As We Remember 1995: The British Are Coming/Women of the World Take Over

Justin Spicer / October 9, 2012

 

Photo Courtesy of Epic Records

Two separate musical phenomena came to a head during 1995, both with lasting reverberations that have helped shape modern Western music by empowering two (often overlapping) subsets: British music and women in music.

The initial British Invasion is the stuff of parental (grandparents’?) legends. Girls screaming over The Beatles, bikers beating up hippies as soundtracked by the Rolling Stones, and Brits giving Jimi Hendrix a home and a launching pad. America may pride itself on its ingenuity and creativity but a land of early adopters we are not.

The same is true for women’s role in rock music. In a similar fashion to British bands and music in its first mainstream impact on American shores, the musical successes of women were largely in two distinct styles: folk and pop. As the 70s and 80s rolled on, women found themselves dabbling in many genres but were often sexualized and fetishized for mainstream appeal. Few cared that Joan Jett and Lita Ford were talented musicians; they cared about the image (Jett with her take-no-prisoners renegade; Ford as a video tramp in ripped up clothes and pushed up breasts). It took years for Madonna to be considered a performance artist and even she succumbed to her own proclivities, faltering now to nothing more than a stunt artist. There were pioneers for women (and men) to look up to; those who broke the mold. But the world of rock music was still (and still is in many regards) misogynistic, looking to archetypes rather than vanguards.

1995 offered immediate impact for British and female artists. It was the year Oasis cemented themselves as a global commodity, it was a time when Natalie Merchant reached critical and commercial heights after more than a decade as the voice of 10,000 Maniacs.

But, let’s begin with Elastica due to their position in this thesis. Elastica were from Britain. They were women (well, everyone except for drummer Dave Bush). They rode a wave of acclaim that began in 1993 when “Stutter” was released as a single, hitting #10 on the U.S. Modern Rock charts. In the build-up to the band’s 1995 self-titled debut, two more singles (U.K. only “Line Up” and the first single from the band’s self-titled album, “Connection”) landed the foursome in the limelight.

 


(Elastica – “Connection”)
 

“Connection” hit as high as #2 on the U.S. Modern Rock charts and helped earn Elastica a Gold record in the U.S. as well as in their native Britain. The original video also proved risque for many audiences (the above is the second version), as Elastica poked fun at roll reversal–men as mannequin models with nothing to offer but good looking scenery with Justine Frischmann sneering it up for the camera. Elastica reached #66 on the Billboard Hot 200, a fine feat for a band cranking through sub-three minute songs concerning ennui. The bigger achievement is it proved the U.S. market could be a hot ticket.

The next British band to walk through the door was upstart Supergrass. Though chart success didn’t come for the band’s debut album, I Should Coco, or its catchy lead single, “Alright,” it was an album of repurposed Mod culture that spoke to a loyal following which grew through the band’s career. I Should Coco is now just admired for “Caught by the Fuzz” and its heavy riff or drifting sing-a-long “Time.”

 


(Supergrass – “Alright”)
 

It wouldn’t be until Fall when the oft-called Second British Invasion stormed U.S. shores. In the span of 8 weeks in September and October, Blur (The Great Escape), Spacehog (Resident Alien), Pulp (Different Class) and Oasis ((What’s the Story) Morning Glory) released critical smashes upon a nation hungry for the U.K. adaptation of alternative rock. What they received were equally varied versions of the distortion and cynicism so well banked in the preceding five years.

Turns out Americans were hungry for the old British Invasion. The throwback paraphernalia of Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” topped Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks and the influence won by the Gallagher Brothers wonton admiration of The Beatles were championed across radio, MTV and critical pages.

 


(Spacehog – “In the Meantime”)

(Oasis – “Wonderwall”)
 

As years have rolled on, the impact of Oasis and Spacehog has receded in favor of their British contemporaries, Blur and Pulp. The Great Escape honed in on the rock/pop synergy that had made Blur a British staple. Different Class is widely considered Pulp’s strongest album, anchored by the infamous “Common People” (famously adapted by William Shatner with the help of Ben Folds). Despite Oasis’ ascension to the top of charts worldwide, the band’s luster has since faded as tastes have evolved and longevity has entered into the equation.

Elastica’s success may have been just as important to the status of women as it was to British rock. Seasoned vet Tanya Donelly found success as the masthead of Belly with 1993’s Star after years in rock purgatory as a member of Throwing Muses and The Breeders (appearing on the side project’s debut, Pod, before eventually leaving the group before the band’s pop culture splash). The follow-up to Star was highly touted but 1995’s King became a footnote and sent Donelly back to second fiddle status. Only with the power of retrospect are we now able to appreciate King and its focus beyond the narrow grunge scope bands that were happy to pigeonhole themselves within to earn a chance at the brass ring.

