Common People is a song by the pop group Pulp. It was released on May 6, 1995 as a single, and later appeared on their October 1995 album Different Class.

The Single

Common People b/w Underwear Released May 6, 1995 in the UK by Island Records
Peaked at #2 on the singles chart, residing at that point from May 13, 1995 to May 27, 1995. (The #1 song during this stretch was Robson Green and Jerome Flynn's cloying cover of Unchained Melody)

Other b-sides on later versions of the single include Razzmatazz, Dogs Are Everywhere, Joyriders, Whiskey in the Jar, 59 Lyndhurst Grove, Babies, Do You Remember The First Time?, and Mile End.

Facts

As usual for Pulp singles, the sleeve had an interesting comment on it: There is a war in progress - don't be a casual(ty). The time to decide whose side you're on is here. Choose wisely. Stay alive in `95.

The single was Island Records' first attempt at releasing multiple versions of the single in order to increase sales. When the single debuted at #2 on the singles chart in May 1995, Island immediately released "alternate" versions of the single to sustain the single's chart life. This tactic explains the long list of "alternate" b-sides listed above.

Commentary

Where can one even start?

This song is fantastic in pretty much any way a pop song can be. The music of the song is constructed from oft-repeated elements, borrowing from the history of pop music as much of the better British pop music of the 1990s did: New Wave keyboards, 1970s-style rock drumming, fuzzed-up glam guitars - this song echoes David Bowie and The Who and everything in between.

But yet each element is directed and focused and they intermix together to produce something that still sounds new to my ear even as I listen to it almost ten years later. The instruments all fuse together to create a new sound, in which the tempo builds up throughout the song to a peak, where Jarvis Cocker begins to scream/shout/sing You will never understand / How it feels to live your life / With no meaning or control / And with nowhere else to go

And amazingly, the lyrics of the song somehow get past the instrumentation and make a point on their own. The song is ostensibly about a upper class female who is "slumming it" with a lower class male, with the male obviously providing the narrative point of view. But when you start digging into the song, more and more layers reveal themselves.

Peel away a layer and the song is about class conflict, and the outright mistrust that the lower classes have against the upper classes. Quite simply, no one likes to be downtrodden, and thus often people in the upper classes seemingly have forgotten what it is like, and the lower classes resent it.

Peel away a layer and the song is about a lack of control, about a situation slipping away because of the context of the life surrounding it.

Peel away a layer and the song is about the true plight of the poor, in that they often are in a life "with no meaning or control and with nowhere else to go," and how the upper class doesn't see this problem at all, merely seeing it as a lack of economic resources or, often, having no clue what the problem is at all.

Peel away a layer and the song is about an outright hatred for stupidity in all forms. The stupidity of the upper class to think that they understand the plight of the lower class, and the stupidity of the lower class for falling into the same old traps without trying to better themselves. Both perspectives eschew stupidity, and stupidity is the real villain here.

It is a well-written and profound piece on the class structure in most of the first world strictly from a lyrical perspective; it makes its point very well in the structure of lyrics.

But when you combine it with the instrumentation... you have an amazing song.


I suppose I identify with Common People greatly. My family's background is blue collar, while I am engaged to someone whose background is, if not strictly white collar, at least significantly better off than my own. I often feel very ... poor when I visit them and spend time with them.

And the reverse is true. When we visit my family, it is clear that the often terrific plight of some of my family members, who are often completely lost in their own paths, is completely and totally missed. Also, it's safe to say that I'm the one with any degree of budgetary sense in our relationship; money is often not a tangible concept, I don't think, for my significant other.

I guess when I hear this song, to a large degree, I hear myself.

This song, from popular English band Pulp’s album entitled Different Class and written by lead singer Jarvis Cocker, is a perfect example of modern class relations. Though it is not American, the situation discussed in the song does occur in this country though it is not as recognized as it is in the UK.

The song tells of Jarvis Cocker’s encounter with a rich Greek girl in a bar. She is very well educated in the fine arts, but it is in a working class bar trying to live like a “common person.” His attitude in the song progresses from interest to near anger as he tries to explain that someone raised in a wealthy family can never know what the working class life is like. He is upset that she is engaging in a sort of class tourism, trying to experience life from the other side.

In the first verse of the song, Cocker takes the girl to a supermarket to begin showing her how common people live. She laughs off his advice to not act wealthy, and does not seem at all to understand the seriousness of the difference between their classes. He remarks that if she were to try to live life from a working class perspective, her dad could return her to the capitalist class with one phone call.

Cocker goes on to say that she will never live like common people because it is not the novelty she sees it to be. She can join them and laugh and drink, but they are laughing at people like her for wanting to live like them. In one of the last verses, he writes:
“Look out they'll tear your insides out
'cos everybody hates a tourist
especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh
yeah and the chip stain's grease will come out in the bath
You will never understand how it feels to live your life
with no meaning or control and with nowhere left to go.”

