1996: the year that went pop

Paula and Michael and Liam and Patsy. 'It' girls and Spice Girls and Royals gone batsy. Rachels and stalkers and Trainspotting; these were a few of our favourite things. By Oliver Bennett

as 1996 really 1966 turned upside down, as some wag suggested? There appeared to be a certain symmetry: Euro 96 was like the 1966 World Cup, except it was only European, and the trophy didn't come home; Oasis were sort of Beatles-ish, but without the charm or output, and their US tour triumph was hampered by its lead singer bunking off to househunt in St John's Wood.

But under the grandiloquent claims lay the germ of a genuine upswing, which recalled the "I'm Backing Britain" mid-Sixties. In the autumn, Newsweek's cover story about the re-swinging of London caused much excitement, mainly because we couldn't have imagined it back in the doldrums of the early Nineties. Hey, we were flattered even if we had a typically humdrum Olympics.

Meanwhile, on the high street, a tooth-rattling acidity reigned. We were told that brown was the new black, but lime green may as well have been the new white. And combat trousers were the new jeans, with some clubs looking like the siege of Sarajevo. Tommy Hilfiger's dull, heavily branded clothes were launched here, with marketing kudos by association with black America.

The Friends cult was manifested in the popular Rachel haircut, and the belly button remained the summer's erogenous zone of choice. Meanwhile, transgressive sartorial acts such as cross-dressing, multiple tattoos and piercing lost their taboo power. What next - amputation?

Apart from the gun massacres that bedevilled 1996, there were lesser zeitgeist- crimes that hit the country's panic button. First, girl gangs hit the streets: perhaps girls were the new boys. Stalking also became prominent, and a few high-profile cases led to proposed changes in the law. Some stalkees were celebrities: Madonna was stalked by a Mr Robert Hoskins, prompting the inevitable gag "It's good to stalk"; Princess Di injuncted a German man called Klaus Wagner and an over-zealous photographer called Martin Stenning, who brought the paparazzi into disrepute with his aggressive way of taking pictures Cossack-style from his motorbike.

In the main, the snappers of the rich and famous had a marvellous time, for 1996 was year of the Micro Celebrity. Tara, Tamara, Tania and the gang grogged their way around the circuit and finally the public asked: 'What is it they actually do?" Well, micro-celebrity turned out to be an occupation in itself; one leading to lucrative sponsorship, PR and journalism contracts. We might scoff but, for the time being, the joke is on those who support new publications such as OK! and Here! which chronicle their every sneeze.

Others found fame to be a poisoned chalice, and the trial-by-tabloid of rock couples Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence, and Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit, had its ugly side. And a spooky aspect of the celebrity cult came with the feeding frenzy for anything that had been touched by the late Jackie Onassis, in a New York auction back in summer. After 1996, who'd want to be famous? Mrs Michael Jackson and Madonna's insta-celeb kid Lourdes may be having doubts, insofar as either of them can think.

More young people than ever headed off on hippy long-haul hols, mainly to India and the Far East, only slightly deterred by tragedies such as the murder of British woman Jo Masheder by a Buddhist monk early in the year. Goa and Thailand's Ko Samui island remained pre-eminent raver's destinations, but there are signs that thrill-seekers are looking elsewhere. Jennifer Cox of Lonely Planet tips the island of Boracay off the Philippines for 1997 , which she says is "full of beautiful people, bitter Far Eastern correspondents and international drug runners: completely wild and sophisticated."

As 1996 was the year that made sport interesting once more, there has been rekindled interest in sporty travel. Cox says that the pinnacle of cool is snowboarding in the Nepal Himalaya. But alternative pranksters who couldn't afford to travel stayed in Britain, stopped roads and clogged up the Government's new shop-your-neighbour benefit hotline.

The gender war turned its attention from female victimhood to male identity crises, and by most accounts the male sperm-count dropped to little more than etiolated dribble. Oestrogen fall-out was blamed, but it may well have been exacerbated by The Girlie Show.

Diana and Fergie both got divorced, and went extremely public. Diana in the operating theatre; Fergie in a myriad of American talk shows "You sure cut a chick some slack," she cackled to David Letterman, in one of the year's oddest verbal constructions. But along with various addict footballers, the ex-HRHs bought in the public confessional, displaying a dash with the language of therapy. Relationship psychologist Dr Susan Quilliam calls it "clienting to the public. It is as if they think that abasing themselves will enable the public to forgive them, so that they can get on with becoming a whole person." But the most distasteful spectacle was the faked video of Di and James Hewitt, which in all its vaguely titillating glory fooled the Sun.

This was the year when cocaine went epidemic. Scarcely a cistern in clubland's cubicles remained undusted; indeed, one enterprising pub landlord in Essex (the county emerged this year as a gangster-rich clearing house for Class A drugs) took the deterrent precaution of sprinkling pepper on his toilet's flat surfaces. By autumn Liam Gallagher had been busted for cocaine, indicating that the honeymoon was over.

