Saturday, 5 May 2007

Common peeps

Somebody on the Usenet mentioned Boston Legal, and as my Twitter pals know, I've just got done watching the whole first season right through on DVD, thanks to an extremely enlightened official of the Schaerbeek Flemish public library who knows exactly what to buy.

I responded, and pointed the person to this video on YouTube, which I've already flagged up for my Google Reader fans or my Tumblr fans, I forget which. Common People is a song by Pulp, the British pop band fronted by the iconic Jarvis Cocker, and in its way it's as important a number for that generation as My Generation, I Think I Love You or Pretty Vacant were for theirs (I couldn't find a single song from the Seventies (as opposed to the 1970s) that meant anything at all, other than American Pie, which was a lament for a previous generation). As far as the lyrics are concerned, it belongs to a very British tradition of a sort of proletarian nostalgia coupled with anomic social disgust which you find in songs by Ray Davies, Paul Weller or Joe Jackson, who happens to be on the first video.

Specifically, it articulates, for me, how it feels to be someone of let's say intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities in a working-class world encompassed by pints and birds -- not that there's anything wrong with pints and birds. In the BBC film made about the song (see below) Jarvis explains how he was alienated from his own class because he seemed to be a weirdo, yet he also hated Sheffield University students, who though they might have been more in tune with his ideas, belonged to a different world. It's that division that informs the sentiment of the song: he's disgusted by the idea of the Greek girl slumming among people of "his" class, but at the same time it's clear that he's pretty fucking disgusted by them himself. And for all that he's disgusted by her attitude, he still wants to get off with her. In the end, that's the way we all go.

Jarvis himself, as we now know, is a very English eccentric, in the mould of Alan Bennett, Kenneth Williams or Quentin Crisp. No matter how far they go in despising their own people, their own people take them ever closer to their breast.

But anyway back to Shatner, who admittedly is sui generis, so I went back to Pulp, with this garish video made to accompany the song, and starring Jarvis. His delivery is far from Shatner's. It's less melodramatic, more resigned, more British. But he expresses the same disdain for the subject of the song as Shatner does. Listen to cultural commentators talking similar bollocks about the song here and here and here and here and here and here FFS what a mopus agnum.

YouTube also has live versions (which include a lyrical coda cut from the radio-friendly release) of the song by Pulp here and here, but my attention was drawn away by a parody done by the TV comedy show Goodness Gracious Me, made by a team of Indian writers and comedians. In this case, the girl in the story wants to live like Hindi People (sic). The words are a brilliant example of the parodist's art: they fit perfectly into the context, and make their own joke as well as the joke of juxtaposition. Listen to how to really live like Hindi People:

Comb your hair and be polite
Do your homework every night
Don't smoke fags and don't play pool
Do extremely well at school
Take a medical degree
Graduate at 33
Move back in with Mum and Dad
Even though they drive you raving mad (are you sure)
You wanna live like Hindi people?
You wanna do whatever Hindi people do? etc

Quite possibly that's all you want to hear about Pulp and their song Common People, now and for the rest of your life. I shouldn't be at all surprised. At one point in the BBC film, Jarvis says he never thought, "Wow, that's a masterpiece".

It is.

Thanks to strangetheapple for uploading the BBC videos.