Magazine article The Spectator

Let Them Be

Magazine article The Spectator

Let Them Be

Article excerpt

So farewell, then, Cool Britannia. Though you have left us, no one is quite sure what you actually were, other than a peg on which to hang articles like this one. All we know for certain is that, around nine months ago, someone decided that Britannia was Cool. Overnight the country was transformed. Flags and bunting bedecked all public buildings, pensioners patted small children on the head and William Hague was elected leader of the Conservative party. Then, a few weeks ago, someone else decided that Britannia was no longer Cool. Plane-loads of American tourists turned round and went home, sales of warm beer quadrupled and John Major was invited to campaign on behalf of the Northern Ireland peace deal. Meanwhile, rumour has it that Reykjavik is soon to be declared Cool - or, at the very least, A Bit Parky.

Have we just lived through history? Will we remember these precious few months with tears of joy and sadness? Current opinion says no, although if England win the World Cup national Coolness levels may rise again sooner than we all think. And yet, in its brief existence, nothing characterised Cool Britannia more forcefully than the means of its end. For the decision to kill it off was taken not by the electorate, nor by the tabloids, nor even by Mr Mandelson, but by a handful of sulky pop stars pooh-poohing the whole idea in the parish magazine, NME. Britannia wasn't Cool, they decreed, and Blair wasn't much cop either. Astonishingly, all newspapers deferred to their judgment. Columnists clambered over each other to put the boot in, and within days Cool Britannia had collapsed in ruins, much as the Millennium Dome will in about four years time.

I think everyone assumed that if anyone knows about coolness it's a pop star. These are people who have dedicated decades of their lives to being cool, and often their central nervous systems as well. They are experts. So if they decide that Britannia isn't Cool after all, who are the rest of us to argue? Suddenly, I suspect, we all felt terribly uncool for even entertaining the notion that Cool Britannia had been cool. No one wants to be uncool. Labelling Cool Britannia uncool was, in this context, the only cool thing to do.

And yet it does seem strange that we should delegate this decision to a load of pop musicians. If there has been a single unifying thread in pop history, it is that no one (other than their fans) has ever paid the blindest bit of attention to anything pop musicians have said. True, the establishment has sucked up to them at every opportunity: Harold Wilson's witless fawning over the Beatles now seems almost prescient. But ask their opinions? Don't be daft. Either they haven't got any - picture in your mind the flabby jaw and drooling lips of Liam Gallagher every time he encounters a word of more than one syllable - or their opinions are warped by the weird and unnatural existence they all share. Being divorced from reality is not just a symptom of pop stardom, it's a prerequisite.

Take George Michael. It is possible, though hard to imagine, that some people in the world were genuinely surprised to hear that George Michael was gay. Vast numbers of people knew it for fact: countless millions more had heard scabrous rumours; and everybody else had just assumed it anyway. For at least two years in the mid-1980s he was a Princess Diana lookalike. In 1987 he had a world-wide hit with 'I Want Your Sex', as half heartedly a heterosexual song as ever rode the airwaves. …

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