In Slavoj Žižek’s documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema there is an analysis of the famous opening scene from Blue Velvet, in which the protagonist’s father is peacefully watering his perfect garden in his perfect home, beneath a perfect sun in the idyllic town of Lumberton, North Carolina, where everything glimmers with innocence and happiness… until he has a sudden, massive heart attack. The camera follows the father as he collapses onto the ground, but instead of stopping there it continues to descend into the infra-world which exists beneath the sheen of bourgeois respectability, reaching all the way down to the visceral creatures gnawing away in the darkness of the subsoil. Žižek compares it to Lacan’s concept of ‘the real’, that is, the unconscious in which the desires and fantasies that fall foul of the demands of respectable appearances are incubated, the ones which erupt again and again no matter how much effort society puts into denying their existence with its strict success criteria and norms of good behaviour, reminding us that not only are things not that simple but that we don’t want them to be that simple. On the symbolic level as much as the real, it’s often in the underworlds and on the margins that the things which bring the greatest vitality to human existence end up taking place, in contrast with the bland commodity offered by aspiring to an elevated socioeconomic status which, needless to say, the vast majority of society will never be able to reach.
In historical terms, the first of January 1994 saw something similar taking place in the Mexican context. This was the date on which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created a commercial, economic and cultural alliance between Mexico, the US and Canada, came into force, its aim being to deposit the neoliberal paradise of the free market empire in our country. A process that would at long last extract us from our ineluctable and archaic condition, so violent in nature and irremediably linked to what we might call ‘Mexicanness’. But the technocratic party being thrown by the Harvard and MIT-educated yuppies was ruined by the emergence, on the exact same date, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and its declaration of war on the government from the mountains of south-east Mexico: the very same forms of life which NAFTA had been called upon to extinguish proved to be unavoidable. As is well known, the EZLN’s message went global, connecting with millions of people who tacitly rejected the dazzling hypocrisy of a life organised around accumulation and consumption (with their respective correlatives of exploitation and mass poverty).
A year later, in 1995, Britain was witnessing the last years of Thatcherism as represented by John Major, who would soon be replaced by Tony Blair and his ‘third way’, which announced the end of class war under the blessed auguries of the free market. The same year also witnessed a musical earthquake, in the form of Pulp’s Different Class. Based around a unifying theme, this album is impossible to listen to other than as a whole in which each part carries out a crucial role in painting a gigantic and musically joyous middle finger to the very same paradise which City of London bankers sought to bring to the whole of English society, exchanging the ‘No Future’ of punk for a night out in the company of the young and the beautiful, spending fortunes at a gastro pub as a way of rejoicing in the wonders accessed through the hedonism of derivative financial instruments.
Different Class opens with ‘Mis-Shapes’, a powerful declaration of intent in which the outcasts and loners who want to go into the city centre but fear being beaten ‘Just for standing out/Now really’ (in the documentary ‘The Making of Common People’, Jarvis Cocker describes exactly that happening in his native Sheffield), announce that they are still there and have no intention of going anywhere. They want the homes and the lives of the rich people who loathe them, they want everything that is forbidden to them, but their strategy for supplanting them is non-violent: ‘We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of/That’s our minds.’ Just like the Zapatistas, they have realised that the pot of gold that is waiting at the end of the neoliberal rainbow is a con: ‘The future that you’ve got mapped out/ Is nothing much to shout about, oh-oh-oh’. The song’s climax, in which ‘Yeah that’s our minds’ is given a choral emphasis, clearly sets out the priorities of the social antagonism that runs through practically the entire album.
It’s followed by ‘Pencil Skirt’, in which erotic and sexual possibilities are promptly set out as a vehicle for bringing about class vengeance. In it, Jarvis sings about sleeping with a girl involved with someone else who, despite being more socially adept, is perhaps for the very same reasons unable to satisfy her: ‘I’ll be around when he’s not in town/I’ll show you how you’re doing it wrong’. Once again there is a reference to the privileged point of view that can be gained from the underworld (‘If you look under the bed/Then I can see my house from here’), with a subtle nod to of the longing the girl feels at knowing that she will never be able to truly know these underworlds (‘I only come here, cos’ I know it makes you sad’). The same idea, further elaborated, is the stunning foundation of the next track on Different Class, the song that would not only become emblematic of the album, but maybe also of an entire era: ‘Common People’.
Composed on a tiny synthesiser which Jarvis bought for peanuts from a London shop, ‘Common People’ would become an anthem, in which the story of the rich Greek girl who desperately wants to experience the life of a have-not is recited in whispered verses over a background synthesiser that anticipates the vocal melody that is captured in the epic explosion of the chorus. And yet this is an epic which may disappoint the rich girl, because it turns out that the common people do little more than fail and watch their lives slide out of view while they smoke fags, play pool and fuck: ‘Because there’s nothing else to do.’ But that’s no small thing. The fact that it was precisely this nihilistic process of descending the class hierarchy that catapulted Pulp into global fame is in itself a commentary on the parodic character of ‘Common People’, which finds expression in, for example: ‘The stupid things that you do/Because you think that poor is cool.’ At the same time, it’s an anthem which attests to the universal power of music and dance as a refuge from a reality that is based around the elevation of people like the Greek girl, who spends the whole song desperate to escape from her gilded cage.
