The Nostalgia Series, vol. 2: Pulp’s “Common People”

By: Patricia Kusumaningtyas |

There’s something about Pulp’s “Common People” that still rings in the ears of modern listeners. And maybe it’s more relevant than ever now that change is ringing in the ears of every modern citizen—whether it is calling from the inside or echoing of other people’s voices for change. This spawns a significant wave of activism and its various methods. These methods aim to amplify marginalized voices and give them a platform in an unjust system. “Common People” strikes out as one of the most prominent voices of the working class in music, and it is a fair reminder to this era that the privileged should not speak over the marginalized, but give their voices to the marginalized.

The central character of the song is a woman that vocalist Jarvis Cocker met in St. Martin’s College, who asked him to guide him to be a member of the working class. The song starts slow and steady as Cocker leads his audience to the set-up of the story. Cocker took the girl to the supermarket and asked her to pretend that she has no money, in which the girl answered him with ridicule. The bridge after that scene is where we can hear Cocker’s patience snap, as he mentioned that no matter how much the girl pretended to be poor, she can always call her dad and “he could stop it all.”

The song itself is building gradually from a series of controlled synthesizer and slow drum beats with Cocker singing the lyrics with a whispery voice. What is interesting about this song is that its lyrics follow the same pattern, with the beginning of the song indicating Cocker’s awkwardness and amusement spiraling into anger and confusion. The instruments mirror the progression by adding the tempo as the song goes along, but what is the most important for the song’s essence is Cocker’s delivery; as the song progresses, we can hear Cocker spouting his formerly repressed anger.

Thematically, this song is a representation of the anger of the working class against members of the upper class who refuse to acknowledge their privilege in contrast with the working class. In “Common People,” Pulp is describing a phenomenon known as slum tourism, where members of the upper class visit impoverished areas for their own amusement. “Common People” could also be put in context to other phenomena such as poverty porn—any type of media exploiting the lower class to generate “sympathy” for the upper/middle class—and can even be put into context with more privileged activists “robbing” underprivileged people of their voices. The song is an example of pent-up anger and frustration experienced by marginalized groups, and it really awakens some of its listeners.

“Common People” asks its audience to stop and listen to what the working class has to say. And we all should, too.

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