words by Francesco Tenaglia
In the year 1995, the Sheffield-born and London-based pop band Pulp conquered the UK charts with their first major hit after a struggle for notoriety that had lasted fifteen years: “Common People” was the story a rich art student that wanted to take a tour within the lifestyle of the working class (“I want to live like common people / I want to do whatever common people do” hence the title) and have sex with the narrator (“I want to sleep with common people like you”) who gradually goes from delivering tips for the girl to help her accomplish her goal to ridiculing her patronizing intent. “Common People” became an instant classic throughout pop music connoisseurs worldwide: a tune about sexual anxieties, class rage and social immobility sang over a repetitive ever climaxing wall of sound more reminiscent of German experimental psychedelic music of the ’70s than of the nostalgic simplification of the ’60s rock operated by the other popular bands in the coeval Brit-Pop scene. Their success was driven also by their front-man: Jarvis Cocker a hyper-articulate and self-aware, tall and emaciated man with a stand out inclination for ’70s fashion style. Jarvis was given even more media attention (even by tabloids) the following year when he invaded the stage of the BRIT Awards while Michael Jackson was performing his “Earth Song” as a form of protest against the messianic pose of the American entertainer. Owen Hatherley, blogger; author of the Militant Modernism and of A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain wrote Uncommon, an analytical reflection on the cultural contribution of this extraordinary band, and shared some thoughts with us.
Francesco Tenaglia The first question I’d like to ask you is: to which extent your decision to write a book about Pulp is rooted in your activity and background in criticism of architecture and of urbanism?
Owen Hatherley Although it’s what I do for a living, I’m not from an architectural background at all, and came to architecture and urbanism via a route that partly came from an interest in pop music and the culture around it, and also via left-wing politics and aesthetics, especially the Constructivists and Patrick Keiller. But that doesn’t explain why Pulp, so I suppose what happened was a retracing of steps back to them. In their records between ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ and the Sisters EP there’s this intense engagement with an urban and architectural environment which, on one hand, was immediately recognizable-– a post-industrial provincial city, its markets, buses, job centers and suburbs (in songs like ‘Inside Susan’ or ‘Styloroc’); and one that, on the other, was quite fantastic, where that everyday life was re-imagined as something dreamlike and utopian (in songs like ‘Sheffield: Sex City’ or ‘David’s Last Summer’). My obsession with the urbanism of the post-industrial, provincial Britain where I grew up was nurtured, encouraged and given form by listening to Pulp. There’s also certain specific places that recur in both, most obviously the environment of Sheffield, large-scale Brutalist buildings like the Park Hill flats or Castle Market, which are both evoked in and written about by Pulp.
FT Pulp obtained a certain level of international attention in coincidence with the appearance of the “Different Class” album even if, from a foreigner’s point of view, my impression is that the reception to this record was mostly articulated around the idea that the band was a manifestation of the detached, androgynous dandyism that runs through British culture and entertainment, modulated within the Brit-Pop’s preference for domestic signifiers. One of the strong ideas of the book “Uncommon” is, on the contrary, that Pulp was not only a completely separate entity from a scene which tried to “sell” an insular nostalgia but also that their take on class was constructed in opposition to other popular bands of Brit-Pop’s heyday.
OH That’s right, though there’s little detached about Pulp–– in most of Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics he clearly presents himself as a ‘participant observer’, at a slight remove but always deeply involved in whatever it is being sung about, something which is very unlike the genuinely detached, ironic ‘social commentary’ of Britpop, especially Blur. They were also quite simply much older– as much as a decade older–– than other Britpoppers, and formed by a different era. They had been raised on post-punk, not indie, and the relative openness of their music and lyrics reflects that. That said, they certainly rode on the coattails of Britpop when it was useful to do so, and in fact I think their work sometimes reflects a rather utopian hope in Britpop–– songs like ‘Mis-Shapes’, where the hated come out of the sidelines and take over. At the same time it’s pretty obvious that the attack on class tourism in ‘Common People’ was aimed squarely at their contemporaries.
FT You have written “Pulp was the last major group to be both working class and consciously, unashamedly arty; the last to be notably proud of being northern and proletarian while remaining quite unabashed about their intelligence.” Reading your book, it occurred to me to re-think the famous incident during Michael Jackson’s performance at the Brit Awards as a moment which set against two very different ideas of self-invention: the first one was about a constant redefinition of a specific situated-ness (of class and geographical kind) in front of a complete escape from any form of anchorage in geographical, class or even gender and racial origins. In this configuration the incident was really one of the few interesting confrontation between UK an US (Brit-Pop, being for a large part defined against the chart success of grunge, had an undercurrent more or less overt anti-americanism as a fil rouge): the first being almost painfully self-conscious about class structure and dynamics and the second being more focused on the mythology of individual freedom and its indefinite capabilities of transformation.
OH Yes! It’s about the collision of transcending class through the American Dream, which found especially amazing and horrible form in Jackson, and emphasizing class as a source of power and resentment, in Pulp. Obviously my preference is for the latter; Jackson’s eventual fate tells its own story about how tragic that attempt at transcendence can be. However there’s still something uncomfortable about it–– I write in Uncommon about how it could easily be interpreted as a working class lad having a go at an effeminate weirdo, and I suspect that it’s not something Mr Cocker is especially proud of. Either way, the American approach to class is all the more dominant now, albeit in a form which stresses both individuality and the ‘realness’ of the working class past left behind, especially in hip hop–– and that’s probably worse than MJ’s escape from all ‘anchorage’. It takes the most conservative elements of both traditions.
FT I was intrigued by your ideas about Pulp’s focus on future, especially when you write about the sense of being “cheated out of the future.” Could you please expand these concepts?
OH It’s quite an old idea now, this ‘nostalgia for the future,’ but I think Pulp had some precedence in this. Pulp were formed by the 1970s and formed by a combination of northern industrial modernism, glamorously strange pop music and a now very dated fixation on space travel and space-age modernity. All of these things were quite unambiguously future-oriented–– the future alternately imagined as municipal socialism, as bizarre-looking new people, and as the exploration of outer space. All of these have disappeared, and that process began in the 1980s, although one could add to it another future briefly glimpsed: rave, which they wrote about beautifully in ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz.’ Pulp were fixated on this disappearance and its replacement with a mundane realism; what really excited me about them was that they wrote about this yearning for a non-existent future in a desperately realistic and mundane way–– dreaming of the utopian future and then returning to the washing-up, ‘the spilt milk and the dog turds’, ‘the Housing Benefit Waiting Room.’ It’s tragicomic, and what it crucially doesn’t do is try to simulate the absent future–– to remake or retool, say, space disco or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but to register that lack, that need for the future in a horribly disappointing present.