis corresponds with Niethammer’s suggestion that only a blurred meaning makes the huge inclusiveness of collective identities possible. So, if a nation can neither be clearly defined by politics or territory or culture, what is it then? And what was first, the nation or the state?

“Imagined communities”

The probably most useful definition for “nation” was put forward by Benedict Anderson:

Sie die Nation ist eine vorgestellte politische Gemeinschaft - vorgestellt als begrenzt und souverän.26

He calls nations „imagined“, because its members feel they are a community even though they have met only very few members of this community. Thus, national identity is a phenomenon of modernity, as “imagined” communities have replaced “real” networks like for example village communities. This idea of being a community despite not knowing each other was, according to Anderson, created by a shift in the perception of time and space. The Industrial Revolution and the beginning of letterpress made people aware that other people were doing the same things as them at the same time. Simultaneously, press and school promoted the development of standard forms of languages, which again became an important aspect in the definition of a national identity. Anderson’s definition also states, that people try to restrict their group to certain equal members, an idea which is being connected with the hope for freedom within these borders of the nation. Anderson argues that this idea of freedom has historically been very important for the foundation of national states, beginning with the French Revolution and the USA’s declaration of independence, which later became an example for other colonies struggling for freedom.

Taking into account findings from identity theory, such “imagined communities” promise coherence and stability, but are actually subject to change. National identity is thus a process established via culture and discourse. Like many other authors, Stuart Hall states that national identities unify two things: “they offer membership of the political nation-state and identification with the national culture”27. And Eric Hobsbawn adds, that citizens are hold together by the “invention” of such national cultures that help the “imagined community” to identify with and reassure themselves as members of an already existing or proposed political entity:

Kurz, aus Gründen der Analyse kommt der Nationalismus vor der Nation. Nicht die Nationen sind es, die Staaten und Nationalismen hervorbringen, sondern umgekehrt.28

Like all ideologies, discourses on national identity make the nation appear to be “natural” and “god-given”, but actually, they “invent traditions”.29

The construction of national identity

The look back into the past seems to be the most important feature for generating an essentialist core for a national identity. Lutter and Reisenleitner claim that this historical discourse then is applied to the nation’s present:

Die Konstruktion von Nationen als solche “imaginierte Gemeinschaften“ arbeitet mit Vorstellungen und Mythen, die sich auf einen gemeinsamen Ursprung, ungebrochene und kontinuierliche historische Traditionen und universale, ewig gültige Werte berufen, und mit ihnen die gegenwärtige Situation und politische Handlungsweisen begründen und legitimieren.30

Benedict Anderson compared this search for a history with looking at a photograph of oneself as a baby. Nobody can remember his or her birth, but we are told that the baby is identical with us and only in this way we are able to construct our identity. National histories are constructed in the same way, but, as Anderson points out, in contrast to human beings, nations don’t have a clear day of birth or a natural death. Nation-states are a phenomenon of modernity, but they are made to appear very old. Stuart Hall claims that this backward-look of national cultures is a “defensive retreat to that ‘lost time’ when the nation was ‘great’”31. This anachronistic element thus creates self-confidence, and is often used to mobilize people, “to gird their loins for a new march forwards”32. Above all, national discourses try to produce the idea of a nation as a continuous narrative of national identity. Therefore, Homi Bhabha has introduced the idea of “nation as a form of narration”. According to him, such a point of view makes the constructed-ness of national identity more easily visible:

To encounter the nation as it is written displays a temporality of culture and social consciousness more in tune with the partial, overdetermined process by which textual meaning is produced through the articulation of difference in language; If the problematic ‘closure’ of textuality questions the ‘totalization’ of national culture, then its positive value lies in displaying the wide dissemination through which we construct the field of meanings and symbols associated with national life.33

Just like the meaning of a text is open to the reader’s interpretation, the reading of national identity is never fixed. To give it a greater feeling of continuity, national identity relies on holistic signs whose meaning is conventionally agreed on. Such signs can be legal institutions, procedures or documents, but also ceremonies, rituals, or symbols like flags or anthems. Historical events are given a certain interpretation and are told as a continuous set of stories in museums, history books, the media, and high and popular culture. From these historical narratives, myths, traditions and images are derived, heroes are worshipped, memorials erected, and folklore celebrated. Above all, every nation is being ascribed and ascribes itself a certain set of values and attributes. All these signs are forms of representation. National identity is not imposed by a state, rather, every member of the “imagined community” participates in this process of producing national meaning. Ultimately, these meanings “influence and organize both our actions and our conceptions of ourselves.”34

Nations and it’s “others”

