Brexit and Britpop: Europeans have stronger cultural links to the UK thanks to English language music

Britain has more in common with the people of Europe than politics. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

As the European referendum campaigners try to outdo each other with spectacular claims and counterclaims about the risks and benefits of remaining in or leaving the EU, what has become clear is that it is not just the Tory party that is deeply divided on the issue, but Britain as a whole.

The ambivalence is even part of the “in” rhetoric, with statements frequently prefaced by assurances that the politician is “no lover of European bureaucracy” or some such qualification. And there are suspicions that even at the top there is a lack of wholehearted support for the European project, with both Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron having been accused of previously tending towards Euroscepticism.

The British problem with Europe is something which is not found to the same extent on the continent: not only do most people there feel more positive about the “European Project”, but they also feel warmer towards Britain than Britons feel towards their neighbours across the Channel.

The reasons for these feelings are obviously complex, but something which can play an important role is music. The English composer Vaughan Williams believed that folk songs could encapsulate the spirit of a nation, and researchers today are finding strong links between music and identity – be it national, regional, ethnic, or related to language or subculture. Many aspects of identity are mediated and reinforced by music.

Whereas Vaughan Williams harked back to an age when folk music was the staple of ordinary people, today its place has been taken by popular music. In fact, popular music, from rock to dubstep, cuts across social classes in a way that very few other art forms can. Crucially, it also crosses national boundaries, but it does so in unequal ways.

The same songsheet

The French top 40 singles chart at the time of writing is dominated by English songs, which make up three-quarters of the list. In the same week’s chart for Europe, the first non-English song comes in at number 25. In the German chart for this period, only six out of 40 tracks are not in English. Most of these English titles are by British or US artists, though occasionally they will be by European acts singing in English.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Since the Beatles cut their teeth performing in the red light district of Hamburg in the early 60s, English language popular music, largely from England, has been an intimate part of the soundtrack of young people’s lives on the continent. This is reflected in the album listings, with seven out of 10 top-selling albums of all time in Germany being in English by acts which include Phil Collins, Genesis and Queen.

Clearly this is not just about young people today, but young people over the last 50 years; in other words, most people alive now. It almost goes without saying that this traffic is mainly one way: the equivalent charts in the UK are all in English. The all-time charts do include one European band – ABBA – but of course they are known through their English language renditions in the UK (although they did sing in other languages).

This means that popular music sung in English, much of it from Britain, is part of the identity of continental Europeans. It gives them a deep connection with British culture which simply does not exist in the other direction. Sure, there are exceptions such as Kraftwerk and the Gipsy Kings, bands which had an impact in the UK, but even here one can ask to what extent the British fans understand the foreign lyrics. And this raises another key aspect of this phenomenon: language.

Cultural learning

When British children learn French or German at school, their exposure to that language will be mainly in the classroom. However, German and French children have their language lessons hugely reinforced by all sorts of other sources, chief among them: popular music. The result is that they have a much more comfortable and personal relationship with contemporary British culture, than British children do with that of the continent.

Of course, many people from the UK have experience of Europe, particularly of holiday, second home and expat/retirement destinations such as Tuscany, the Dordogne or Magaluf. But these are enjoyed for their weather, history or general atmosphere.

Often they serve to reinforce stereotypes about Europeans rather than to soften them. They are also places where British people tend to congregate, forming communities more than integrating with the locals. For the British, Europe remains essentially alien, in a way that the US and Australia are not, and this is again because of the language and popular culture links with the old Empire. Britain shares rock stars, celebrities, TV and films with the Anglophone world in a much more fluid and mutual way than with EU countries.

The powerful influence of English (language) popular music helps to explain why for most Europeans the UK is a natural and welcome partner. The UK is not just a part of their continent, but also part of their world-view; not only a neighbour, but a member of the family; indeed, Britain is a part of their inner lives.

Europeans might see the EU referendum in the words of a Queen/David Bowie song that many of them know by heart:

“Under pressure that burns a building down, Splits a family in two…

Watching some good friends, Screaming, Let me out!”