Pulp is my favorite band. That said, I don’t know if I feel they’re underrated, that they ought to be considered one of the biggest, most important and serious groups in the world. Truth be told, I don’t really believe that any rock or pop artist is really underrated. Pretty much everyone gets the audience they deserve.
However, I will make the case that, in their own small way, Pulp did their part to expand the capabilities, ideas and language of popular songs. And I think there are three songs that most vividly illustrate this: “My Legendary Girlfriend,” “Common People” and “This Is Hardcore.”
When “This Is Hardcore” came out as a single, a few weeks before the release of the album of the same name, the press, perhaps understandably, honed in on the explicit lyrics, which seemed to describe the making of and participation in pornography with a creeping world-weariness. What makes these lyrics special is how they function as a near-perfect metaphor for Jarvis’ pursuit and ultimate capture of fame. For example, “This is me on top of you/ And I can’t believe that it took me this long,” could easily describe Pulp’s rise to the top of the British charts. And “This Is Hardcore” ultimately describes the corroding and dehumanizing after-effects of fame. Like porn, the song is saying, celebrity is something that seems alluring and forbidden, especially when you’re young; but up close it can turn out to be depressingly hollow.
The music works perfectly with the words. Pulp was never a band of virtuosos, yet their command over arrangement, their ability to use their musicianship to push the song into new territory, is superlative on a song like this. The song’s most florid elements – the glossy grand piano and expansive orchestra – are undercut with some fantastic musical sleaze: the seasick sample (from the music to a ‘60s German sci-fi TV show) and bump-and-grind rhythms. Mark Webber’s guitar enters midway through the song, sounding like Ziggy Stardust Goes Straight to Hell.
Even the video is brilliant, matched in Pulp’s filmed oeuvre only by “Bad Cover Version.” Directed by Doug Nichol, the clip cleverly avoids the porn angle; instead it’s a staggeringly accurate pastiche of a number of classic film styles, most notably Douglas Sirk, Busby Berkeley and film noir. It makes brilliant use of Jarvis and the other members of Pulp to boot. Just watch it already.