We Went There: Jarvis Cocker Judges a Pulp Karaoke Contest in New York
There’s a big difference between the criteria for a perfect song and the criteria for the perfect karaoke song. This can be proven through a simple test: Swing by Duet 53 north of Times Square, Cafe Brass Monkey in L.A., or any other karaoke bar and sing, back-to-back, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week.” I’ve seen one of these songs make a room full of people lose their minds. I’ve seen the other send everyone outside for a smoke. If you need help figuring out which one is the karaoke hit, two words: “chinese chicken.”
On the surface, the Pulp catalogue seems like it would be filled to the brim with karaoke home runs. It has two absolute anthems (“Disco 2000,” “Common People”) and a frontman in Jarvis Cocker who is easy to mimic in both voice and strut. For the unfamiliar, Cocker is like the Harry Potter of British pop music, if Harry Potter had used his invisibility cloak to watch women change in a Marks & Spencer dressing room. His sleazy intelligence is a blast to watch and listen to. It feels like the kind of thing you want to emulate in a room full of strangers. But whenever someone does Pulp at karaoke, it tends to drag on. I’ve seen it happen multiple times. What makes Pulp songs unfit for karaoke is the same thing that makes them great. They tend to be more complex (and longer) than you’d expect, and in the end, they really only belong to Cocker.
So last Thursday night, by the time the fifth performer of the fifth Pulp cover presented for the judging of Jarvis Cocker himself, I couldn’t shake the feeling: The only guy qualified to sing these songs is sitting right there watching. The karaoke contest, which served as the official after-party for the Rooftop Films’ New York premiere of Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, was a mix of men, women, and children (more on that later) singing the best of Pulp’s catalogue.
The film, directed by Florian Habicht, is a look into the lead-up to Pulp’s final show in its hometown of Sheffield, England, in 2012. The film skirts conventional rock documentary territory in favor of slice-of-life moments like Pulp’s drummer Nick Banks coaching his daughter’s soccer team, which wears uniforms that sport the band’s logo. The film is particularly focused on talking to older residents of Sheffield about their relation to Pulp. Some of these interactions feel more authentic than others. One woman in her eighties says she plans to attend Pulp’s final show because “Jarvis will be there, thrusting.” Other moments border on precious, which is unsurprising considering the somewhat scattered demeanor of Habicht during the Q&A.“Can we all look up at the moon together?” he asks at one point while addressing the crowd at the top of the film. In contrast, Cocker couldn’t have been more dry while addressing the audience questions. A post-film Q&A is often a chance for audience members to show off their knowledge of the more obscure corners of an artist’s career, but Cocker was having none of it, answering questions about his appearances in Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Venture Bros. as flatly as possible. Down with self-serving Q&A questions!
Pulp has always been the art student’s answer to “Do you prefer Blur or Oasis?” They are a sex-pop safe zone for music nerds who might not be ready for something as overt as Nicki Minaj or Prince. There’s just as much sex in Pulp’s songs, but Cocker is more concerned with bad foreplay and the emotional mess left behind than the act itself. They are telling small-screen stories of romantic misfortune through the medium of grandiose pop hooks.
That horn-rimmed theatricality was on full display during the karaoke competition. Each performer had a cabal of friends and family packed close to the stage waiting to watch their loved one walk onstage in a crushed velvet blazer or grab their crotch seductively. One singer tore off an old-lady wig as part of her performance of “Help the Aged.” Another, who looked like a mini American Jarvis, thrust his hips with disturbing confidence. Cocker and the director acted as benevolent judges, never uttering a negative word no matter how dire or misguided the performances got.
The proceedings clipped along uneventfully until a cherubic 9-year-old contestant announced he would be singing “This Is Hardcore.” The song is Pulp at the height of its powers and at its filthiest. The opening line, “You are hardcore / You make me hard,” sets the tone. There was a dark undercurrent of disbelief in the room watching a prepubescent child sing about seeing someone in a “teenage wet dream.” By the time he got to the song’s crescendo, where the protagonist is filming a homemade porno movie, half the crowd was watching through their fingers. When the song finished, the child looked over to his hero for feedback. Cocker, the most erudite man in rock and roll, was left bewildered. He stammered a little before describing it as “amazing,” “something he’d never forget,” and “a little disturbing.” Which is exactly what a good karaoke performance should be.
Daniel Ralston (@danielralston) is a music video director, comedy writer, and karaoke warrior.