Blur playing live
Deep Dives

Blur’s Quest to Break America: Did They Succeed?

To everyone in the UK, it is almost unfathomable to consider, but did Blur break America? The short answer here is that they tried, but they only received mediocre success. This was because their sound is naturally very “British,” with their accents being prominent, and their overall tone was aligned with the Britpop scene at the time.

Does this mean that Blur have had no success in America? No, it does not. Let’s take a closer look.

Britpop vs Grunge

One thing that we have to understand first is the prominent music scenes in both Blur’s home country and that of America. In the UK during the ’90s, everything alternative was Britpop. Britpop was a response to the popularity of grunge and aimed to celebrate British culture and music. This meant it took inspiration from bands such as The Beatles, The Smiths, and The Kinks, delving into catchy vocal melodies, big choruses, and, of course, lyrics depicting British life.

Grunge was the opposite in this sense; it was inspired by punk and heavy metal, which had made its way over in the 2nd British invasion. This consisted of Billy Idol, Black Sabbath, and Def Leopard. This, therefore, meant Grunge sacrificed melodies for heavy, sludgy guitar rock and lyrics of angst.

The reason I am outlining this difference here is to highlight how vastly different the music tastes of the two countries were at the time.

Why Blur Struggled

Damon Albarn singing into a mic
Damon Albarn singing (Credit: Cecil)

The main issue that Blur struggled with when breaking America was actually their main strength. They were so linked to Britpop that the pop-punk and grunge scene essentially rejected them. Funnily enough, this was one of the main intentions of Britpop.

Take the song “Parklife,” for example. In Britain, it is considered one of the band’s best tracks. The issue is, the whole song is very, very British. Phil Daniel’s voice in the verses, combined with the actual meaning of the words, probably left American audiences dumbfounded by what he was talking about.

The Britpop image, as well, was very different from grunge. Britpop was bright, and it was proud of Britain; it was bold and confident. Grunge, however, was dark and moody; it was angry with the country and wanted to be in the shadows. Again, this is another reason Blur didn’t align with American youth.

Then, when you add in the amount of competition within the US at the time, it was almost impossible to break in. You had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and that was just the beginning. After this, you had the pop-punk influx of Green Day, The Offspring, and Blink-182. So, as you can see, alternative rock was a crowded market in the US.

The Success Blur Had with “Song 2”

Despite facing challenges in breaking into the American music scene, they managed to at least have an impact on alternative rock and gained a dedicated fanbase. This was thanks to “Song 2” which became a massive hit in America and remains one of their most recognizable tracks worldwide.

But why was “Song 2” such a stand-out overseas? Well, it is because it leant into the grunge scene. It abandoned the cleanliness of Britpop with a raw and aggressive sound. This was thanks to its use of heavy guitar distortion, concise song structures, and its simple, repetitive lyrics, including the iconic “Woo-hoo!” refrain.

By embracing Grunge, Blur tapped into the American alternative rock scene, successfully resonating with Grunge fans while still maintaining their own unique musical identity. Something which is a testament to the versatility of the band.

“Song 2” reached number 55 in the US Billboard, and number 6 on the US Alternative Airplay chart, and the album ended up selling 679,000 records in the US alone.

Even the music video embraces the grunge scene, If you put “Song 2” side by side with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it is hard to tell them apart. Of course, I am being hyperbolic here, but their aesthetics are incredibly similar.

A joke gone too far?

Graham Coxon on stage with Blur
Graham Coxon on stage with Blur (Credit: HelDavies)

There are a lot of rumours that surround the composition of “Song 2”. One of these rumours insinuates that the track was actually written as a joke against the American grunge scene, but is this true?

What we can verify is that the track was definitely written as somewhat of a joke. Graham Coxon, Blur’s guitarist, state that they wrote it to confuse their label saying “It’ll scare them to death. They’ll hate it”. But this backfired on them as it went down like this “They came in, and we played it to them, giggling… and they were like, ‘Wow, this is excellent.’ So our joke was foiled…”

When it comes to the content of “Song 2” however, I think you could interpret it as satire. Everything about the song is so on the nose. From the distorted and janky guitar playing, all the way to the over simplified and nonesense lyrics, it definitely comes across as satire.

It is definitely not 100% serious, that is for sure. Read more about the joke of “Song 2”.

Blur’s other success in America

While not having incredible success in the US, Blur’s ability to incorporate diverse musical influences, innovative songwriting, and introspective lyrics allowed them to appeal to some American audiences beyond their Britpop origins. Other tracks such as “Girls & Boys,” “Country House,” and “Beetlebum” also reached the charts in the US.

This musical variety was only part of their success. Their live performances received praise and also helped them establish a dedicated fanbase in the US. This worked towards solidifying their position in America and positioned them as influential figures in the alternative rock genre.

This establishment has meant that even despite a slow start, every album since their self-titled has sold relatively well in the US. So you could say that the band has been successful outside their attempt at grunge.

So, Did Blur Break America?

Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn (Credit: Cristobal)

The question of “Did Blur Break America?” is one you could determine in different ways. To a certain extent, as outlined above, they were successful in America. They had charting singles, charting songs, and played an abundance of shows, which is a clear indication of success for any band. The caveat comes when you compare it to artists that have traditionally broken America.

The term “Break America” usually correlates to an equal amount of success or more than the previous artist. Artists that have shown this level of success are artists such as Queen, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Adele. All of these artists have had sell-out arena shows, number one hits, and charting albums, all of which Blur just fall short on.

Funnily enough, Damon Albarn’s other music act, Gorillaz, did indeed break America, with a platinum album in the States. So, again, in a sense, they did.

While Blur’s level of success in the USA might not have matched their achievements in the UK, they undoubtedly left a mark on the American music landscape. Their impact on alternative rock, critical acclaim, and dedicated fan following attest to their significance as influential artists in the US music scene.

The way I would summarize it is, Blur broke into America, but they certainly didn’t “Break it.”

See where “Song 2” ranks on our top alternative tracks of the ’90s!

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