Welcome to Day 12 of our pop culture advent calendar! Every day we’ve handed out a little treat in the shape of a mini-blog on something or someone we’ve admired in 2012. Here’s a little bit of an introduction to this whole advent calendar idea. Yesterday we celebrated the Christmas Single and Mariah Carey’s perfect contribution to this normally shabby niche. Today’s advent calendar gift from Pop Lifer takes a sharp left turn. Today we celebrate 2012’s finest contribution to Britain’s favourite old chestnut – class commentary.
“They dance and drink and screw/Because there’s nothing else to do”.
Jarvis Cocker is now a whispering national institution. A 6Music DJ, a regular documentary maker and all round good egg, this is no bad thing. What put him there was a hit so large and now so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget how preposterously bombastic and energetic it actually is. Common People is part great pop song, part important social commentary and part mid-90s monolith.
Jarvis entertained and enlightened us and we now gratify him with our fond respect. And yet, Common People, like many of Pulp’s songs doesn’t ask for its protagonist to be liked. It is not seeking our approval, just our hips.
Common People is a famous scythe aimed at the knees of a rich kid art student who wants to dress up poor for the day. The song builds from a sneer to a snarl to an all out assault on the class system. This assault sweeps up some collateral along the way however. The rich, privileged and bourgeois ‘will never understand’ how it feels to live your life/With no meaning or control.’ And yet with this very line, the scythe slashes the very faces of those the song is seemingly trying to defend.
A lack of control is a powerful point. A lack of meaning, however, is far more troubling. Really? Do poor people never translate screwing into love? Do they never have friendships with meaning?
You feel that there is as much distance between the song’s protagonist and the fag smoking pool players as there is between him and the Greek sculpture student. The only difference – our class guide is more likely to end up in bed with his class tourist than he is with a ‘common person.’ Common People has a villain alright, but it would be wrong to think it has a hero. It makes Common People a better song.
How and why lives are different is complicated and troubling and implicates every one whether we like it not (and generally we don’t). Pop Lifer can assure you now these differences are not simply down to hard work. 2012 has brought to the surface these awkward truths, not least with the pending welfare cuts and reforms – this scythe being wielded by George Osborne, a man about whom there is little ambiguity.
The Jarvis Cocker Award for an Ambiguous Class Commentary goes to a fantastic documentary series and accompanying exhibition which caught us at our most magnificent and ugly best – just as we look in that contorting hall of mirrors we know as the class system……
Grayson Perry’s In the Best Possible Taste and The Vanity Of Small Differences
Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences are six woven murals that describe the code of taste that sits behind the class system – the very code that the protagonist is asked to corrupt on behalf of his new best friend in Common People. The murals are a modern interpretation of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, and they chart a loose narrative of a climb through the class system via the front rooms, working men clubs, golf clubs, dinner parties, conservatories and manor houses of Britain.
The tattoos and pimped cars of working class Sunderland give way to aspirational modern housing developments, in turn usurped by the shabby chic of the well educated. The decaying manor house (pictured above), and eventually the mid-life crisis second wife and Ferrari provide the fatal overreach. The iPhone is ubiquitous, the journey is awkward, ugly, sometimes desperate and inevitably tragic. Icons are gently mocked (Jamie Oliver is the sinister overlord of the aspirational middle class) and acknowledged (Steve Jobs features).
The murals are a spiky conclusion not reflected in Perry’s warm and generous TV documentary, In the Best Possible Taste. Like Cocker, Perry presents convivially enough but he chooses to represent with a far sharper bite. As a TV presenter and social commentator, Perry proved to be an excellent conduit for the anxieties and bravado of a nation. Perry is a comprehensive school educated Essex boy who has become a Turner Prize winning, cross-dressing master potter. Like Jarvis, he occupies that happy space many of our heroes come from – a working class boy made good.
This unique position affords him a space and perspective which is invaluable. He dresses in football tops and wax jackets through the day and swaps them for fake tan, gladrags, pearl necklaces and high heels of an evening. As such, as a commentator, Perry achieves the necessary distance and comes close himself to escaping the class system. But he can’t.
After all, the documentary was on Channel 4 and the exhibition was in Shoreditch. Neither platform is likely to secure the mass audience that the TV series and exhibition both deserve. And so, with deadening English irony, a study and representation of the class system finds itself merely adding to its dynamic. However, the work was designed not to bring the class system down from within but to bear witness to its foibles and this it does very, very well. Arguably, given the larger canvas Perry is working on, The Vanity of Small Differences gives more complexity and understanding about our class system than Common People could ever feasibly achieve.
Except, of course, you can’t dance to a mural.
A fuller version of this review was published this summer.