This means that pop, once it has acquired a certain level of sophistication, seldom really changes. The audience is forever new to the game, eternally surprised, moved and delighted to find its preoccupations validated in the world outside the home. Teenagers discovering sexuality, rebellion, alienation, idealism and aspiration find them all captured and celebrated in pop. It is, says the music, okay to feel the way you do, it will always be okay. "May you stay forever young," sang Bob Dylan with his usual painfully accurate perception of the dynamics of the form in which he, a real artist, found himself.
Which brings me to the issue of the hour - who will top the charts on Sunday, Blur or Oasis? These two bands are the current biggest things in British pop. This week they simultaneously released singles. It was that, said Blur's Damon Albarn, or a punch-up. Both bands aspire to a high degree of pop authenticity, to the hardest, truest expression of the mind of the British teenager, to be utterly free of the industrialised pap of Take That or the dusty, denim-clad, middle-aged tedium of mainstream American.
The first point to make about these two bands is that they are both very good - smart, musical and literate. This is not something that can often be said about bands aspiring to top the charts.
The second point is that they are both irredeemably British. Liam Gallagher of Oasis and Damon Albarn of Blur both sing with exaggeratedly local accents - Gallagher with tired Manchester yearning and Albarn with sharp, Cockney aggression.
Both avoid the sentimental simplicities of the American mainstream. Where the Americans go for whining, introverted love songs and singalong anthems, they go for anguish and satire. Oasis are mainly into anguish - "I think I've got a feeling I'm lost inside" and "It's all too much for me to take" - while Blur prefer satire - "He's reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac".
And, finally, both are self-conscious products of a tradition. Indeed, the worst thing that can be said about them is that they are entirely unoriginal. Any radio listeners over 40 will, this week, be experiencing intense flashbacks. These chart rivals sound suspiciously like an amalgam of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Who. In the case of Blur you can add Madness, and in the case of Oasis you can add the Rolling Stones.
What this ancestry shows is that there is a peculiarly British form of pop expression - smart, world-weary, alienated, cocky - which periodically resurfaces to bury the pap and the American. Two other resurfacings were punk in the Seventies and the Smiths in the Eighties. There is also the softer strand of mannerist British eccentricity - Boy George and the like - but we are definitely not in that phase at the moment. Oasis and Blur would eat Boy George for breakfast, preferably at a motorway service station.
As must have become clear by now, I like this stuff. Pop is seldom any good. But this is definitely in the category of very good, though not great. The Americans produce most of the really bad pop, but they also produce most of the incontrovertibly great. We can disregard the posturing Bruce Springsteen. But Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, Randy Newman, the Velvet Underground (although their primary musical inspiration, John Cale, was Welsh), and, to prove I am not entirely trapped in my own youth, Nirvana, represent startling intrusions of art and even genius into the sea of trash.
The great American pop star is more inclined to go to the edge before reporting back on tape, vinyl or CD. For them, the dominant teen impulse is nihilism, and they prove it by dying well, often by choking on their own (or, as suggested in the joke pop movie This is Spinal Tap, somebody else's) vomit. There is a certain aesthetic grace and nihilistic consistency in the shotgun suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, author of the profoundly original "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The worst part of being young, even a young, rich pop star, is the constant, if anomalous, presence of the abyss.
The worst and most common aspects of the music business are transnational blandness and exploitative lies. The postwar discovery of the young as a distinct and growing market led, inevitably, to the creation of a multinational, though largely American, pop business. The dynamics of the teen audience were analysed in boardrooms and the results were Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi and Take That. This is not just bad pop, it is child-abuse. It exploits the teen impulse to believe that being young really is an absolutely distinct state of mind, shared by teenagers all over the world, and produces a crude alloy, a lowest common denominator of aspiration and anxiety. Sentiments such as war is bad, all races are the same, love is forever and parents are a slight nuisance are distilled into music as inoffensively rebellious and as falsely "authentic" as possible.
This music celebrates the teenage years as no more than an ineffective rite of passage, not as the cataclysm they usually are. Above all, what this music cannot be is too local, too earthy, too truthful to the experience of adolescence.
But Oasis and Blur are irredeemably local, earthy and truthful. They are insolently British and painfully teen. They go out of their way to subvert the big aspiration - "End of a century", sing Blur, "it's nothing special." "Baby," sing Oasis, "I don't really want to know."
Such sentiments are true because they embrace and realise rather than merely describe a certain state of mind. They are solipsistic and, when they aspire to an ideal, it is either with weariness or obvious egotism - "We're going to live forever," is the Oasis aspiration. Note that it is not "love forever".
The encouraging thing is that a generation battered by the bland can yet recognise the sharp and distinctive taste of the real thing. Most encouraging of all, they can still see themselves as having some local, British identity and respond to its expression in such witty and traditional forms. Occasionally, one's pessimism wavers.
But, I know you have been waiting for this, pop-pickers, who is it to be, Blur or Oasis? Well, I don't know about the charts but I do know that Blur are showing signs of early decay - a video made by Damien Hirst is one of a number of worrying omens. Oasis would never be so obviously arty. Blur will probably get the first South Bank Show, but Oasis are the real, or, at least, the more real thing.Reuse content