As already stated, the constructions of identities always depend on binary differences. Such “othering” can also be found within national identity, for example by declaring a historical enmity between France and Germany or the comparison between “Old Europe” and the USA. Such processes have most thoroughly been analysed within Post-Colonial theory, especially by Edward Said. Taking into account Foucault’s discourse theory, Said wrote that “Orientalism” has always been an “integral part of European material civilisation and culture”35. According to Said the “Orient” has been functioning as the inferior “other” for the West, in fact, he considers the “Orient” an discoursive invention. By picturing the “Orient” as either “exotic” or “dangerous”, the European colonizers could exert power and domination. Thus, especially for those European nations with an imperial history like Great Britain, the comparison with and delimitation from the “Orient” has helped to define own national virtues. And those who were colonized started to see and experience themselves as “others”.

However, globalisation and continuous waves of migration have put a threat to the drawing of such clear frontiers. Aliens have entered nations, the other has moved from the margin to the centre. Reactions to these confusing developments have been varied and have included various forms of racism, but also new, more integrating concepts of identity-formation.

New identities?

The most common attempt to positively deal with cultural heterogeneity is the concept of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism means the harmonic coexistence of different ethnically or culturally defined groups. Supporters of multiculturalism tend to call for equal political rights and cultural tolerance for minorities. However, multiculturalism also tends to stress differences between a “normal” population and minority groups, especially in folkloristic elements like clothing, food, music, or celebrations. Thus, minorities are being reduced to the exoticness of their culture, and are still made a fetish of as “other”. Multiculturalism does not question binarities like “normal” and “alien”, or categories like “race” and “ethnicity”. The power to define and judge remains with the dominant culture. Minorities are not given the choice to tolerate the dominant culture, only the other way round.

Ethnicity might be a category that tends to either in- or exclude people from national identity. However, as Stuart Hall has observed, the term also “acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual.”36 Therefore, Hall wants to seize the term from racist discourse and deploy it in a new way. According to Hall, “New Ethnicities” are always contradictory and hybrid. Hall calls for a concept of ethnicity which recognizes “that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position”37. Being aware of this determinedness of identity might make it possible to escape racial binarities and subsequent marginalization, as well as to gain access to representation away from stereotyping.

A similar concept was proposed by Homi K. Bhabha. Migrants have no stable singular home, rather they are in constant transition between “home” and “abroad”. They live in “translation”, which Bhabha describes as a way of imitating, but in a mischievous, displacing sense - imitating an original in such a way that the priority of the original is not reinforced but by the very act that it can be simulated, copied, transferred, transformed, made into a simulacrum and so on: the original is never finished or completed in itself. The ‘originary’ is always open to translation to that it can never be said to have a totalised prior moment of being or meaning - an essence.38

Identities are never “original”, the meaning of one identity is always dependent on the meaning of the “other” identity. The passage in-between, where the translation takes place, Bhabha calls the “Third Space”. He demands everybody to accept and consciously enunciate from this “Third Space”. Only in this way the hybridity of all identities could be made visible, a hybridity which accepts the traces of the “other” within oneself.

Both Stuart Hall and Homi K. Bhabha demand that everybody should learn from diasporic39 experiences. Concepts like “New Ethnicities”, “Translation” and “Third Space” make it possible to recombine, subvert and transgress meanings. Therefore, Stuart Hall sees hybridity as “a powerful creative source, a way to produce new things”40. One of the best examples for new hybrid forms of culture is popular music, as I will show later on.

4. National British identity

The question of national identity has dominated the public discourse in Great Britain during recent decades. There are four main reasons which triggered off debates on this issue: Firstly the decline of the British Empire and the consequent loss of supremacy in world politics and economics, secondly, also related to the history of the British Empire, the big amount of immigration Great Britain has experienced especially since the end of the Second World War. In addition to that, Britain, like most other countries in the world, has been increasingly affected by phenomena of globalisation and Americanisation. And finally, the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been called into question and a process of devolution has slowly been launched. Applying the theory that national identities are always vague and historically changing, Robin Cohen has argued that British national identity shows an especially severe pattern of fragmentation. According to Cohen, this is due to what he calls “fuzzy frontiers” between the self and the other. These fuzzy frontiers work on several levels: between England and Scotland/ Wales/ Ireland, between Britain and its former Dominions, between Britain and the whole Commonwealth, between Britain and the USA and between Britain and continental Europe. All these relationships are rather unclear and the boundaries between them permeable. Thus, the construction of a distinct self and distinct “others” for a British national identity is constantly being reshaped through the discourses I will point out below.

