Pulp: Life, Death, Supermarkets and Cultural Appropriation
The view of Sheffield presented in the documentary film Pulp: Life, Death and Supermarkets is hopelessly out of date and serves as a reminder that maybe Jarvis and co. were always guilty of cultural appropriation.
The man with no teeth who sits in the newspaper kiosk is a Pulp fan, apparently. I’m sure he likes nothing nothing better than to go home after a hard day’s shouting “uuuueeeehwooom” (meaning ‘late Star’) and stick on Bar Italia before settling down to a double Corrie omnibus. The two old ladies who drag their shopping trollies around Castle Market are also Jarvis fans, we are told. Do they file their Pulp CDs next to Cabaret Voltaire or Scott Walker, I wonder? Is it Pulp’s pithy social commentary and wry witticisms they like, or is it their masterly portrayal of suburban ennui through references to the detritus of 70s modernity? Or is it because the band are famous and from Sheffield and sound a bit like Bryan Ferry?
Either way, I’m pretty sure Jarvis had a small sex wee when he discovered that Mavis was a fan. Because, although Pulp like to revel in faux-working class nostalgia, they are not a working class band, either in terms of fan-base or band members’ cultural heritage. So finding out that real Sheffielders like them must have been a dream come true.
Jarvis and his sister Saskia, yes – Saskia, grew up in the biggest house in Intake. It had a walled garden and an annex. In fact, their family owned most of the row of shops at Intake. Jarvis’ Mum was – and may still be, for all I know – a Tory councillor. Jarvis went to Central St Martins Art school. He now lives in Paris. Choosing to become an expat in France rather than Spain should have rung an alarm bell for anyone who was labouring under the gross misapprehension that proper Sheff lads go on to form Art-Pop-Electronic bands.
Of course, it was the northern accent that did it. As soon as someone speaks with anything other than RP, they are immediately able to carve out a career as denizens of working class culture, defenders of the Common People. The music press – especially in the 90s – were falling over themselves to lionize anyone who had ever had a Saturday job in a supermarket or drunk a pint of mild. Claiming to have holidayed in Butlins as a child was more or less a guaranteed Number 1 single. Blur pretended to like football and dog racing for a while, but were pretty quickly outed as mockneys and decided to open cheese shops in Glocestershire. Pulp were similarly pseudo, more northern manqué than northern monkey.
Even though prior to Common People, Jarvis had made a career out of lampooning and parodying the social mores of the working classes, nobody ever questioned his sincerity. Think of Joyriders: “we’re so thick we can’t think/can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink”, Mishapes: “What’s the point of being rich if you can’t think what to do with it? ‘Cause you’re so bleedin’ thick…” and I Spy “My favourite park’s a car park, grass is something you smoke, birds is something you shag / Take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse”. The lyrics of these songs are a confrontational assault on Chav mentality, or on “Townies”, as we used to scornfully call them in Sheffield in those days.
In Pulp: Life Death and Supermarkets, Sheffield is portrayed as if it is still 1984. As if the miners are still on strike and Castle Market is still the place for knicker elastic. As if the overpowering smell of salt, vinegar, diesel and urine still lingers in the air on Pond St. As if the Forum and Meadowhall have never been built. As if a gallon of Magnet and a packet of Woodbines are all we need to take away the pain of our meaningless lives of unending drudgery, rainy saturdays and dripping sandwiches.
Life, Death and Supermarkets is nostalgia for a world where Tony Blair hasn’t schmoozed with Oasis whilst systematically dismantling Socialism. Where football hasn’t become the preserve of Arab billionaires and £40 ticket holders. Where Sheffield doesn’t have pulled pork, flat whites and an Apple store just like everywhere else.
Life, Death and Supermarkets is a lie within a lie. It is recuperation, cultural appropriation. It is class pornography. It is Benefits Street. It is the fetishisation and theft of authentic working class identity. The viewers’ gaze, our gaze, feasts on a northern fantasy. A fantasy where poor people are able to escape shitty towns by writing songs about supermarkets. A world where working class people even like Indie music.