There was an all-Oasis tribute on MTV2’s Subterranean the other week, with a Noel Gallagher interview (fast forwarded through that bit), in nominal celebration of their greatest hits album Stop the Clocks. But it was a good opportunity to revisit these monsters of rock ten years on, before they started sucking.
Their video exemplar is probably Champagne Supernova, fully capturing the mid-90s artlessness that rocketed them to the top. Not only does it feature all the standard adolescent rock-worship tropes that were Oasis’s calling card: listening to mix tapes, lava lamps, psychedelic light projections, but right after the first verse, they cut inexplicably to a montage of dancing girls, with moves ripped straight out of a Soul II Soul video.
Soul II Soul
I don’t intend this to sound dismissive. What made Oasis such a phenomenonal band was exactly this lack of polish. They didn’t know how to dress, their haircuts were straight period piece re-creations, and they certainly couldn’t make a quality music video.
But this echoed the simplicity of their songs. Their lyrics bypassed storytelling entirely. Instead, they directly communicated worn rock and roll mythology, standard aspirational truisms of Hallmark-level yearnings. “Maybe I just want to fly / I want to live I don’t want to die” — standout lines from “Live Forever” — expresses exactly the same sentiment as 1998’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” a song that not only captures a blunt sentimentalism on the Jean Teasdale level but was the soundtrack for Space Jam, a Looney Tunes movie whose inspirational message to kids was that they could win their freedom from Martian overlords by playing basketball, if only Michael Jordan is there to do it for them.
Oasis’s songs are not songs in themselves as much as they are primers for songs. In the almost perfect way that they can swell emotion in the transition from verse to bridge before the release of the chorus—take “Rock ‘n Roll Star”—so they couple their music with lyrics that unapologetically reinforce music cliches, a template for youthful rock and roll posture. “It’s just rock and roll” is a refrain that is fraught with meaning. Not insightful meaning, but useless, wholesale meaning, the baggage a catchphrase picks up through overuse as it burrows into your unconscious. I know the combination of glamour and weariness that “it’s just rock and roll” conveys, just like I can identify with the yearning to fly and be immortal, just like I know deep down that “we’re going to uncover / what’s sleeping in our soul.”
Unfortunately for the long-term prospects of the band, this ability to mainline into the deep structure of rock songs was exactly the cause of their later albums’ mediocrity, because it left them no room to innovate. Rather than use chord changes or new melodies to develop their sound on later albums, they relied on gimmicks like morse code intros and helicopter noises.
Their fruitadelic, Cool Britannia visual palette wrapped Oasis’s whole project up in a pop-culture national image building campaign, a British counterpart to Kid Rock’s antics with American flagpoles and dancing girls at the 2004 Superbowl. In the footsteps of the Beatles and the Stones, they happily took on the role of cultural spokesperson. See Noel walk around with a Union Jack guitar slung over his back, during a song celebrating the values of fraternal loyalty and determination, and it is clear that Oasis are the Rudyard Kipling of the mid-nineties. “Hey, eighteen-year old. You’re going to live forever. Stay close to your family and dream big.”
God – remember when the competition of Blur v. Oasis was painted as an English class warfare on the level of our Red State/Blue State divide? At the time it felt like Oasis won the battle, but Blur won the war. And just like Damon Albarn in his eclectic post-millennial projects transformed himself into a sort of musical-entrepreneurial Al Gore, so too does it sound just this side of plausible that George W. Bush and the Gallagher brothers might have snorted coke together back in the nineties, sometime between the first Texas governorship and the release of Be Here Now.