I don't know why, but I had to start it somewhere, so I started there

I recently saw someone give a good piece of advice:  If you're talking with a co-worker, and some piece of technology comes up that they've never used, don't express surprise.  Don't say, "You've never used ReactJS?"  You don't want to make your co-worker feel dumb.  Also, there are lots of perfectly valid reasons why someone would never have used ReactJS.

This did not stop me, or even slow me down the least little bit, from saying to a co-worker, not long ago, "You've never heard 'Common People'?"

I should say that shaming my co-worker was the last thing on my mind.  It was more like finding that someone has never tasted chocolate.  It's the greatest pop song of the 1990s.  If you've never heard it, how much better your life will soon be!

Also, I don't want to go all grand on you.  My own first exposure to "Common People" was watching William Shatner, Ben Folds, and Joe Jackson perform it on the Tonight Show.  I had no idea why the audience was completely losing their mind, or, to be honest, why this performance existed in the first place.  I didn't even know it was a song by Pulp, a band that, to me, began and ended with This Is Hardcore.

(I will not recommend to anyone that the Shatner/Folds/Jackson performance be their first exposure to "Common People," though if you know the song and you haven't seen, it, it's worth seeking out.  You won't find it on YouTube; it keeps getting taken down.  It is the only performance I've ever seen Joe Jackson unable to get through without laughing.  It is a fantastically bizarre creation, but it will be better for you to have context.)

Let's put that behind us.  There will be time for it later.

The delicious thing about the song is that it really happened.  She really did come from Greece and have a thirst for knowledge.  She really did study sculpture at St. Martin's College.

You have to wonder what, if anything, she thought, years later, about finding herself the subject of so much unflinching focus.  Being someone's muse is not necessarily a good thing.  That scene in Before Sunrise where Julie Delpy's character is playing pinball and running down the reasons that her ex-boyfriend was so terrible, how bad in bed he was?  It must not have been very much fun for Gary Oldman to watch.  And think of any number of men in Carly Simon's life who wondered if they were the one who's so vain they thought the song was about them.

Art being art, and artists being artists, it's the woman who caught Jarvis Cocker's eye, not the other way around.  She did not actually want to sleep with common people.  Or maybe she did, but she didn't want to sleep with common people like him.

Which is one of the great things about this song:  While it's a fantastic photograph of English class consciousness, it is very much from the bottom looking up while it pretends to be about someone at the top looking down.  This exchange meant much more to Cocker than it did to her.  The woman at the center of the song is almost certainly now like Don Draper in the elevator, saying, "I don't think about you at all."

(Remember the economist at Valve who designed their in-game currency system and then went on to be Greece's minister of finance?  She married him.)

As songs by resentful young men go, this one manages to exert a universal pull.  The sharpness of the lyrics and the passion of the performance get at the truth, even if the truth that they get at isn't grounded in something that happened exactly the way it's described.  Getting from meeting at a girl at a party who says that she's thinking of moving to Hackney to live with the common people to this song is as valid an artistic journey as painting Guernica after reading about it in the newspaper.

The song itself is also an epic journey.  It's not especially long - the radio edit is just four minutes and fourteen seconds - but a lot of emotional terrain gets covered in those four minutes.  The first verse is so arch and removed.  The second is filled with the same kind of disbelief that we all experienced when we saw the elder George Bush learn what a bar code is, or heard Donald Trump talk about how you can't buy groceries without a photo ID.  

"You're so funny."  "Oh yeah?  Well I can't see anyone else smiling here."

The leap that comes with "She just smiled and held my hand" is one of the great emotional reveals in recent pop music.  The wrongness of the whole scenario has been bubbling along, and has finally reached a point where we just can't pretend it's OK anymore.  

There seem to be a lot of things in life like that these days.  The line "You'll never fail like common people" has even more resonance today than it did twenty-five years ago.

(I had a lot of internal debate here.  Do I link the radio edit, with the wonderful video, or the full version, which has no visuals but includes the massive third verse?  In the end I decided that if this experience is new to you, you should really see Jarvis Cocker in all his glory.  But know that there's a third verse, and it's even angrier than the second.  Oh, and that line is "drink, and dance, and screw because there's nothing else to do.")

The thing that makes this song so enduring is that the music is the perfect ground for the figure.  The catchy electro-pop with its toe-tapping beat and shimmering violin wash is easy to listen to, unthreatening, exactly the kind of thing that you could emotionlessly dance to the way the kids in the video are.  But it bends along the arc of the song the same way the vocals do, and the song ends with a grandiosity that it didn't suggest it would have when it began.  It takes you into its confidence just as much as Jarvis did.


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