He is condemning the fad of class tourism, as it is disrespectful.
The song also touches on the idea that education seems to mark one of the many differences between the classes. The girl in the song studied fine arts at Central St. Martin’s College, a very reputable school with a very wealthy student body. Her education may have made her aware of other classes and of class tourism.

The man tells her while in the supermarket to pretend that she never went to school. This is a very important lyric as it marks a distinction between him and her. Because she went to such a high class school, she will never be able to understand the working class. She will continue to see it as a novel way to live, but will always look at it from the outside. The girl is presented as being above the listener in class, but below the listener and lyricist in intellect regardless of her education. Jarvis Cocker conveys the attitude that poor has become “cool” to everyone who is not poor.
The lines about how the rich girl will never watch her “life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw” are crucial. To many listeners, this may seem as if the poor are partying because there is “nothing else to do,” as Cocker writes. This points out a clear difference between the rich girl’s view of the good life and Cocker’s working class view of the same. While dancing, drinking, and screwing sounds like fun, he is pointing out that the working class does this to keep their sanity, not because they have the leisure time to spare.

His language includes the use of slang, such as the word “fag” for cigarettes.
While Cocker is no scholar of class systems, he does provide his own definition of class based mainly on envy. While he does not envy her position in society, she envies his, which seems counterintuitive. The attitude toward class tourism is serious: he hates that she wants to live like the poorer classes just to “do whatever common people do.” This type of disrespect is only seen from the working class. The rich girl sees it as fascinating, and the people she wishes to emulate are struggling every day against people like her and her family.

Cocker’s definition of class is based on economics and culture. She is rich, and although she wants to get away from her wealth at least for a time, Cocker points out that she can never accomplish this. His class structure has very limited mobility, and he seems to want it to remain limited. Class is very important to Cocker, as it unfortunately is to much of the English nation.

The above writeups concern the Pulp track. They're quite good. But they're not complete.

Oh no.

You see, in 2004, William Shatner came out with an album of rock and spoken word mashups. It was arranged by Ben Folds, of Ben Folds Five; and it contains what can only be described as an 'eclectic' mix of material. One of the most eclectic is a cover of Common People. On this version, there are two vocal parts. The main part of the lyrics are done spoken word by Mr. Shatner; the chorus (and some backing) is sung by Joe Jackson.

I'm not sure how I would feel about this cover version if I had been a fan of the original, but to be honest, I'd never even heard the original before hearing this one. I've listened to the original since, and it seems a nice song with a point, albeit a bit angsty - but then, I, too, have never smoked a fag nor spent dole money in a pub. This doesn't make me anything except 'unfit to comment' on the class-study aspect of the song. It's catchy, and (at least the original Pulp version, not their own redo) certainly seems heartfelt.

But the strangeness of William Shatner is that when you add him to things like this, things where his particular brand of overemoting flat-voiced delivery would on first blush seem to be the kiss of death to any such endeavour, something happens.

Something wonderful.

It's pretty clear what it is, too, and why it works now. See, Shatner went and got himself a sense of humor concerning his own self. For proof of this, I offer the title of his album - Has Been. Nobody can make an album named that, with the particular cover art that it carries (I'll let you find it, but don't worry, perfectly safe for work) without having a sense of humor about themselves. As a result, his jarringly different and, and first glance, inappropriate delivery suddenly is no longer just wrong; it's ironic, and in its irony, it's damn-all brilliant. The Shat has found a niche which has been opened for him not only by his particular style, but also been shaped by the hammer of the pop-culture importance he achieved for obvious reasons.

So the song.

It's a direct cover; the lyrics are (I think) identical, and the structure and music the same. Rather than being a purely guitar-driven track, it has been given a slight 'bleep' update, with electronic stingers for the opening notes. Shatner's almost twee and disbelieving tone on the first verse sets the stage for the rest of the track, which I can only describe as AWESOME. (sorry.) He lets his incredibly unsubtle voice color with as much disbelief and, eventually, anger, as possible; by the time we reach the two/thirds mark, Shatner is bellowing into the mic with Jackson mirroring him in the background for melody:

Rent a flat above a shop
cut your hair and get a job
smoke some fags and play some pool
pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'cause when you're laying in bed at night
watching ROACHES CLIMB THE WALL
If you called your Dad, he could STOP IT ALL, yeah
You'll never live like common people
you'll never do what common people do!
You'll never fail like common people
you'll never watch your life slide out of view
and dance, and drink, and screw
cause there's nothing else to do...

The thing that makes this brilliant to me is that Shatner is the epitome (since his accession to the pop-culture heights, at least) of the person who will never know these things. Even his delivery - overtrained, overcontrolled, and carrying the familiar rhythms of a hairy-chested Starship captain - testifies that he has no idea what it's like to live like that.

But he's angry. He's angry at the girl who's playing the class tourist, and he wants you to know it.

Is he really angry? You know, it's hard to say.

And maybe that's because he's learned to use his somewhat singular talents for something. Because honestly? I don't know if he's angry or not - which means that he has successfully convinced me that maybe he's not just acting.

And the music rocks. I have been known to drive over a hundred miles with this song on repeat, shouting along out the window at passing cars.

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