These two inexhaustible sources, sex and politics, converge in what is not only my favourite song on the album, but probably my favourite Pulp song, ‘I Spy’. Here, once again, Jarvis is fantasising about class revenge through illicit sex with a wealthy woman, and also about being recognised as an equal by those who have never so much as looked at him: ‘Can’t you see the giant who walks among you/ Seeing through your petty lives.’ In the style of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley, he carefully studies and learns the airs and graces of those he wishes to supplant, infiltrating their bedrooms to fornicate with their women while they smoke their cigars and drink their expensive brandy, hoping to be caught in the act by the husband (there’s no need to imagine who would win the subsequent fight, nor who would end up in jail). It’s a survival strategy in which even the sexual is enrolled in a battle of the spirits: ‘It’s not a case of woman v. man/It’s more a case of have’s against havent’s.’ This pyromaniac fantasy of smashing the paradise of the rich into a thousand pieces is another brutal expression of the sense of amusement at the anguish of the elite, as also expressed in ‘Common People’.
Where, then, does the mysterious F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E fit within this playful class dystopia? Together with drugs, it would seem to be the only possible way of forgetting, even just for a moment, the underlying conflict that, to a significant degree, defines the social mis en scene. But it will not be the twee variety of romantic love that is confected for the cameras (like the wedding portrayed on the album’s brilliant cover): instead it may take the form of looking back warmly on an unrequited love for the popular girl from school, as happens in ‘Disco 2000’. The second danceable anthem on Different Class is so celebratory that it even allows the girl to bring along the baby she had with whoever she ended up marrying to the future meeting in the year 2000. No hard feelings. Or it might be the carnal love about which Jarvis the voyeur sings in ‘Underwear’, like an erotic attraction that is almost inevitable – not in the romantic sense but rather as it appears in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’: ‘But this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s dirtier than that.’ The interaction between chance and fate resounds throughout this amorous subplot (‘Why me?/Why you?/Why here?/Why now?’), which is so clearly expressed in the largely acoustic ballad ‘Something Changed’, about which Jarvis himself would say during a concert at the Reading Festival in 2017: ‘This is the most romantic song we ever managed to write.’ A large part of the song’s celebration of love consists in the awareness of its contingency, in knowing that the arrow shot could just have easily not landed because of something as innocuous as deciding to go to the cinema and ending up singing this love song (which sings about itself, anyway) to someone else.
Ah, and then there’s the escape offered by drugs. Just as in 1995 British rave culture was already in its declining phase, the two songs on Different Class which address the topic, ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’ and ‘Bar Italia’, both end up in that spectacular comedown which every regular consumer of drugs will know all too well. In the first song, after attending a rave which he has heard about on pirate radio (whose cultural importance has been underlined by people like Mark Fisher), Jarvis has lost his friends and is scared he has left part of his brain in a field in Hampshire. And we could imagine ‘Bar Italia’ as the continuation of the morning after the same night, in which he brings the revelry to an end with a companion who is in such a deplorable state that, if they knocked down this small bar in London’s Soho, with its cured hams hanging from the ceiling, ‘It would still look much better than you.’ But neither the repeated loss of one’s brain (‘Oh, what did you lose?/Oh, It’s ok, it’s just your mind’), nor the confused mess of the morning after, will stop the whole process from starting all over again, ideally next week: ‘If we get through this alive/I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time’.
This October just past marked twenty-five years since the release of Different Class, but considering the changes in Western socio-political narrative and reality since then, it could just as well have come out centuries ago. Back then, the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs of the world were gleefully telling us that, contrary to the claims of the rotten old left, with its concepts of class antagonism and so many other ideology-driven fibs, the free market and global commerce would finally make it possible for us to inhabit societies in which everyone was beautiful, affluent and cool, and where they could match their fortunes to the size of their entrepreneurial vision. We were witnessing the peak arrogance of the management-technocratic class, completely convinced that they had brought with them a brave new world of corporate harmony in which every one of us would peacefully occupy the place assigned to us, according to our own skills, within the great global factory. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that such a fantasy was really just a wet dream of the ruling technocracy, which had its first rude awakening with the financial crisis of 2008. A few years later, the same class antagonism that Pulp were able to get us singing along and dancing to in 1995 was still building up, the result of an increasingly brutal economic reality that was to a significant degree caused by the dismantling of what remained of the Welfare State. This was a process that (along with several other factors) would culminate for Great Britain (and Europe) in Brexit, and for the US (and the rest of the world) in Donald Trump.
In this sense, as is often the case with classic works, Different Class has taken on a renewed relevance, having seemed to prophesy long before the fact that if we kept going down the same path the disaster that is our current reality would become inevitable, as symbolised, among other things, by the nihilism of fake news and alternative facts, which are like a great big ‘fuck you’ directed towards the glossy alternative that is represented by the idyllic garden in Blue Velvet. Because in reality, as it is now abundantly clear, the garden could only be enjoyed by a small few, while everyone else’s fate was, at best, to be allowed to gaze longingly at it, that is when they weren’t busy mowing and trimming it in order to earn a few bucks that would help them survive another day. Or, as Jarvis puts it more subtly in ‘I Spy’: ‘Take your year in Provence/And shove it up your ass.’
Translated by: Rahul Bery
Artwork: José Hernández