Lads of hope and glory

August 16, 1996

What is it about Oasis that gets to people? Angela McRobbie argues that the group champions the dispossessed male.

When a fortysomething academic like myself dreams she is going out with Noel Gallagher, when children can be persuaded to do their piano practice because their parents have bought them music sheets of Oasis hits, and when six-year-olds across the country can deafen their elders with the chorus of Wonderwall, there is surely something going on in the national psyche, some frisson of collective pleasure shuddering its way through the people which merits more than the label of politically incorrect laddism.

The working-class image so strenuously projected by Liam and Noel stands as a counterpoint to the cleverly knowing, ironic and indeed poetic poses of their contemporary frontmen Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and Damon Alburn of Blur. But this comparison leaves Oasis occupying the camp of the crudely realist rockers. It does the Gallagher brothers an injustice to assume that they are not involved in a process of self-reflexivity. Images of working-class life are typically not permitted the kind of complexity granted to cultural forms which display all the signs of inter-textuality. We are back in the black and white of authenticity, naivete and grainy realism. Where Blur "quotes" the history of British pop, Oasis merely "steals" from Gary Glitter, the Beatles or Slade.

Apart from the fact that the group is just as studied in its self-projection as any of its competitors, what Oasis does is to explore socially subordinated and disadvantaged masculinities. If music has long been an "oasis" for male self-expression, recently it has become a refuge. Nor is it just about sex. What music now offers men is a valuable space for expertise and skill.

Men, dispossessed of the kind of jobs they would once have done (the Oasis bassist used to be a plasterer), now jealously guard music as about the only field still relatively free from the encroachment of female competition.

And unlike other spheres of employment, music offers the richest opportunities for making profit from new technologies. But the control desks, the laser shows and the clubs remain gender-segregated labour markets. There are big-name female DJs just as there are well-known female rappers, but logically there should be many more. And behind the scenes in the studios, in the record companies and in music management, women remain few and far between. Music is one of the key sites for male dominance and control from production to performance, from sound checks to decks, levels and amps.

Music has become re-defined as a possible space for work and employment and this is evident not just in the number of boys signing up for the courses in studio engineering but also more generally in the re-discovery of craft. Not long ago a music magazine ran an interview with a well-known US rapper who described how he had joined a night class in electronics "to learn the tools of my trade".

Music now is heavy industry. Now, on both sides of the Atlantic, music and its related activities provides the nearest thing to a straight job many of these boys will ever get.

It is also wrong to interpret Noel Gallagher's comments about his talent as belligerent egotism. He is simply proud to have found something that he is extremely good at.

There are parallels between the Gallagher brothers' previous dabbling in petty crime and the extent to which the rewards of careers in crime have often been used to launch music careers in hip hop. In this context the nervous energy with which these boys find new skills in music is testimony to a refusal to capitulate to the remorseless logic of economic forces.

Paul Gilroy has argued that black music has always been about transcendence, but the music of Oasis is also shot through with this same sense of pride and uplift. The years of sitting about the house listening to Gary Glitter's silly chants ("Hello, Hello, Good To Be Back") can be transformed into something of lasting value.

Angela McRobbie teaches sociology at Loughborough University.

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