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Fanfare For The Common Man: 'Common People' as the perfect Brexit anthem

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Cinta Vidal

The other day it struck me: 'Common People' is the perfect Brexit anthem.

I realise this borders on blasphemy, not least since Jarvis Cocker himself has been vocally anti-Brexit, but bear with me. It's not the song itself it's the way we sing it.

I've always thought that the way people sing along arms flung wide, chest puffed out, voices raised in joyous union misses the point. It's a song in which no one comes off well, but we feel solidarity with it nonetheless. We are the common people. We hate the posh girl. We hate the posh girl even when we are the posh girl. I mean, I sing along like nobody's business and I talk like the BBC.

This apparently simple binary is the key to its success. There's the 'I' and the 'you', the poor kid and the posh girl. On top of that is the class divide, the 'us' and the 'them'. As a personal theme song, which is all anyone wants from an anthem, it's pure crack. Everyone can relate to it, personally and politically, even if it has no bearing on their actual life.

Except it's not quite as simple as that. With Pulp it never was.

I discovered the band properly during a bad dip in my 20s, long after the Britpop bus had left the station. I was broke, recently dumped and living back at home. Under this serendipitous trinity of small catastrophes it's not hard to see why them, why then I found myself transfixed by songs that were intimate but elusive, as caustic as they were compassionate.

[Cocker] makes you feel like an outsider, from the inside

What drew me in was the disruption of the usual binary I'd come to expect from most pop songs, the 'I' (subject) singing to the 'you' (object). The object might be one of desire or rejection, but the dialogue was always pretty straightforward. Love or hate. Joy or sorrow. Marmite gender politics in a three-minute potted riff.

But Cocker sang about desire in a manner as derisive as it was empathetic. Did he care about these women or was he laughing at them? In 'Underwear', he's singing to a girl waiting with apparent dread as her lover comes up the stairs to bed. His tone is rueful, but not without accusation ("Just remember / That this is what you wanted last night"). As much as he understands her situation and he really does ultimately, he leaves her to it ("I couldn't stop it now / There's no way to get out").

The key to his lyrics is that he makes you feel like an outsider, from the inside. You're both in the thick of it and on the sidelines. But he's an unreliable narrator and that's where the poignancy of the storytelling lies - an ever-shifting focus and desire, an ambivalent sense of agency and identity.

This is why 'Common People' sounds like Brexit to me. The way we're singing it, as if it's ours. The EU is public enemy number one, the posh antagonist we unite against. We are the common people, singing our rousing chorus against her. You'll never be like us.

But that song was never about solidarity. It takes the 'us versus them' narrative and subverts it, except it's so damn catchy most people are too busy singing along to notice. The depiction of the common people is not an identity, it's an indictment. It grows to a crescendo of dingy realism where escape is just as impossible as it was for the girl in 'Underwear', trapped in a bed of her own making. But, as with that scenario, our narrator is standing on the outside and he ain't coming to save you.

The great con of 'Common People' is that it makes desperation sound like triumph, and it's a triumph we all think we're part of. Meanwhile, the real thrust of the story is lost under an irresistible hook. When the underlying distance and disdain which was always there comes out in the wash, we feel cheated.

Where are our anthems, our glorious exaltations? They were never there. We were just singing it wrong.

Sarah Sharp

Next article in issue 138

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