Four nations in one

Britain as a nation seems to be easily defined by territory, namely as a nation enclosed by the shores of the island. Obviously, this image ignores the unsolved case of Northern Ireland, but it also constructs a unity between England, Scotland and Wales as natural rather than historical. In fact, Britain only became a nation as such with the Act of Union in 1707. Various aspects helped the four regions to grow close culturally. Jeffrey Richards, for example, cites the national railway system which was established in the 19th century and which helped to distribute a common diet, national newspapers and national sporting leagues.41 The royal incorporation of elements from all four regions championed a symbolic unification, but above all it was the Empire which transcended differences within the UK. The Empire was a British enterprise, and thus until today the term “British” has a more stately connotation, whereas the four regional identities carry more emotional connotations42. I have used the word “region” for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to distinguish them from the national British state, but in fact, all four regions tend to consider themselves as individual nations. However, the terms “English” and “British” are often used interchangeably, and England is often criticized for being politically and culturally dominant. In reaction to this, there have been attempts to create a common Celtic identity as “other” to the English, but the different regions are too diverse and have therefore promoted a struggle for more individual independence from London. Those first steps of devolution were launched by the Blair government in 1997 with referendums which opted for a greater autonomy for Scotland and Wales. These developments have been and will continue to be accompanied by discourses on what makes up a Scottish or Welsh as opposed to a British identity.

Typically British?

English or British identity (the frontiers stay fuzzy) has been established along the lines of a clear set of values. These include politeness, courtesy, kindness, moderation, self-control, hiding of emotions, sexual reserve, calmness, stoicism, common sense, a will to compromise, tolerance, individualism, anti-intellectualism, sense of duty, chivalry, fair play and good sportsmanship, sincerity and decency, respect for each other’s privacy and a special kind of humour. Authors like Hans- Dieter Gelfert, Dietrich Schwanitz and Raphael Samuel have tried to show how these values have been constituted by an interaction between cultural discourse and historical events during the last centuries. Samuel has argued that those values as we perceive them today have mainly been established during the 18th century, especially by the moralising impact of Protestantism. This, however, is also one of uncountable contradictories in British national identity, as today there are more practising Roman Catholics than Protestants in the UK, as well as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Samuel also pointed out, that ideals like those of personal restraint and concern for others originated as a justification for the Empire, which was portrayed as being run not for an own benefit but for that of the colonized. The figure of the Gentleman combined such ethics, but this image of a cultivated person has always been an exception amongst the majority of the British population. Firstly, because this figure is typically male, a notion which also counts for other images of Britishness. According to Stuart Hall, “w omen play a secondary role as guardians of hearth, kith and kin, and as ‘mothers’ of the nation’s ‘sons’”43. Secondly, the Gentleman carries the notion of exclusive education, and at the same time as the figure of the Gentleman, public schools and Oxbridge universities have become symbols for Britishness, even though only a very small percentage of the British population could ever afford to be educated there. The question of social and economic status represents another contradictory aspect of British identity. On the one hand, class-divisions are perceived strongly and despite recent notions of Britain as a classless society, unique characteristics in housing, accent, clothing or food are still being ascribed to the different classes. On the other hand, though, the potentially alternative Britishness represented by the rough working classes has largely been kept underground, maybe also due to the lack of means of self-representation those poorer classes had until the advent of popular culture. Even quite recently there was a big moment of surprise when lager louts and football hooligans abroad represented a different kind of Britain than the figure of the Gentleman. A further image that has been used to construct British national identity is the ideal of the English countryside. This image has been repeatedly propagated, probably most famously by J. B. Priestly in his English Journal, where he described it as the “Old England, the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England”44. However, this rural image is predominantly associated with only the south of England. Sixty years later, the then Prime Minister John Major portrayed an eternal Britain as “the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said - ‘old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.”45 Both quotes already imply the unreality of those quaint images, as Great Britain is in fact much more marked by it’s industrial landscapes of “coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways"46. Some authors have argued that it is exactly because England has been industrialized so early on and so thoroughly that it desperately needs to hold on to a narration of rural landscapes and the “good old days”. Consequently, British national identity also features a love for home and garden. A more fixed meaning of Britishness is represented by signs such as the Union Jack, “God Save The Queen”, parliament and the Royal Family, as well as cultural institutions like Shakespeare or the local pub, or Monty Python as a chapter in the narration of British humour, or football and cricket as incarnations of British sportsmanship.

