I remember standing at one of the high tables in my high school’s café, writing an essay with my headphones on. One of my friends came over and asked me what I was listening to. “Oasis,” I said. She screwed up her face a bit, and then laughed. “Isn’t that a bit childish, Noah?” She asked.
I’ve often found that sort of sentiment among members of my generation — my peers find Oasis loud, irritating, one-dimensional and overly masculine. And, of course, their music is fit only for 14-year-olds. This is all sorely mistaken. Yes, the preceding complaints are valid criticisms, all of them, but they miss the point. Oasis’s music can best be thought of as a social statement against all the trends — political and social and musical— of the 1980s and early 1990s. Twenty years after Oasis released its first two albums, “Definitely Maybe” and “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” the time has come to reevaluate those efforts. It seems increasingly evident that those two albums stand as monumental achievements of modern rock.
As obnoxious as they have become, the Gallagher brothers made some fine music in the mid-1990s. The songs on “Definitely Maybe” and “Morning Glory” offer a fascinating array of sonic diversity, with multilayered orchestral works coming alongside tracks full of brash guitars and defiant vocals. Go into a silent room and play “Don’t Look Back In Anger” at a volume slightly higher than comfortable; surround yourself with the music so that you can discern the finest details of its intricate composition. Concentrate on the instrumentation as much as on Noel Gallagher’s magnificent, sweeping chorus. The song is richly textured, with layers of sound coming together into a strikingly unified whole, so that no individual part stands out too peculiarly. As you listen more closely, that texture becomes ever more apparent. The same all applies for “Champagne Supernova,” as good an album closer as any, despite the inane lyrics.
And although it appeared early on their first album, “Definitely Maybe,” Oasis’s greatest musical achievement remains “Live Forever.” Every part of the song is simply brilliant: Liam Gallagher’s relentless twisting of every line-ending vowel into a driving drone; Noel Gallagher’s subtle, shifting guitar, working its magic behind his brother’s moan; the sheer triumphant arrogance that overruns the whole thing. It’s brilliant, and the Gallaghers know it, and they’re determined to make sure you know it too. Their plan works beautifully, and the song rests unequaled in their pantheon.
But music in itself was never the end-all for Oasis, an observation that becomes more evident as time passes. “Definitely Maybe” was released in 1994, only a few months after Kurt Cobain’s death. If the end of Nirvana signaled the end of an era — the thankfully short-lived grunge period — then “Definitely Maybe” heralded the birth of a new one, in conjunction with Green Day’s “Dookie.” Grunge was dark, plodding, the musical equivalent of an English winter; Oasis consciously strove to be the opposite. Their message was one of recalcitrant optimism and their songs four-minute bits of unbridled positivity. Green Day was its American counterpart, and together, the two bands ushered in an era of accessible rock music. Green Day brought us Blink-182; Oasis brought us the Arctic Monkeys.
There is another consideration here, one that I have as yet neglected to mention: Thatcher. The specter of Margaret Thatcher hangs heavy over the British consciousness. She destroyed the unions; she privatized the railroads; she made modern Britain, whether you like it or not. So the Iron Lady necessarily exerts an indirect but immense influence on Oasis’ first two albums. A bit of geographic knowledge is required here. Thatcher’s neoliberal reforms aided London and the Home Counties at the expense of the North. It is because of her that London is now Britain’s great economic aberration, its finance-based economy operating under a different model from the rest of the country. But the Gallagher brothers are from the North, from Manchester. And but three years after Thatcher’s premiership, as her successor John Major cemented her reforms, Oasis proclaimed that the North Is Not Dead. Not unlike another mop-topped band from a working-class British city, it emerged from the old industrial heartland, full of bold, intransigent arrogance, deliberately challenging the Thatcherite geographic model.
That observation, in and of itself, is not enormously interesting. So let’s take this a little further. Oasis’s lyrics, as mediocre as they are, focus on a sense of uncompromising individualism. From “Supersonic,” we have: “I need to be myself/I can’t be no one else.” The hit single “Roll With It” echoes that sentiment: “You gotta say what you say/Don’t let anybody get in your way.” Examples proliferate. Now compare this to Thatcher’s own discourse: “There is no such thing as society. There is the living tapestry of men and women and people.” If the individual dominates in Thatcher’s reckoning, then surely we find the same in Oasis, and this tells us much about the sheer impact of Thatcher, the universality of her influence. Oasis critiqued Thatcher’s policies and its results, but it did so in the individualistic language of Thatcherism. Noel Gallagher adopts Thatcherite rhetoric and co-opts it for his own purposes, but it is Thatcherite rhetoric nonetheless. In the end, Thatcher remains inescapable, her shadow dominating the British nation even after her departure.
I hesitate to say that this social interpretation of Oasis’s music should occupy us too much. At its stripped-down essence, Oasis was primarily a group looking to bring some brightness and color into the world. The social implications of its songs, audacious cultural statements in their own right, are indeed significant, but I see little reason to get too bogged down in the grand schemes of things. Just take ten minutes sometime and lose yourself in the captivating grooves of Noel Gallagher’s guitar on “Some Might Say,” or the swaggering power chords of “Supersonic.” Only once we’ve mastered its music does it make sense to interpret Oasis as a cultural phenomenon. But whatever the band’s cultural significance and however cocky and rude those Manc lads might seem, theirs are among the finest musical creations of their era.