Sunday, August 15, 2010

Common People

I studied in Florence, Italy in 1995. It was one of the best years of my life (to date), but at the time, I wasn't ready for it. I had moved to San Francisco in the Fall of 1993, and spent the next two years getting immersed in the burgeoning SF punk scene, seeing Green Day, Jawbreaker, and a lot of other smaller bands Before They Were Big (although Cake and Rage Against the Machine were probably the only bands I actually saw Before They Were Famous-Schlong, Skanking Pickle, Strawman, Pounded Clown, Tilt, Fluf, etc. never had such a big impact).

What was I talking about?

Oh, so I arrive in Italy as a twenty-year old who is really into country, rockabilly, Kiss, gangsta rap, and punk rock. My roommate in SF had been into the blossoming Brit Pop scene, but it seemed like fey, wimpy, affected garbage to me. I wanted to hear American music, dammit! I hated the idea of sucking up the Brits, and the snobbery and utter wimpiness that I associated with it.

Half a year in Europe changed my mind. We would go to the Scorpione bar (between the Ufizzi and Santa Croce, for anyone who knows Florence, and they would play videos that we would dance to. One of the videos on constant rotation was Pulp's "Common People." It was, and remains, one of my favorite dance songs of all time.

Musically, it references synth pop, glam rock, and British pop, but gave it a (then) contemporary sheen. More importantly, it had a level of musical sophistication that was sorely lacking among the deteriorating grunge scene. By 1995 grunge was sold out and played out. True innovators like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had given way to shitty imitators like Candlebox and Creed. The music was muddy, dreary, and no fun at all. I was sick of distorted guitars, and sick of white kids from comfortable backgrounds whining about how miserable they were (see emo). Worse, American music had gotten insular and navel-gazing. I was over it, and looking for something that was more fun and had something to say.

"Common People" is a fun dance song, but it is a fun dance song that dissects how the rich see the poor as a font of authenticity and realness, romanticizing the suffering and squalor of the lower classes. Singer Jarvis Cocker calls out the girl in the song (based on a Greek woman he met at university), but also calls out the hopelessness and meaninglessness of the lives of the "common people."

"You'll never fail like common people," he sings. "You'll never watch your life slide out of view/And then dance and drink and screw/Because there's nothing else to do."

When I got back to SF in summer of 1996, I started going to Popscene, then at the Black Cat Club. Every Thursday me and my roommate Matt would dress in our most mod gear, drink guiness and dance. Every week this song came on, and it was always a cathartic experience, naming how meaningless and inconsequential we were feeling, and making it seem ok. I still love the song, and whenever I hear it, it makes me smile.

So I got into Brit Pop for a while until eventually, the artifice and foreign-ness of it got on my nerves again, and I gravitated towards other types of music. When I went back to Italy in 2000, I was listening mostly to hardcore punk. That year my biggest musical discovery was Bob Dylan. Sometimes you have to go away to come home.

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