Music Features

Joe Blogs #9: Am I Common People?

With each passing year, it seems more and more unlikely that a renowned publisher is going to give me a weighty advance and beg me to write my autobiography. Though if the unthinkable happens and that does occur, I’ve already got the opening line ready.

“My childhood was relentlessly and uncompromisingly comfortable.”

Because it really was. Only child, grew up in a nice area, did well at school, no traumatic incidents – practically nothing of note happened, and I realise how lucky I am that my formative years provide absolutely no material for a juicy bestseller.

However, like many British people, I’m subconsciously obsessed with class. I don’t want to be, and I don’t make a point of thinking about it, but it’s always there below the surface. I’m inherently suspicious of the seemingly limitless confidence that seems to be the preserve of the privately educated. Put me in the middle of a group of people with golf club memberships, second homes and designer clothes, and I instinctively espouse the virtues of the state school system whilst loudly notifying people of my working class roots. During such exchanges, the fact I grew up in a four bedroom house in the countryside goes unmentioned, for some reason.

But then faced with a group of people who are working class, I become a tangle of nerves, awkwardness and guilt. I’m so worried I’ll be perceived as an outsider or a snob, that I sabotage any meaningful interaction. For reference, think of David Mitchell as Mark Corrigan in Peep Show (though Mitchell attended an independent boarding school and studied at Cambridge University, the privileged posho).

People like to connect to music on a personal level and believe it’s saying something to them about their own existence, and class empathy would theoretically be a part of that, but an apparent lack of overlap between your own life and that which an artist describes needn’t be a barrier to enjoyment. For example, it’s doubtful my teenage years could be any more different to the life Kendrick Lamar chronicles in his good kid, m.A.A.d city album, but that doesn’t stop me believing it’s one of the best albums of the decade so far. In fact, when the themes and feelings are broad enough, anyone can relate, even if there’s no obvious parallel in the events chronicled.

In terms of being obsessed with class though, has anyone ever captured that uniquely British sentiment better than Jarvis Cocker? The success of Pulp, which was a long time coming, can be viewed as the ultimate triumph of the working class boys and girls done good. Having toiled away for over a decade with little to no reward, they finally came to the public’s attention in the early 1990s, rode the wave of Britpop (despite having little in common with the era’s defining sound), and provided the soundtrack to the UK’s summer of 1995 with Common People. It adds credence to the metaphor that the band formed shortly before Margaret Thatcher came to power, and started to get mainstream recognition shortly after she left Downing Street.

Common People was the lead single from Pulp’s most successful album, Different Class. Of course, the term ‘different class’ has a double meaning. It could be signifying ‘a cut above’, in that Pulp were advertising their album by stating that they were (musically) superior to their contemporaries. But it could also be different class in a social sense, in that Pulp felt like outsiders, like they didn’t belong at the Britpop party. In fact, Different Class’s opening track is called Mis-Shapes, and the opening lines make the band’s stance clear: “Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits / Raised on a diet of broken biscuits / We don’t look the same as you / And we don’t do the things you do / But we live round here too.”

If Mis-Shapes is a call to arms, Common People tells a much more subtle tale. It’s the story of a working class boy meeting a girl studying sculpture at college who’s obviously a notch or two above him in the societal hierarchy. However, she’s convinced that she should suffer for her art and that the authentic experience of living life in the margins will give her a better insight and understanding of how the world works.

It’s a story that’s been told enough times to have become a trope. The phrase, “a bit of rough”, has become part of the lexicon to signify when someone wants to be in a relationship with a person of a lower social class, either as a rebellion against their upbringing or because of the cachet and credibility they think it will bring them. Cocker is the everyman, keen to be polite to the girl in the first instance, but growing ever more resentful of her attitude as the song progresses. As he puts it himself, “Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.”

