Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 22, which explores the history of Britpop and Pulp’s “Common People” with help from writer and podcaster Dorian Lynskey.
“Common People” is the crown jewel, the thesis statement, the breathless apex of Pulp’s 1995 album Different Class. Irony was very much alive in 1995, and although you can call “Common People” all sorts of things—it is erudite, it is blunt, it is suave, it is seething, it is carefully observed, it is carelessly cruel, it is droll, it is electrifying—it is not ironic. Pulp mean this shit. Pulp commit. Because above all else, “Common People” is anthemic, in the not-at-all-ironic sense. This is a misused word, anthemic; this is the only appropriate word here. Jarvis Cocker—Pulp’s frontman, and principal songwriter, and lacerating wit, and generational icon—Jarvis once said, “I realized that we had written something that had pretensions to being anthemic. It was an anthem. A class anthem.”
“Common People,” in brief, is a song about a posh, sheltered young woman attempting to slum it with the working class because she thinks working-class people are cooler, and nobler, and more vibrant, and she is right about a lot of that, but she is wrong in believing that this coolness and nobility and vibrance will rub off on her if she slums it with the working class long enough. She will never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control, so on and so forth. Pulp’s drummer, Nick Banks, once explained it like this: “Around London, you met these southern toffs. You got that idea they were different. That they could muck around and do what they wanted for a few years, then call in the trust fund and bugger off to the south of France. For most people, that ain’t the case. You’re stuck with what you’ve got.”
So war is hell—class warfare, even, is hell—and if you don’t have any experience with actual war, than sure, love is war, and sex, often, is especially war, and sex as a form of class warfare is perhaps the most hellish of all. That’s the thesis. That’s the damn anthem.
Jarvis Cocker’s exaggerated dialogue voices—I’ll see what I can do—that’s part of what makes him a generational icon. Jarvis Cocker: OK. Picture an English professor—a professor, from England, who teaches the academic discipline known as English. Got it? OK. You got it. That’s Jarvis Cocker. He is tall, and lanky, and dignified, and yet visibly louche. Got the giant glasses. Got the vaguely pornographic beard, often. Got the extremely pornographic rock-star cheekbones going, in his younger years. He is much smarter than you, or anyway much wittier than you, which also makes him much gloomier and more amusingly cynical than you, which, funny how that works. He looks like the guy who invented, there in the mid-’90s, the Private Browsing tab. Jarvis is far from the only important member of Pulp, but he is the band’s avatar and spokesman and sole constant member.
Pulp formed in Sheffield, England, in 1978? What happened here? Why did it take so long to happen? Pulp took quite the winding route to maturity, which is maybe not the word. Their first album, It, came out in 1983: Pulp. It. Pulpit, you get it. Unfortunately, on the official Jarvis Cocker timeline, the most significant thing that happened to him in the 1980s might’ve been in 1985 when he fell out a window while trying to impress a girl with his Spider-Man impression and spent a month in the hospital. Everyone is entitled to their own origin story. If we’re being pompous and a little bitchy—and I would argue that the band glorifies, if not outright encourages, pompous bitchiness—the first decent Pulp album is their third, 1992’s Separations, and the first successful Pulp album, in any larger commercial or critical sense, was their fourth, 1994’s His ‘n’ Hers.
Their lineup has mostly solidified at this point: Jarvis, Nick Banks on drums, Steve Mackey on bass, Candida Doyle on keyboards, and Russell Senior on guitar and violin. (Different Class would add Mark Webber on guitars and stuff.) Also their sound has solidified. What kills those first few ’80s records is how slight and wobbly and thin they sound. Pulp, at their triumphant height, are a rock band with dance-floor aspirations and also high-literary aspirations, quite verbose, quite theatrical, quite melodramatic, quite amorous, and yet riddled with anxiety. So, like, panic … at .. the … disco.
1995’s Different Class was the band’s fifth album. It’s the best Pulp album by orders of magnitude, and despite its many other fine songs, “Common People” is the best song on it by orders of magnitude. Whether you know this band’s whole agonized prehistory or not, it’s hilarious, honestly, how much agonized prehistory a song this perfect and this historical requires.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.