More highly-publicised deaths from ecstasy use did not seem to deter most of its huge user-base, though there was a slight loss of confidence by the end of the year as medical evidence emerged of long-term psychiatric difficulties. But the most nihilistic trend was for heroin, still the primero take-no-prisoners drug, boosted by new sources in southern Africa, but hopefully not by Trainspotting.

The standards of food kept on rising, and last year's boom in big West End restaurants occasioned a trickle-down effect to local neighbourhoods. "The era of the mega-restaurant is dead," claims Stuart Hopson Jones of Polygon restaurant to the people. "It is now about taking the high-quality restaurant to the people." Modish culinary regions included the Middle East and the Maghreb, and rotisseries and grills were much in favour. But a survey by the University of Lancaster in late 1996 showed that most Brits still viewed foreign cuisine as so much caca.

Those who had not yet renounced booze bought an ever-widening range of premium drinks, with good old champagne - that recessionary index - showing an upturn. Alas, the alcopop phenomenon flourished, and offies everywhere offered a gruesome rainbow village of sickly-looking beverages. The message from the desperate breweries seemed to be: how can we fling this stuff at our pop kids?

Which is to paraphrase what the Daily Mirror said about the Sex Pistols some 20 years ago. This year, back they came as a leathery cabaret turn, reformed but unreconstructed, playing the same set as in 1977. Opinion was divided as to whether it was sell-out or triumphant return, but as it was clearly a cynical cash-cow, and the concerts fun, why not?

Far more important to those under 25 and female was the fact that Take That split. Fans were distraught, Boyzone smartly stepped in to plug the lust vacuum. Ex-Take Thats filtered into the public domain to varying degrees of success, with the smart money currently on outsider Mark Owen.

The obsession with all things Spice has infected the latter part of the year. The girls' inspirational message of fitness, friendship and "girl power" took pop feminism to its conclusion, especially after reports that certain members had racey pasts involving "glamour" modelling and drug-munching. More shocking was the revelation that the band showed a 3:2 Tory majority and an uncompromising Euroscepticism. Geri is expected to show staying power if and when the Spice Girls wane; but then, that's what they said about Gary Barlow.

What of pop and politics: should they mix? The Rock the Vote campaign thought so, and an aristocracy of music-biz types stuck up for Bad Hair Blair; notable among them Noel Gallagher and Creation Records' boss Alan McGee. Alas, no one seems to have asked Tony's varsity band Ugly Rumour to reform, Sex Pistols-style, to give us a blast of New Labour agit-rock: "I am a stakeholder ..."

Blair did visit the set of Coronation Street to show us that he understood those ordinary folk who don't live in Islington. But winner of the most ill-judged youth-vote attempt was John "Vulcan" Redwood, who attempted to redress the ignominy of his failed leadership bid by declaring a taste for "Britpop" in the press. So where were his Puma sneakers then?

Dance music throbbed on, with this year's main event being the genre- bending jungle/ drum'n' bass whiplash. As an underground phenomenon many had encountered it only via badly-tuned radios or passing BMWs, yet somehow it mutated overground in the hands of Everything But The Girl (comeback kids of the year, along with Suede) and as advertising- jingle material.

There was Oasis at Knebworth and Loch Lomond, silly-season triumphs that even got the buffers at the Daily Telegraph all worked up. But the pop event of the year was in spring, when Jarvis Cocker took the Michael out of Jacko at the Brit Awards. By the end of the year, fearing perhaps that his sainthood might turn sour, Cocker cleverly resisted interviews on the basis that he had "couldn't think of anything else to say". Quieter successes were had by the Fugees and Alanis Morrisette.

Filmwise, we bounced through the year on bosoms and bonnets, such was the taste for period-pieces. Among them were Pride and Prejudice, two Emma's and a Sense and Sensibility; the latter won Emma Thompson an Oscar. British film gained ground, with Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes. But the year's sensation, thrilling arthouse and multiplex alike, was Trainspotting, though one is sick of its frieze- like poster with its assorted parodies. And while many of us would like to see Crash, we are apparently not to be trusted with it.

Over in the lifestyle, we learnt that if you wanted to get ahead, forget a house in the burbs: get a beech-floorboarded inner-city tennis court with a post-industrial ceiling. Shove a few lime-green scatter cushions around a few pieces of Sixties furniture and lo, a fashionable loft. But first you had to find a warehouse that hadn't been discovered by developers: a difficult task indeed.

Oh yes, they finally found life on Mars, but as the 50-year-old sage David Bowie once noted, it was a godawful small affair.

Lifestyle on Mars: now there'd be a story.

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