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Miki Berenyi: ‘The claim that Britpop celebrated sassy women in bands was a veneer’ – The Guardian

In this extract from the former Lush singer’s memoir, she recalls how Britpop sanded the edges off a thriving UK music scene and enshrined a culture of nasty, relentless sexualisation
Read an interview with Miki Berenyi
There are entitled arseholes everywhere. At a Headcoats gig, Graham Coxon and his new squeeze Jo, from riot grrrl band Huggy Bear confront me, petulantly demanding: “Why are YOU here?” Never mind that I’ve known the band’s singer, Billy Childish, for over a decade and if anyone’s the fucking interloper, it’s them. Their attitude is everywhere, erasing any history before their patronage, claiming bands, venues, entire genres of music have only existed in any “happening” sense since the Britpop royalty “discovered” them. And there’s a cruel schadenfreude in the air, as bands failing to achieve the required Top 5 hit are dumped from their major-label deals and mocked for their failure.
Bands have always been competitive and often bitchy, but it’s now de rigueur to trample everyone else into the dust to ensure your own supremacy. Everyone is picking sides in the Blur v Oasis battle for No 1, ignoring the fact that both Country House and Roll With It are the two worst songs either band has produced. The music is irrelevant, it’s the conflict that everyone is enjoying. I get that in past times, there was a snobbery about “selling out” and commercial success was treated with suspicion. But that was mostly the preserve of irritating contrarians. Now, the only barometer for taste is success and a record only has value if half a million other people like it, too.
I’m bitter, of course, because none of this works in Lush’s favour. Our chart positions are viewed as feeble by bands hyped to the rafters with major-label money. I feel like I’m surrounded by trust-fund millionaires: “My dear, you’re just not trying hard enough.”
The drugs don’t help, either. We play Féile festival, in Ireland, where our drummer Chris Acland is overjoyed to be meeting up with a band he’s close mates with. Their guitarist merely barks at him: “Have you got any drugs?” and when he offers her some coke, she sneers: “No, I mean REAL drugs.” Backstage, Terence Trent D’Arby is in the trailer opposite and his assistant pops into our Portakabin with the news that Mr D’Arby is requesting my presence. He’s literally sitting not 10 yards away. I tell her that if he wants to speak to me, he can get off his arse and come over himself.
Back in the pre-shoegaze days, Melody Maker had labelled Lush part of the Scene That Celebrates Itself (STCI), because rather than clawing each other’s eyes out, the bands – Moose, Chapterhouse, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, Silverfish and others – played in each other’s line-ups, enjoyed each other’s gigs, lent gear, offered supports, hung out as friends and seemed part of a community. This new environment is completely baffling to me: where friends you haven’t seen in months act like you’re a random stranger to ponce drugs from and musicians treat other musicians like handmaid groupies; where someone whose only claim to fame is designing a T-shirt swans around oozing celebrity entitlement and every no-mark hanger-on acts like they’re Johnny Fucking Rotten. I mean WHAT THE FUCK is going on? I’ve been subsumed in music since my teens and found my tribe, my family. Now it’s been hijacked by elitist dickheads.
Lovelife comes out in March and we do the rounds: Davina McCall interviews us for some show I can’t even remember the name of; Julian Clary does his catty act on his latest BBC vehicle, taking the piss out of my un-dyed roots. My fellow singer Emma Anderson and I chat with Zig and Zag on The Big Breakfast and are friendly and girly with presenter Katie Puckrik on Pyjama Party, where two drag queens plaster us with a homemade face pack. It’s all dumb fun and it’s great to finally be getting some TV attention. I just hope that all this nonsense pays off.
The album charts at No 8. We’re happy to have bounced back after Split, but in this climate, anything outside the Top 3 is considered a bit meh. The press coverage is mixed – some dismiss us as desperate has-beens trying to hitch our wagon to Britpop and even the positive takes are all backhanded compliments trumpeting that we’ve finally released something worth listening to. Everything we did before this moment is garbage; any previous failure to reach the Top 10 recast as “the wilderness years”. Whatever. The press are championing so much utter drivel right now that their opinion has become largely irrelevant. We play along, for the sake of the coverage.
I’m going to be 30 next year and though half these bands are as old as I am, they make me feel past it. Chris uses the term “mutton dressed as mod” to refer to the entire youth-obsessed trend of passing off bands knocking 30 as teenagers. He is seeing a 21-year-old. She seems terribly young but my sex life is a car crash so I’m hardly in a position to criticise his, and they seem to be a good match. In any case, I first met the girl as a teenager sporting a T-shirt bearing the legend “Fucked by Fabulous” so I assume she’s no vulnerable flower. Fabulous were a contrived cash-in band consisting of NME staff and masterminded by James Brown. The groupie merch was just one element of their bad-boy image and hyped-up exploits that their media friends splashed over the press. For James, it paved a path to Loaded, a men’s magazine positioned directly in opposition to political correctness that is now fanning the flames of lad culture.
I can’t take it seriously and I realise I’m not meant to, but I mean: not in the way I’m not meant to. The under-clad girls, the praising of machismo – it’s all meant to be fun. Yet the joke for me is that the James I knew back in the fanzine days was a skinny-arsed brat and lauding him as the Hugh Hefner of Britpop seems ludicrous. I wouldn’t mind if these boys just wanted their fun and admitted they didn’t have a clue, but it strikes me that the women are being reduced and boxed in, made lesser, to make the boys look more. “Fucked by Fabulous” – not even “I fucked Fabulous”.
