Critic's Notebook: At Coachella, a rebellious spirit
The booking of Pulp, with its ‘Common People' anti-1% screed, typifies Coachella '12.
One of the great, universal rock anthems of the last two decades — Pulp's “Common People” — bypassed the U.S. when it exploded out of England in 1995. But if and when a reunited Pulp plays the song at this year's Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., its artful and catchy screed against the 1% couldn't be more timely.
At a moment when jobless kids are cracking open piggy banks and digging deep for a Coachella ticket to see 120-odd bands over one weekend at the Indio festival, Pulp seems the most relevant among veteran acts that also include Refused, Mazzy Star, At the Drive-In, Company Flow, Madness and Squeeze. But Pulp's arrival isn't the biggest name coming out of the desert's festival, which runs two consecutive weekends. This year's roster, which was announced Monday afternoon by promoter Goldenvoice, will feature Dr. Dre and Snoop, Radiohead and the Black Keys as headliners, while dozens of other acts will occupy the festival's five stages, including Grammy-nominated names such as Bon Iver, Florence and the Machine and David Guetta. An undercard includes dance, hip-hop and rock upstarts SBTRKT, M83, Azealia Banks and Feist.
Pulp's arrival at Coachella this year, however, typifies the festival, its ever-evolving and maturing aesthetic, and its place in the culture right now.
“Common People” is a lyrical conversation with a rich girl longing to slum it with the commoners. With bitterness in his voice, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker tells of her desire to “sing along with the common people,” then replies that she could never truly do that because inherited wealth blinds her to the realities of the paycheck-to-paycheck life. “You'll never get it right,” he sings, conjuring the spirit of both Ray Davies and Bob Dylan, “'cos when you're laid in bed at night/watching roaches climb the wall/if you call your dad, he could stop it all.”
The song's kicker, one of the most exuberant refrains in rock, is the reason why it has grown into a worldwide scream-along anthem and why — especially now — it has fans making mental notes on this year's Coachella schedule: “You'll never fail like common people/You'll never watch your life slide out of view/and dance and drink and screw/because there's nothing else to do.”
Cocker achieved more notoriety, though, in 1996 at the Brit Awards (the English equivalent of the Grammys), during an over-the-top Michael Jackson performance of “Earth Song” featuring dozens of dancers, risers, fog and a Jesus-like Jackson healing sick children. A fed-up Cocker pulled a Kanye West (long before, though) and jumped onstage, then turned his bum to the audience and deflated the pompousness of the king of pop's performance with what can best be described as a butt salute.
The Pulp singer was arrested (though never charged), Jackson was outraged and demanded an apology (but never got one), and Cocker became tabloid fodder in England (and a rock legend in the process).
It's this spirit that's always generated the best moments in musical history, those times when stuff gets too overblown and artists unite under a banner of rebellion, be it Dr. Dre and Snoop thumbing their noses at the cops in the late '80s and early '90s while documenting the street culture that informed them; Radiohead following its collective muse away from the simple structures of post-grunge and the pressures of its record label; or Modeselektor crafting curiously strong German minimalist techno — rich with snarky humor.
Throughout the roster, this spirit is evident. Influential reggae singer Jimmy Cliff rose from the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, to become a defiant voice amid chaos and violence; Canadian singer and songwriter Feist took a hit song — “1234” — and used its buzz to create new music that pushes in less commercial, more Joni Mitchell-esque directions; fellow Canuck Dan Bejar, who records as Destroyer, somehow manages to make soft rock and cheesy sax solos sound positively dangerous; guitarist Greg Ginn (!) flipped the bird at East Coast punk snobs while forming both Black Flag and SST Records in the late '70s. Find an artist on the bill this year and you'll see a similar story.
Well, almost. This year's weakest element, at least from an aesthetic if not commercial perspective, is the bigger-name electronic dance music bookings, which unlike the other main pop subgenres represented (rock, hop-hop and, interestingly this year, folk), features too many pop crossover producers making plodding, pop-friendly fare, including Guetta, AVICII, Calvin Harris, Afrojack and Martin Solveig. There are fantastic exceptions of course: Amon Tobin's stunning dub-infected cutup beats and visionary presentation; Girl Talk's clever copyright-infringing mash-ups; some of the weirder dubstep of the Pure Filth Sound posse; and the experimental L.A. beat producers making the trip to Indio — Flying Lotus and the Gaslamp Killer.
Plus, even if you despise thumpy club music, you can skip it and go elsewhere. Coachella's 2012 offerings are worth the price of admission, whether you're a commoner who saved up all year for a ticket or a one-percenter who turned to Daddy for cash.
-- Randall Roberts
Images: Snoop Dogg (Getty Images); Jarvis Cocker (Getty Images); Thom York (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)