20 Years Ago: Pulp Crash the Britpop Party With ‘Different Class’
For obvious reasons, it's difficult for Americans to pick up on the more subtle shades of division between England's social classes. If, for example, Pulp bandleader Jarvis Cocker hadn't spelled it out on Different Class, the band's fifth album, who would've ever guessed that Cocker's muse was largely fueled by blue-collar angst?
These days, Cocker looks like he could pass for an erudite college professor, and he has always been able to turn a phrase like one.
The band's twee sound would've further obscured the alienation at the core of the music on Different Class, but the lyrics of album opener "Mis-Shapes" come across with an us-vs-them mentality that the music video drives home even further (and with hilarious flair to boot).
For those to whom provincial northern England might as well be another world, Different Class illuminates that world, but only partially. Listeners get a glimpse into what life there was like for Cocker growing up, but he and the band also give it an exotic sheen. If you've never been there, you can't help but try and imagine the place and picture a young Cocker's struggles as you listen. In a nutshell, the band's hometown of Sheffield is a working-class city. Cocker and his peer group felt out of place among the natives -- who would, according to Cocker, physically attack them for wearing certain clothes. On the other hand, Cocker and company also felt looked down upon by the influx of students from other parts of the country.
It was between this rock and a hard place that Pulp's music incubated for almost 20 years before coalescing most famously on the Different Class single "Common People," Cocker's tale of his doomed crush on a wealthy student who fancied the idea of living among "the common people." Cocker was put-off by her unwitting snobbery, but his attraction had blinded him somewhat. Of course, he channeled his mixed feelings and criticisms into a hit that struck a chord throughout England and beyond.
Listening to Different Class all the way through, it's easy to see why. When Cocker sings "But we live 'round here too" on "Mis-Shapes," he's speaking to the specifics of his adolescent surroundings, but when he sings "You could end up with a smack on the mouth just for standing out" on the same song, he nails a universal truth about the stress and internal dislocation that never truly leaves people who feel like they don't fit in. Meanwhile, in the bigger picture, both the British and American press were fixing their attention on two then-upstart acts, Blur and Oasis, and the messy feud between them.
By that point Blur, Oasis, and Suede had been christened as forerunners of the movement that came to be known as Britpop. Not unlike the way a young Cocker would attend student parties just to snag beer, Pulp crashed the Britpop party in style with Different Class. Fraught with sexual tension to match its uneasy preoccupations with status, the album was also spiked with a sense of humor that set Pulp apart from their peers. Take the "Disco 2000" video, with its clever send-up of the anticipation the weekend brings. Here, Pulp captured the mundane truth about working all week for something to look forward to, as well as the dash of disappointment that comes even when expectations come true. But they also made it sound fun and upbeat.
With Different Class, Pulp presented snapshots of everyday life that one almost can't help but listen to with a certain fondness. Those who embraced the album when it came out likely feel a bit wistful too. But don't worry, Cocker's winking persona simply won't allow you to get gloomy on your trip down memory lane. On Different Class, he and the band kept the mood light even as they railed against the social order. In so doing, they left behind a group of songs that, 20 years later, retain their charm as much as they speak to the era they helped define.