Anthem of the Commoners
Pulp’s 1995 hit “Common People” isn’t just a Britpop classic — it’s a more honest and brutal analysis of class than you’ll hear in the media today.
There have been no less than two famous singers from the city of Sheffield born with the last name “Cocker.”
The second-most famous of them is the blues shouter Joe Cocker, a moniker that immediately evokes working men’s clubs and kitchen sink dramas. It’s the kind of name you can stamp onto an album entitled “Sheffield Steel” with a straight face.
“Jarvis,” on the other hand, is not a common working-class name. It sounds vaguely French or continental to the English ear — it’s fancy. There was a character in the 1990s British comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience called “Jarvis,” but he was an aristocratic middle-aged gay man. Which is why it’s so surprising that a man named Jarvis Cocker wrote the wildly popular anthem “Common People,” one of the few hit songs of the 1990s explicitly about class and class conflict.
“Common People,” recorded by Cocker’s legendary Sheffield band Pulp, was released in 1995 as the lead single off their fifth album Different Class. It was a massive hit in the UK at the height of the Britpop era, though that’s probably the least notable thing about it. The story told by its lyrics is by now incredibly familiar to anyone remotely interested in music: our hero in the song woos a student at Central Saint Martins, a London art college. She comes from Greece to study sculpture and tells him that she wants to “live like common people.” (A persistent rumor, denied by all concerned, has it that “Common People” is about the leftist artist Danae Stratou, a contemporary of Cocker’s at Saint Martins who is married to Jacobin contributor Yanis Varoufakis.)
Genial at first, he takes her on a tour of the sights and sounds of working-class life, growing more and more infuriated by the affectation of the experience, until he eventually rages at the impossibility of her ever understanding class solely through signifiers and lifestyles (“Smoke some fags and play some pool / Pretend you never went to school.”) As the song’s orchestra of cheap secondhand synthesizers builds to its peak, he cries: “You will never understand / How it feels to live your life / With no meaning or control / And with nowhere left to go.”
Here and on the album Different Class, class anxieties are confronted in ways that are sometimes exciting and other times disturbing. In “I Spy,” this takes the form of a lurid revenge fantasy at the expense of a rich West Londoner. In “Monday Morning,” the subject spends the weekend drinking and dancing to escape the monotony of poverty (“Why live in the world / When you can live in your head?”). In “Live Bed Show,” the story is of a couple whose affluence is unable to disguise their falling out of love.
But Pulp was always a very odd group to be fixating on the class war. They weren’t street fighters or punk rockers — far from it. They released their first album in 1983 and toiled away as a third-rate indie band until the early 1990s, when they finally blossomed into a retro-futurist synth-pop group with semi-sung, semi-spoken lyrics about sex, clothes, and interiors that cast an eye toward the small details of urban and suburban life, making their songs strange and vivid. A lot of the lyrics are about working-class life, broadly conceived — the first-person tale of teenage optimism in “Inside Susan” is told from the top deck of a municipal bus, and the incredible 1992 B-side “Sheffield: Sex City” centers on the famous, Brutalist Park Hill flats, while much of 1994’s His ‘n’ Hers zeroes in on the culture of distinction in the tawdry new suburbs.
So far, so English. This sort of cataloging of particularly British minutiae goes right back to the Kinks in the 1960s, though it is seldom done as well as on Pulp’s obsessive, fetishistic records.
“Common People” is about something else entirely. It can be seen fairly clearly as an intervention into Britpop’s warring North/South clichés — in the case of the band Blur, middle-class boys from Essex playing with the signifiers of East End Cockney life, or in the case of Oasis, smart working-class boys from suburban Manchester pretending they were much stupider and rougher than they actually were. “Common People” lists all the things you can buy, wear, or do in order to live the life, if that’s what you want — you can “smoke some fags and play some pool,” “rent a flat above a shop.”
But what you won’t be able to do is make yourself actually poor (“If you called your dad, he could stop it all”). You’ll always know it’s a temporary condition, with relatives or inherited wealth there to rescue you. Poverty is not, in this song, something you can simulate. It’s about having no hope, no prospects, no way out. All the rest is meaningless, and to think that “poor is cool” is insulting — something the Left has too often been guilty of.
The fact that Pulp was able to make such a clear statement of what class actually is, as opposed to writing a song about the epiphenomena of class usually obsessed over by marketers, psychologists, and rock musicians, is partly owed to the band’s members being hard to define in terms of traditional class position themselves. Some had parents who worked in factories but most didn’t — certainly not Jarvis Cocker. Sheffield is a city of steel-works but also of universities, beautiful parks, and lush Victorian suburbs.
The group’s aesthetic was a deliberately nerdy, gawkish one, with Cocker accentuating his thinness and awkwardness. Even their clothes were so horrendously unfashionable that they eventually came out the other end as “retro.” They didn’t try to be typically northern and working class because they weren’t, not quite. But none of them went to private schools and none had inherited wealth, and, like most young people in Sheffield, they spent the 1980s on the dole.
When class is defined by the British media as little more than one’s accent plus geographic location and then wielded as a cudgel to beat a young and propertyless left over the head, cultural products like “Common People” and Different Class have an enduring relevance. What this music did was to tell people two hugely important things. One was addressed to the working-class people who don’t fit in — who don’t play pool or smoke fags, who don’t talk in Cockney or Manc accents, who might be uninterested in sports or pints, who might not even be heterosexual — to tell them that none of this had anything to do with social class.
The other was directed toward those who would cosplay class, either on the basis of something they once were or something they’d like to be — a niche marketing category, not something that happens to you, defines you, and can one day even destroy your life. That’s how it came to be that the most important song about class made in the 1990s was by someone who dressed like a 1970s geography teacher and had the name of a comedy character — someone who, not coincidentally, never once sang about class again.
After the song became a hit and finally made him a star, Jarvis Cocker was no longer working-class, and so he said nothing more about it. If only others had the same restraint.