Jarvis Cocker versus Sir Bono

Issue 

The lead singer of rock band U2, "Sir" Bono, was awarded his honourary Knighthood Commander of the Order of the British Empire in March. In an example of the power of the corporate media to paint black as white, the multi-millionaire Bono has somehow gotten a reputation as a progressive social activist, standing up for the downtrodden of the world.

Bono's very public admiration for war criminals like US President George Bush and former British PM Tony Blair make this achievement all the more remarkable. He has also been targeted by Venezuela solidarity activists after one of the companies he part-owns, Elevation Partners, produced a computer game simulating a US invasion of oil-rich Venezuela.

A crucial component of this strange fiction, which helps explain why the British elite were so keen to bestow a knighthood on the Irish singer (whose nationality technically denies him the right to affix "Sir" to his name), is the "Live 8" concerts held simultaneously in a range of First World cities in July 2005. A follow-on from the 1985 Live Aid charity fundraising concert, both coordinated by Bono's close friend Sir Bob Geldof, the Live 8 concerts were run to support the "Make Poverty History" campaign. This campaign sought to combine genuine concern for the suffering of Africa's poor with "lobbying" by Bono and Geldof of world leaders at the G8 summit of the richest countries in Scotland.

The rhetoric was impeccable and the spin even better. The brutal reality was much different — the deal that Bono helped sell to the world as helping alleviate Africa's suffering was geared to do the opposite. Small-scale debt relief for some African countries was tied to crippling neoliberal measures of the sort that caused the poverty that led to Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney appearing on the same stage in London in the first place.

It was similar musical horrors that prompted Morrissey, then lead-singer of The Smiths, to comment on Band Aid's charity song "Do they know it's Christmas" that featured Bono: "One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it's another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England." But the reality is more sinister than bad music for a good cause. You don't get knighted for bad music, but for concrete services to the status quo, and Bono and Geldof provided much needed cover to the system of imperialism, which has suffered some bad PR in recent years with mass protests against war and neoliberal globalisation around the world.

Not everyone has bought the spin. Jarvis Cocker, the former lead singer of English band Pulp — who reached the height of their popularity in the mid-90s with the defiant working-class anthem "Common People" — responded to the Live 8 circus by releasing a scathing song, "Running the World", exactly one year later via his My Space page (<http://www.myspace.com/jarvspace>). "I remember thinking at the time", Cocker wrote, "Where does engaging with these politicians/businessmen really get you? ... maybe the problem is something more ... fundamental."

An attack on the ruling class, whose guiding principle he summarises as: "Fuck the morals, does it make any money?", the song's central message is, Bono and Geldof's rhetoric notwithstanding, nothing has changed, the system still "stinks". Cocker sings: "Let's be perfectly clear boys and girls — cunts are still running the world". The unfortunate use of a sexist term like "cunts", an offensive term for vagina for which there is no male equivalent, is problematic. However, we can sympathise 100% with his sentiments about those in power.

Directly targeting New Labour and its apologetics for the system, the song employs a familiar style that Cocker also uses in "Common People" — shifting from initial ironic disdain to impassioned denunciation. He begins: "You tell me there's a natural order/That the most deserving will end up with the most/That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top/Well I say — shit floats."

Then, having told us what he really thinks of New Labour types ("Well, feed your children on crabfish and lobster tails/Find a school near the top of the league/In theory I respect your right to exist/But I'll kill you if you move in next to me"), he offers this succinct point: "The free market is perfectly natural/Do you think I am some kind of dummy?"

What else should we expect from Cocker, whose class instincts have been sharpened by living a far-from privileged life as a struggling musician into his 30s, when Pulp finally found commercial success as part of the mid-'90s Britpop wave. This is the man whose message to the rich in "I Spy", a song from Pulp's 1995 album Different Class, was: "Take your 'Year in Provence'/And shove it up your arse", and who decisively rejected New Labour's attempts at the height of Pulp's popularity to use him in the way it has more recently used Bono. Asked to write a song in support of Blair's election, Cocker instead wrote the bitingly sarcastic "Cocaine Socialism", which savaged New Labour's cynical attempts to co-opt musicians.

Often not overtly political, Cocker's lyrics focus on the lives of ordinary people, drawing directly on his own experiences. Cocker explained in a 1998 interview: "I hope there's a humanity to the songs that shows I'm more inclined to a socialist view of things."

"Running the World" appears as a "secret track" at the end Cocker's first solo album, called Jarvis. Released in April, the album provides a sustained social commentary on the modern, post-9/11 world, painting a picture that is far from flattering.

The album's highlight, musically and lyrically, is "Fat Children", an up-tempo number that combines driving, jangley guitar (the closest the album gets to the upbeat pop tunes the brought Pulp success) with lyrics that satirise some more absurd aspects of modern life. On being mugged by "fat children", Cocker tells us, "Well, they wanted my brand-new phone with all the pictures of the kids and the wife/A struggle ensued and then fat children took my life".

The song includes this barb: "The police force was elsewhere/Putting bullets into some guy's head for no particular reason" — a pointed reference to the murder of an innocent Brazilian electrician by police in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005.

On "I Will Kill Again", Cocker satirises the banality of middle class life: "Build yourself a castle/Keep your family safe from harm/Get into classical music/Raise rabbits on a farm/Log on in the night time/Drink a half-bottle of wine/Buy a couple of records/Look at naked girls from time to time." The chorus features the mocking lines: "People tell me what a real nice guy you are/So come and serenade me on your acoustic guitar."

The album's harshest commentary on the state of modern Britain is "From A to I", which opens and ends with the line "They want our way of life/Well they can take mine any time they like". Contrary to the argument that the West is somehow more civilised than the "Muslim world", Cocker paints a bleak picture of a civilisation on the brink of collapsing like the Roman Empire. Cocker points out that evil lurks in the West, from the death camps at Auschwitz through to modern day Ipswich, an English town that last year was stalked by a serial killer targeting sex workers.

Cocker has qualities that a decent popular culture requires: passion, humanism and a hatred of the injustices of the class system. He works these qualities into songs that combine intelligence and wit with a great tune. Although Jarvis doesn't quite reach the heights of Pulp at their best, lacking the same quality of catchy pop hooks, Cocker blows "Sir" Bono from the water and shows it is possible to produce quality popular music without becoming imperialism's trained monkey.

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