Quentin Tarantino once said that if he wasn’t a film director, he would be a film critic. Indeed, Tarantino has regularly peppered his work with spicy ripostes and rejoinders that colour his opinion. But the same can’t be said for Jarvis Cocker, who proves he shouldn’t critique music because his opinions and perspectives are very.. Jarvis.
In this excerpt from Melody Maker, Cocker gives his views on contemporary pop. No, it isn’t riddled with great insights, but some of the comments are very funny to read. It’s hard to imagine that the bands in question might see the funny side, though.
“Is it Semisonic,” he asks incredulously as he listens to ‘Hold On Hope‘.”Has it got a chorus? You’ll have to tell me who this is. Guided By Voices? I’ve heard the name but I’ve never heard them. It’s all right. It sounds like the singer’s trying to be John Lennon; I’m sorry to insult them by comparing them to Semisonic.” He doesn’t stop there, and later on, he is introduced to Ricky Martin, where he is asked to give his opinion on the singer in question. The answer is typically cutting, although he doesn’t damn the tune entirely.
“Did he say ‘Latin lover,” he asks. “Is it Ricky Martin, then? ‘I wanna lay ya in the Himalayas’? That would be a bit cold, then, wouldn’t it? You could shag a yeti. It’s not as good as ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’, is it? Did I live la vida loca? Oof, not half.”
Cocker breaks the cardinal rule of journalism because he puts himself in the narrative. The art of the critic is to detach yourself from work in question, but Cocker isn’t there to provide journalistic insight but to soak the work with a collection of biting remarks.
Since Cocker has decided to put himself into the story, I’m going to do the same and highlight my favourite excerpt from the interview. The Pulp frontman is asked to critique the latest Dixie Chicks single, and his response is priceless. “I feel like I’m in an Irish pub. And that bloody violin’s a bit piercing. Violins at a clog dance is all right, and quite a lot of ELO wasn’t bad, were it? You can imagine it in those certain kinds of plastic theme bars, a very sanitised kind of pretend folk. Not keen. They look very healthy, though.”
The singer is unafraid of offering his true opinion, even if it means attacking a contemporary artist. But what he brought to the proceedings was humour, which helped bolster his opinions, because they certainly weren’t entirely in keeping with Melody Maker‘s journalistic aesthete. Yet Cocker never claimed he was attempting to emulate the writings of the journalists but gave a guttural reaction to every pop piece that was presented to him. Cocker was never anything less than forthright, perpetuating the charming fantasy of a rock icon demystifying himself to the rock presses. There are no tremendous moments of introspection but cutting asides.
As it happens, Cocker would act as a journalist in 2018, when he interviewed Sir Paul McCartney onstage at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Among the questions Cocker asked was the Beatle’s experience with “canning”, and he was also the bassist to name some of the best musicians he collaborated with. Naturally, McCartney name-checked the other three members of The Beatles, although more surprisingly, he referred to Stevie Wonder, feeling that the ‘Superstitious’ writer brought something out of him.
McCartney recalled the sessions the keyboardist missed, but when Wonder was there, he couldn’t have been any less helpful or inspired. In many ways, Wonder sounded like the missing gap in McCartney’s life after losing John Lennon to the hands of an assailant in New York.
Cocker was respectful, tactile and organised and couldn’t have acted any differently to the way he responded to the quick-fire questions in 1999. But Cocker wasn’t presenting himself at the 2018 interview but rather acted as a supporting ear for McCartney to espouse his most assured work. If McCartney sounds relaxed, it’s probably because he was talking to another singular artist, who helped to channel his innermost thoughts and triumphs. It’s less of a traditional interview and more the conversation between a disciple and his spiritual master.
Would Cocker be so forthright about the Dixie Chicks today, now called The Chicks? Values are very different in 2022 than they were in 1999, and what was deemed acceptable back then is commonly frowned upon today. Reading the piece now, it feels like a portal back to the decade most of us were too young to appreciate. And what it shows is that Cocker was happy to be cutting when it suited him to be cutting, and he was happy to be comedic when it suited him to be comedic.
Stream the Cocker-McCartney interview below.