 


(Belly – “Now They’ll Sleep”)
 

Likewise, gal-in-arms Juliana Hatfield was beginning to experience a bit of magic on her own thanks to Only Everything. The ex-Blake Babies member was producing confessional music disguised as female angst. It was a mindful balance of riotgrrl feminism and girl-next-door tomfoolery that most were oblivious to, but it provided a blueprint blazing a new frontier.

Women were getting their say in male-dominated projects as well. As the video vixen of Garbage, Shirley Manson was afforded the opportunity to not only vamp it up on-screen but in song. Under Butch Vig’s guidance, Garbage’s self-titled debut took the best of Vig’s grunge experience and pushed it into a parallel future. Paired with Manson, the duo added a touch of dirty glitz to alternative music, unafraid to incorporate dancing rhythms and deconstructed melodies. Manson’s sexuality was underscored both in her outfits and in her choice of lyrics. She cast a dominating figure fearless of repercussion; Vig’s distorted onslaught and heavy-handed drumming only adding to the tension. It wasn’t long before Manson wrestled control of Garbage away from Vig, who was happy to give up image control (ironically foreshadowed in the video for “Queer”).

 


(Garbage – “Queer”)
 

Riotgrrl was still a niche genre for most, but women who gravitated toward it found an ally and voice in Kathleen Hanna. Through bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna provided an outlet for feminist thought and action. Yet her infamous phone message on Mike Watt’s roided Ball-Hog or Tugboat was a singular moment. Tacked onto “Heartbeat,” Hanna vents her frustration at the testosterone fueled alternative scene, takes a shot at a “big rock star” stepping out of bounds, and politely asks “Mr. Watt…dude, babe, sir” to return her soundtrack to Annie.

 


(Kathleen Hanna’s answering machine message at the end of Mike Watt’s “Heartbeat”) [NSFW w/out headphones]
 

The lynchpin came in the inauspicious third album from former Canadian television personality, Alanis Morissette. Jagged Little Pill was launched into public discourse via the stinging and brutally honest “You Outta Know.”

The lead single from Jagged Little Pill had its share of detractors but they couldn’t slow down the momentum of Morissette’s bulldozing style. Though much of Jagged Little Pill refrained from the same scolding as “You Outta Know,” Morissette’s more tender moments struck a chord with young men and women at a crossroads in how women were portrayed in popular culture. The album played more as a cast-off to Morissette’s old persona as an aging child actress/flailing pop star.

 


(Alanis Morissette – “You Outta Know”)
 

Including “You Outta Know,” Jagged Little Pill produced three more singles (“Ironic,” “Hand in My Pocket,” and “Hand Over Feet”) each a bit more beguiling and less vitriolic than her trademark punch to the trachea. The album sold more than 16 million copies. Morissette was a summer phenomenon and continues to bewilder even as the spotlight has dimmed.

Photo courtesy of Interscope Records Archive

Benefitting from a mainstream a bit more eager to embrace independent and complex women, No Doubt crept into the consumer conscious slowly before exploding as the “it” band. Tragic Kingdom (their third album) began quietly with the cutesy girl power anthem “Just a Girl.” Whether a riff on harder acts such as L7 and Bikini Kill who put feminine values (some tongue-in-cheek, others brash and bold) or a softer testament to women who identified with feminist ideals but also embraced femininity in male terms, “Just a Girl” unraveled with little momentum despite the athletic good looks of Gwen Stefani and a band that rarely got its due in terms of earnest musicianship. There was always a duality to Stefani that continues to have mass appeal.

But Tragic Kingdom (which went on to sell more than 10 million copies in America alone) began to find its footing thanks to a string of singles each showcasing a different personality quirk of Stefani (and a different wardrobe choice). The band was even so bold as to challenge the division of success in the video to torch song “Don’t Speak,” a song written about Stefani and band member Tony Kanal’s break-up that spoke just as much to the station of the band amidst its newfound fame.

 


(No Doubt – “Don’t’ Speak”)
 

The final part of the equation came from Jewel, whose pop-folk brand and strange yodel were both exceedingly cloy and pixie cute. Pieces of You sold millions of copies for a woman who toured the coast living out of her van and despite criticism concerning her appearance, it was that same facade that attracted a fan base just as reliant on pre-pubescent boys as it was on quaint but secretly beautiful women.

The introduction of stronger female voices or nostalgic British melodies has had a definite impact on modern music. Britain is looked to as a constant source for new music of all sorts, and women have become dominating forces on pop charts and inspirational figures in all genres of music. This wasn’t a movement contained to 1995 but the commercial successes of both female and British-based musicians during the year has maintained.

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