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You’ll never get it right

26 Nov 11 | Re: An uncomfortable song

From a decade of indie anthems, one 1990s indie anthem that may stand above all others is Common People by Pulp. It gets played at the weddings of people my age, and the guests hug each other and punch the air as they sing along. I know this because I have been there and heard the song and seen them do it. But even though I love indie anthems so much that I consider Cast to be an all-time essential act, I feel unable to hug and air-punch along with these Pulp-loving revellers.

The problem is that I rather suspect that I, and pretty much all the air-punchers, are a lot more like the person in the song who could call her dad and stop it all than they are like the poor old common people. I’m not rich, but I certainly don’t know what it’s like to live with no meaning or control; or without knowing people who would help out a bit if things unravelled. So I don’t feel very comfortable singing along on behalf of, and temporarily identifying myself with, these poor old common people who I don’t actually know. It seems rather too close to the attitude of the woman in the song, the “tourist”, who thinks she can just join in with this group for a bit of a laugh, but who can never know or understand the first thing about it.

In fact, I wonder whether this effect is even deliberate on Jarvis Cocker’s part. Pulp aren’t an anthems band. They never really attempted another Common People. It seems possible that Cocker wrote Common People not to be a straight-up anthem, but to cleverly use anthem-type music as a Trojan horse to teach people a lesson. Just like the woman who is attracted to her false idea of the common people’s wasted glamour, the listener gets drawn in by the song’s uplifting chorus, and tries to “sing along with the common people”. But once the song finishes, perhaps you’re supposed to realise with horror what you’ve just been doing - falsely identifying yourself with a mythologised working class in just as patronising and empty a way as the knowledge-thirster from Greece.

I do also take issue with the politics of the song. Does being poor mean that all you have to do is dance, and drink, and screw? Not according to Pulp’s other main song on the subject, Miss-Shapes. In that one, the downtrodden class are going to strike back, to take what’s due to them, because their limited means don’t presuppose limited intelligence, or powerlessness. Quite right: they don’t. There’s one thing the common people have always got more of: their minds. And, er, votes. So two things. Two important things that ought to be able to give anyone a life beyond smoking fags and playing pool.

Common People, then, is a false message of hopelessness whose only power (for me) lies in making better-off people with a bit of self-awareness feel bad about themselves if they get caught up in it. Miss-Shapes is an essentially optimistic message, but simplistic and rather nastily delivered, without much of a tune. I don’t think either of them particularly hits the nail on the head. In fact, the only Pulp song that I find politically satisfying is Sorted for Es and Wizz; but then again if I’d actually been to a rave or had any experience of drug culture, perhaps I’d find it just as jejune as the ones about class.

Posted by SHERIFF JOHN BROWN at 18:33

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