After spending most of my adult life reading music criticism, I've come to some conclusions. Describing a song is generally worthless; sound is just too abstract for there to be a good concrete vocabulary to discuss it. Arguing that something sounds good or bad is a fools errand; that's too subjective. But arguing that a song or a band is interesting, or indicates something about our society - now that can be quite compelling, because if it's done well, it can show you a new angle on your own life.
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets understands this, as you might guess from its title. The film is about the final show of Pulp's reunion tour, which they are holding in their hometown of Sheffield, England. But it's also about the town of Sheffield, and the people that live there. Broadening the film's focus was a smart decision. While I'm a big fan of Pulp the band, I don't think that just seeing their live show would have been as powerful than seeing their live show through the eyes of their biggest fans.
I'm slightly overstating the case, actually, because while there are people who traveled from thousands of miles away to see this specific show, not all of the people they interview are super-fans. Some of the kids they interview have never heard of Pulp, who broke up before they were born. One old woman on the street said that she liked them more than Blur, but she wasn't exactly raving about them - although given that she’s a widow who raised seven children, who knows how much enthusiasm she has left in her for anything. Then there's an academic leading a class about what Pulp's lyrics mean, who must have some enthusiasm about the band if he's devoted his time to teaching them, but who speaks about them with a fair amount of reserve.
If that mixed reaction sound like it would deflate the band's mystique - well, that's the point. Pulp is not a band made up of the cool kids in school, nor is it a band made up of the nerds; it's members seem to come from the middle of the pack - the kind of kids who get through the whole thing without joining a clique or becoming a cliché because they are focused on keeping their head down and doing their own thing. They don't seem like a band who would come naturally to being a stadium act - and in fact, frontman Jarvis Cocker says at one point that before they broke up he would often be thinking about changing a flat tire while he was on stage. Hearing a de-mystifying statement like that from a rock star can often make them seem ungrateful or cynical, but it actually solidifies Cocker’s unpretentious status: he recognizes that what he’s doing is very powerful, but it’s also still a job.
When you see how workmanlike Cocker is, and you see how workmanlike his fans are, you start to understand the appeal of the band on a deeper level. Yes, Pulp's biggest hit Common People is an attack on shitty rich people, but it's also a thesis statement about what the pleasures and pains of having to scrape your way through life. His line about how common people “dance, sing and screw” because they have nothing better to do isn’t quite a celebration nor a condemnation of hedonism – it’s just a recognition of how a lot of people actually live their lives. That interest in reality is key to the band’s appeal. This is a band comfortable knowing that people use music in a lot of different ways and not all of them are worshipful. Their catalogue has songs that dance minded people dance to, and it has songs that singers can karaoke to, and you can screw to it, too. (Or you can dissect them academically if that’s your bag, too.) And that’s fine with Pulp, who after all are sharing their big stage with life, death and supermarkets.
As I said earlier, the best music journalism gives you a lens to understand yourself better. I suppose that I would have been reasonably satisfied with a film that allowed me to hear songs that I like, but that wouldn’t have taught me much. Instead, by focusing on the why of the band, I got some real sense of why Pulp speaks to me so much. It’s the same reasons why it speaks to so many people – because they make music about life’s topics both big and small that’s made to be listened to loudly in the foreground or quietly in the background. As someone who goes back and forth between dreaming big and thinking practically, that perfect for me. I’m interested in the big topics like life and death, but I also don’t want to get too high faluting, because I also recognize that sooner or later I’m going to have to buy groceries. Combining an epic rock show with interviews of fishmongers might seem odd at first, but it also makes sense: we common people know deep down in our bones that Saturday night is for epic rock shows, but Monday is about getting back to work, and that's just how life is.