Here’s a clip of erstwhile Pulp singer and frontman, and Sheffieldian folk hero Jarvis Cocker. It’s “Running the World”, a political song in an era when such things are disturbingly rare, that contains a chorus that is equal parts catchy-and-NSFW. The song is featured on his 2006 solo record Jarvis. On that record, it’s added on the CD version as a hidden track, while on the vinyl release, it was added on a separate 45RPM single disc.
A notable instance of this tune in pop culture was the use of it in the closing credits of the film Children of Men, a movie based on a novel by P.D James about a dystopic future where humanity has become sterile. Britain has become the last bastion of civilization, stemming the flow of the rising desperation by placing incoming refugees into concentration camps, including a single woman who happens to be, against all odds, pregnant.
The world in this movie is viciously stark, giving us a vision of what might happen were we to be thrust into the jaws of our own mortality as a species. It shows us what happens when we divide ourselves into us and them, hand over compassion by trading it for false security, and hoard resources in times of crisis instead of sharing them. We find out that these impulses do not keep us safe, and actually become our undoing. Ultimately, I think this is what this tune is about. But, why’s Jarvis Cocker so angry about it? And more importantly, does it really matter?
The seeds of fear being planted today in the face of terrorism, religious extremism, environmental degradation, corporate corruption, governmental flaccidity, and economic depression make such a dystopian scenario as depicted in a film like Children of Men entirely possible, even if the circumstances may not be the same. The song plugs right into the themes in the film, where the privileged sit above the despair, shielded by voracious egotism and ill-gotten wealth. As such, it’s no wonder that Jarvis Cocker used the strongest possible terms to comment on it, C-word (in a very North of England context, mind you) and all.
To me, this tune begs an undeniable question. Why has the angry protest song died such a death in an era in which it would be most welcome, and even needed?
In times past, the protest song certainly contained a level of outrage that is at least comparable to “Running the World”. But, there was a reason to believe that if a songwriter commented on the evils of those in power, that it would be sung by the masses at community gatherings. It would be assumed that it would make some kind of impact on the culture to at least raise awareness of those acts of greed, or violence.
In this tune, I don’t think those courses of action are considered. Where once there was a sense of participation to take up, with “Running the World” only a sense of helplessness and resignation remains. I don’t think that this is due to a failing of the writer. I think it has to do with the attitudes of the culture and era in which it was written. This is how we feel when it comes to the state of the world; helpless, and resigned.
In many ways, where a song that criticizes the powerful could once be considered empowering to an audience, this one is nothing short of desperate. Its targets are beyond our reach. All we can do is call them names. Its profanity therefore is just a mark of that helplessness, that sense that the power to impact change is no longer in the hands of the artist, or the artist’s audience. As such, there is no call to action with this song, either. There is no ‘ all we are saying’. There is no ‘if I had a hammer’. There isn’t even a ‘WHY!?‘ as there is in CSN&Y’s “Ohio”. The only thing left is anger and disillusionment. This is a frightening thought.
In the 21st century, are we really so helpless and mute against the forces of greed, sociopathic single-mindedness, and inflated egotism rife among those who hold the reins of power? Is commenting on it in an informed way through pop music, or really any other form of mainstream expression, a thing of the past, with this tune standing alone in the wilderness of club anthems and GLEE compilation albums?
If that is really the case, pretty soon, it won’t matter who’s running the world. More directly, it won’t matter who’s writing songs. There may be no one else left to hear them anyway.
Check out more from Jarvis Cocker, on the Jarvis Cocker official site.