Two decades on, the narrative goes that Pulp playing Common People on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury was the band’s moment of vindication for all their years of struggle. Furthermore, it was the point at which we, the people, had won. One of us was performing his tale of class struggle and righteous fury in front of an audience of tens of thousands. In the revisionist reading, we were all common people.

Common People resonates with me in a way no other song comes close to matching. Like everyone who has ever listened to the lyrics, I relate to Jarvis Cocker’s protagonist: the man kept down by The Man, the lone voice of reason in a crazy world. Whilst the girl’s intentions may not be malicious, they’re misguided enough to be offensive, thus justifying Cocker’s anger. It’s a brilliantly observed comment on British life and the nation’s preoccupation with social standing. We’ve all met someone like the girl in the song, trying to keep it real and playing at poverty as a part-time role, rather than experiencing the starkly unglamorous lifestyle of perpetual struggle. How can Cocker not feel chippy? As he says, “If you called your Dad, he could stop it all”.

But whilst I’ve never gone to such lengths as “pretend[ing I] never went to school” and I’m not so cossetted to be “amazed that they exist”, do I really have the right to have such a special place in my heart for this song? I’ve never claimed jobseekers’ allowance, I’ve had plenty of opportunities and, as much as I like to pretend to myself that I’m not, I’m practically the epitome of middle-class (with, as you can see, the hand-wringing guilt complex that goes with it). I’m neither Cocker nor the sculpture student – it’s testament to Cocker’s vivid imagery and acute characterisation that I feel a personal connection to this song at all.

Pulp are one of my favourite groups, yet I’ve never seen them live. I’m not sure I ever will. Attending gigs and festivals isn’t a particularly cheap pursuit these days, and it’s a lot more fashionable than it used to be. Glastonbury tickets cost £226 for 2016, compared to £65 in 1995. Adjusting for inflation and using 1995 as a baseline, next year’s tickets should cost around £115 which means, in real terms, Glastonbury tickets have almost doubled in price since Pulp’s triumphant headline set. Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption the crowd at your average Pulp show will be more affluent these days than they were back in the Britpop era. This is without even considering the fact that the audience would be older (and also, you can assume, better off) now due to Pulp’s heyday being a generation ago.

What this means is that when Pulp play Common People now, and the crowd sing along and punch the air triumphantly, it’s no longer a victory anthem. It doesn’t represent advance and accomplishment for the little guy in the face of overwhelming forces. It’s not a story of people overcoming struggle. Due to Pulp being victims of their own success, Common People is in danger of being co-opted by the very people it set out to satirise and kick against. I’m not sure I want to be part of that. When you have a relationship so intimate with a song, experiencing it in a large crowd can be difficult anyway (if people don’t get what you do out of it), and that’s without this shifting context.

And what of Pulp themselves? Authenticity is a laughably overvalued quality in music, but you can’t help but wonder if Jarvis Cocker, now presumably in better financial health than he was then, can attack Common People with quite the same gusto. Of course, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; anyone can play a role, and having money doesn’t mean you can’t be angry about social issues: injustice, poverty and, yes, deluded trust-fund kids romanticising class tourism.

The simple answer to this self-questioning is that if you like a song, you like a song, and there’s no more to it than that. It’s a school of thought to which I subscribe in the vast majority of cases. But when a song (or, indeed, in this case, the whole Different Class album) speaks to you so strongly, it’s difficult to come to the realisation that you might not be the working-class hero and, even worse, you could be more similar to the object of scorn: the oblivious tourist, temporarily slumming it for kicks.

I’ve never rented a flat above a shop, though I have cut my hair and got a job. I don’t know how it feels to live my life with no meaning or control, aside from the usual worries or crises of confidence that everyone faces from time to time. I’ve never lived in a house where roaches climbed the walls, but I have lived in some pretty dilapidated places where I paid the rent with money I’d earned myself. In the end, maybe there are parallels with me and Cocker – both still overly preoccupied with class, both still asking questions and both no closer to finding out any of the answers.