British national identity after the Second World War The German air raids during the Second World War posed a threat to all British people regardless of class boundaries. Thus, a common patriotism was propagated, especially via new forms of media like the “Newsreel” as analysed by Kenneth Lunn. These war-time discourses stressed British successes and praised people’s reaction to the raids as “typically British” stoism, good humour and cockney heroism. After the war, however, Britain had to come to terms with its shrinking financial and manufacturing role in the world economy. When Margaret Thatcher came into power, she repeatedly referred to Britain’s lost “Golden Age” and appealed for a return to “Victorian values”. However, as Jeffrey Richards has indicated, her ideal of individualism was less chivalrous than an aggressive pursuit of wealth and “self- gratification, the elevation of individual desire above the good of society.”47 In addition to that, the Falkland War in 1982 and the Gulf War in 1991 served to present a rediscovered sense of national triumph. Also since the 1980s the heritage industry has been offering nostalgic narratives of a national British history. These traditionalist views were accompanied by worries about Americanisation. Like everywhere else in the world, brands like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Levi’s and Nike as well as American music, movies and TV shows had become part of Britain’s everyday life and were accompanied by fears about a loss of British national identity. At the same time, though, Britain has taken pride in the fact that English is due to this American dominance now the world’s leading lingua franca, and British politicians have continually stressed a “special relationship” with the USA.

In any case, young people in the UK these days tend to define their Britishness not through traditional images like the Queen, the gentleman or the country house any more, but rather through various forms of popular culture, like the English football team, soap operas like “Coronation Street” and “Eastenders”, or popular music.

The discourse on “race”

Despite the general separation of the term “nation” from the meaning of “race”, the discourse on national identity in Britain after the Second World War was above everything else focused on issues of “race” and “ethnicity”. The idea to connect Englishness with questions of blood and kinship seems to be rather surprising, considering that the “English race” is made up of Celtic, Roman, Scandinavian, Germanic and Norman influences. However, today’s notions of “Britishness” mainly date from the time of colonization and the British Empire. Referring to theories of othering, Stuart Hall, like many other authors, has suggested that “it was in this process of comparison between the ‘virtues’ of ‘Englishness’ and the negative feature of other colonized cultures that many of the distinctive characteristics of English identities were first defined.”48 With the influx of immigrants from former colonies like India and Pakistan or recruited cheap workforce from the West Indies, Britain had to face it’s own history. The colonial narrative is internal to Britain’s national identity, and cannot easily be cast out as an “other”:

People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself. Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity - I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea? Where does it come from? Ceylon - Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.49


1 Niethammer, p. 35ff

2 see for example Niklas Luhmann’s Systemtheorie

3 Niethammer, p. 12

4 Williams, p. 61

5 Sociologists have tried to differentiate between class, stratum, lifestyle etc, but the borderlines between these categories have always stayed blurred.

6 Williams, p. 250

7 Holert und Terkessidis, p. 8f

8 Niethammer, p. 43

9 Niethammer, p. 44

10 Lutter und Reisenleitner, p. 95

11 Baldick cited by Kramer, p. 112

12 see Kramer, p. 112f

13 Hebdige, p. 18

14 see Kramer, p. 100

15 see Hebdige, p 94

16 see Kramer, p. 93

17 see Ashcroft, p.170

18 see Ashcroft, p. 171

19 for example in the image of the „exotic“, which is also easy to commodify

20 see Ashcroft, p. 219

21 Smith, p. 143

22 Williams, p. 213

23 see Smith, p. 11

24 Hobsbawn, p. 37

25 Hobsbawn, p. 16

26 Anderson, p. 15

27 Hall 2003, p. 289

28 Hobsbawn, p. 20

29 see Hobsbawn, p. 20

30 Lutter und Reisenleitner, p. 127

31 Hall 2003, p. 295

32 ibid

33 Bhabha 1995, p. 2f

34 Hall 2003, p. 292

35 quoted by Lenz in Lange und Heuermann, p. 456

36 Hall 1997, p. 257

37 ibid, p 258

38 Bhabha 1990, p 210

39 The term „diaspora“ describes transnational networks of people who were forced to leave their homeland. The term originally referred to the Jewish experience, but has in recent decades been expanded to general migrant experiences, especially the “black diaspora”. Usually, “diasporic” identity is established in relation to some sort of sacred homeland, like Israel or Ethiopia, to which the diaspora needs to return. Stuart Hall, however, dissociates himself from this connotation of “diaspora”, he uses the term to indicate hybridity rather than essence (see Hall 1990, p. 235).

40 Hall 2003, p. 316

41 see Richards, p. 7

42 see for example Samuel, p. xii

43 Hall 2003, p. 297

44 quoted by Lunn, p.89

45 quoted by Paxman, p. 142

46 Priestly, quoted by Lunn, p. 89

47 Richards, p. 23

48 Hall 2003, p. 297

49 Hall 1991, p. 48f


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Title: British Popular Music and National Identity in the 1990s