Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pulp, "Common People"

Nothing was conventional about Pulp. Their lead singer, Jarvis Cocker, was a beanpole in giant nerd glasses whose lyrics discussed sexuality in extremely real and uncomfortable ways. The band's sound, with plenty of synths and the guitars relegated to moods and textures on most tracks, was completely out of step with the go-hard rock riffing of 1990s grunge and Britpop. They were one of those bands that if you liked them, you felt like you were in a club (at least in America.) Whenever I met a fellow Pulp fan back in the 90s I always felt an immediate bond with them.

Nobody obsesses over social class like the Brits, and so its not surprising that maybe the best pop song ever about class comes this literate band hailing from Sheffield. On "Common People" Cocker took a slight break from his romance and sex obsessions to deliver a staggering anthem about what it's like to be a common person confronted by a rich hipster poseur. Because Pulp are not a riff-rocking band, the anthemic chorus is almost orchestral, the guitars and synths climbing to a fever pitch as Cocker hits the high notes as he sings "You'll never live like common people."

While the song is a tell off to a rich girl who "came from Greece with a thirst for knowledge," there is a strain of sadness, rather than defiance to it. The line "you'll never watch your life slide out of view" is on my mind as I am in middle age. Working class people very early on in their lives are aware of limits, of their ideal life having to give way to reality, a moment where the life they see their life "slide out of view." Another painfully real line is Cocker saying this rich girl will never know what it's like "to live your life with no meaning or control." The wealthy are usually unaware of the security and options their wealth gives them. As Cocker sneers, "If you call your dad he can stop it all." That's not an option for common people.

It's easy to see why this was a hit in the UK, and why it went nowhere in the US, a nation constantly denying the existence of its social class hierarchy. This song has been on my mind a lot recently. The Kavanaugh hearings were a pretty clear example of how this nation's ruling class exists above the rules that the rest of us must follow. The people who went to Georgetown Prep will never live like common people. I only wish Americans could see this as clearly as folks across the pond can.

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