Objects have a purpose, but they also have emotional and sentimental value. Using objects and their associations to tell a story is not a new idea by any means, but Jarvis Cocker transcends the potential clichés and downfalls of the format in Good Pop Bad Pop, his delightful autobiography.
Some readers might be interested in the book because they know Cocker from his music as the leader of the bands Pulp and Jarv Is, and his numerous solo ventures. However, Good Pop Bad Pop has a much broader framing than that. It’s the story of Cocker’s musical career – at least, of the formative years before Pulp emerged as one of the defining bands of ‘90s Britpop – but it’s also the story of Cocker’s personal life, told with the same type of quirky observations and narrative diversions that make his songwriting so distinctive.
The narrative of Good Pop Bad Pop is structured around a storage closet – a real closet, there are photos of it – and Cocker sorting through its cluttered contents, deciding whether to “keep” or “cob” each item (“cob” being slang for “toss” in his hometown of Sheffield). It becomes apparent pretty early on that Cocker keeps a lot of things and chronicles a lot of things in writing. He likely won’t be appearing in an episode of Hoarders any time soon, but there’s a lot to sort through in his closet. Its boxes and bags hold everything from school photos, records, toys, clothes, and magazines – the sort of ephemera that you would find in most people’s storage spaces – to old product labels and packages that Cocker bought and kept just because he liked their design.
As the narrative progresses, with Cocker telling his story through reminiscing about items and the roles they played at a particular time in his life, it becomes apparent that his keeping objects isn’t just a habit but a fundamental part of his creative process. He has a particular affinity for throwaway and second-hand items, which he characterizes as “alternatives to the official narrative” and which provided ways for him to develop his self-presentation and to understand his world. He describes himself as a slow worker, much to the frustration of publishers and record companies. His work takes time because he distills and synthesizes ideas from the myriad of influences – physical objects, life events, other people – that he encounters.
When Cocker was five years old, hearing Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go to My Lovely” gave him what he calls “the Tingle” – a physical sensation that he gets from hearing music but doesn’t “experience in any other art form”. Not only did he seek out the Tingle, but it made him “want to try and make it happen to other people”.
He documents the origins of Pulp right back to doodles in his school notebook of a logo and a band manifesto, which he created even before he and a group of schoolmates first got together to make a lot of noise in his grandparents’ front room. That first “rehearsal” was taped, and the tape still exists, although “it’s pretty unlistenable”. Ironically, Cocker erased the tape of Pulp’s first live performance in his secondary school’s assembly hall because “I could not bear the thought of our moment of utter humiliation being preserved for posterity”. He notes, “As I discovered all those years ago, if you keep on playing, eventually that chaos will begin to coalesce into something concrete. You can’t help it. You’ll simply get bored of making noise all the time & naturally make the effort to turn it into something that could be called a ‘song’.”
The timeline of Good Pop Bad Pop runs from Cocker’s early childhood in Sheffield to his move to London at the start of the ‘90s. Through Cocker’s contextualization of each item he presents and his decisions on “keep” or “cob” for each item he assesses, the reader gets a sense of how he developed as a person and a creative artist without the narrative ever veering into pretentiousness. A particular highlight of the Good Pop Bad Pop is the design by Julian House – not just the many photos interspersed throughout the text, but the creative layouts and graphics that emphasize key points in the stories or brilliantly evoke the imagery of specific eras of pop culture.
Although Good Pop Bad Pop is the story of a personal journey, not intended as an inspirational or “how to be like me” book for aspiring musicians or writers, Cocker’s self-reflections give a glimpse into the complexities and rewards of artistic creation. “I breathed a sigh of relief when punk happened: finally, I could relax & stop being so upright about having a funny name,” he writes. “Punk performers gave themselves funny names on purpose!…I was actually one step ahead of them because I didn’t even have to change mine.” His choice to end the story just before Pulp hit it big may be frustrating for readers who want to know more about his experiences as a genuine pop star. Still, that arbitrary cut-off emphasizes a more important theme: how much living, work, experimentation, and sometimes sheer randomness went on before that.
Good Pop Bad Pop is presented as “an inventory”, but it’s so much more than a dry presentation of relics from past times. Cocker skillfully weaves the contents of his closet into a tale that is both verbally and visually engaging and an extremely satisfying read.