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Jarvis Cocker, Britpop’s thinking pervert 

Wednesday, Jul 22 2009
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Ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker recently allowed scientists to measure the physical effects playing music has on his body. He performed with onetime bandmate Richard Hawley for the PBS documentary The Music Instinct: Science and Song, and afterward people in white lab coats prodded the singer's gray matter. The results showed increased blood flow to specific areas of his brain. But they got it all wrong. Cocker's coital pop drastically increases blood flow to the pelvis.

On recent solo effort Further Complications, as well as on Pulp classics His 'n' Hers and Different Class, Cocker cleverly challenges long-held sexual mores with penetrative insight. He's as indebted to Michel Foucault and the Kinsey Reports as to the sex-charged poesy of Lou Reed and Bryan Ferry. His songwriting is porn with a gripping plot, offering narratives too smart to be trashy and too lascivious to be taken seriously. While Suede vocalist and Britpop associate Brett Anderson focused on the "used condom under the bed" aspect of relationships, Cocker is consumed with the moment the prophylactic is unrolled.

"I did a lecture at South by Southwest where I tried to explain my attraction to inappropriate subject matter," Cocker admits by phone from his home in London. "As I child, I heard songs that talked about what the world was up to, only I learned afterward those songs weren't painting an accurate picture."

You can't lodge the same complaint about Cocker's technique, as no subject is taboo, no matter how dodgy. "Further Complications" — with its voluminous, garage-rock hooks and boundless energy — is proof of that. "Leftovers" delivers one dirty-old-man quip after another: "I met her in the museum of paleontology/And I make no bones about it/I said if you wish to study dinosaurs/I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted." "I Never Said I Was Deep" has sexually grotesque lyrics straight out of the John Valby songbook: "I'm not looking for a relationship/Just a willing receptacle."

Cocker laughs when the latter couplet is mentioned. "That one's pretty appalling," he admits. "For me, writing lyrics is the nearest thing to a journal. It's a way to test some of your ideas about society, no matter how disgusting they may be."

In John Dower's Britpop documentary Live Forever, Cocker described himself as a "marginalized piece of turd." The veracity of that outsider claim is irrelevant. What matters is that he plays the part, lyrically, stylistically (unkempt hair, unfashionable horn-rimmed glasses), and through his exotic, breathy delivery. In fact, it's this marginalization that gives his adult-themed ruminations potency. From a distance, Cocker can coolly observe how sex prompts reflection on poor life decisions ("Underwear"), is used as a tool ("Common People"), and is considered just another activity of daily living ("Big Julie").

And while his descriptions can be enlightening, they're also distressing for the ways they debase physical intimacy. Cocker is most compelling when pertly reflecting on intercourse's many uses while also hinting at the mystery and bliss that surrounds it. (See "Babies" and "We Love Life.")

Cocker traces his views of sexuality back to his childhood. He was raised primarily in the company of women (his father left when he was 7), which he says resulted in a somewhat stunted way of thinking about the opposite sex. "You come to view women as just friends," he explains. "Then one day you realize you want to have sex with them. What an interesting change that was. So in my songs, I'm sorting it all out. I figure I'll always be sorting it out."

If Cocker goes crazy trying — well, at least he knows where to find the people in white lab coats.

About The Author

Ryan Foley

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