James does in fact offer Lush the chance to plug Lovelife in Loaded, but only if Emma and I strip down to bikinis. It takes me a moment to realise he’s serious. And why shouldn’t he be? Plenty of others have no issue with baring the flesh, so why shouldn’t he assume that I’m up for it, too?
Emma and I do a photo shoot for Dazed and Confused and are presented with a rack of clothes selected by a stylist. The photographer picks me out a black top and a leather mini. It’s only when I put them on that it becomes apparent that the skirt is the width of a football scarf and barely covers my arse. As we walk through the magazine’s busy offices, I tie my jumper around my waist to cover my rear and make sure I walk bolt upright, lest the skirt ride up any further.
This kind of sexist bullshit is becoming commonplace and reframed as “edgy”. I’m recommended a hot new photographer who is hailed as a visionary genius for shooting underage models in white underwear having a pillow fight on a bed. The snapper’s brilliant creative idea is to have Emma and me pose in a toilet cubicle. We position ourselves in our usual stance, but now he’s telling me to stick one leg against the door or push my hip out and stretch an arm up the wall. Any shift in my posture has the microskirt riding up, so I cautiously comply only as far as dignity will allow. When he indicates that he wants me to bend over the toilet, legs splayed and look back at him over my shoulder, I realise that this whole set-up is an elaborate ploy. The magazine isn’t interested in Lush, they just want some wank fodder for their readers. I firmly tell him no and we finish the shoot. The piece ends up relegated to an eighth of a page with about 40 words of text.
At one of the Soho House soirees, while I order drinks, a drunk comedian slurs at me to either suck his cock or fuck off. As I stand chatting to friends, Alex from Blur is sprawled on the floor making “phwoarr” noises and sinks his teeth into my arse. The Carry-On Sid James impersonations are a common theme. I fall into conversation with Keith Allen and try to ignore him sweeping his eyes around my body, twitching with overheating gestures and tugging at his collar to show he’s letting off steam. Another comedian sharing a cab ride suggests he come in for a bunk-up, despite having spent the entire night excitedly chatting about his imminent fatherhood. Liam Gallagher shuffles around me, wondering aloud when I’ll be ready to fuck him in the toilets.
This isn’t flirting, it’s constant, relentless sexualisation. And there’s a nasty edge to it, implying that it’s me, not them, who is asking for it.
I recall Suzanne Vega once pointing out that Madonna may be breaking boundaries, but every teenage girl who dresses like her is still treated like a slut. I’m experiencing a similar uncomfortable side effect with the supposed androgyny of Britpop. While Justine from Elastica and Sonia from Echobelly and Louise from Sleeper, wearing suits or jeans and T-shirts, get treated as one of the boys, my long hair and short dresses are now a signal that I’m gagging for it. I’ve been doing what I do for years and now I’m being reframed as happy to be objectified.
I’ve been reading feminist texts since college, however unfashionable that might be right now – and to be fair, Chris always found it a bit tiresome. My education, both at North London Poly and from the politicised bands I’ve followed, has taught me to see through the “harmless fun” to the misogyny that drives it. I’m not militant about it. I don’t crucify people for crossing a line, I just recognise there is one. And I need to know someone well enough to accept that they’re “just joking”; I’m not going to swallow it as an excuse from a bloke I’ve just met.
I tag along to the NME Brats awards and the only women to take the stage all night are some semi-clad dancing girls and Candida Doyle, keyboard player in Pulp. Of the 17 categories, with 10 entries each, there are just seven women included and four of those are in the solo artist category: Madonna, Björk, PJ Harvey and Alanis Morissette (Paul Weller wins). The claim that Britpop celebrates sassy women in bands is a veneer. I saw it before with riot grrrl, where (in the UK, at least) the press consisted mainly of pitting women against each other. It spawned a host of “women in rock” debates that to my shame, I got dragged into, badmouthing Kylie Minogue when it was the men comparing every other female musician disparagingly to her sexy pop-poppet image that I should have attacked. I’m not going to be fooled again.
The female-led Britpop bands sold a fraction of what the successful bloke bands did. Sure, the girls got a fair bit of attention, but it’s the blokes who ruled the roost. I’m now a “ladette”, trying to fit in with and be fancied by the boys. My drinking pints and swearing and interest in football are no longer things I do purely for my own enjoyment, they’ve been fetishised as attributes for ideal girlfriend material. I’m supposed to be flattered that my normal behaviour is now framed as a male fantasy, as if that’s the peak of any woman’s dreams and achievement.
I told a fair few people to fuck off during that time, which only made them laugh all the more. (“Ooh! Feisty!”) And though most of the men were nothing like as bad as this, few objected to the behaviour. There wasn’t much solidarity between the women, either. Feminism was just an empty “girl power” slogan that seemed to be more about celebrating your girly BFFs and being “allowed” to get your tits out than treating women as equals. So: sorry for being a party pooper, I know a ton of you had a blast, but I fucking hate Britpop and I’m glad the whole sorry shit-fest ended up imploding. I just wish it hadn’t done so much damage while it lasted.
Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success by Miki Berenyi is published on 29 September by Nine Eight Books. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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