William Shatner – Common People

Has Been
Year :
Ben Folds / Pulp / Leonard Cohen

Has there been any career that’s become so entirely premised on irony as Bill Shatner’s? His delivery is known for the odd staccato with which he speaks and, for some inexplicable reason, he decided to supplement his campy acting with equally campy spoken word music. It’s always been patently absurd. Exhibit A would have to be his cover of “Rocket Man” as performed at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. It’s a bizarrely contemplative rendition that would never make it into an award show segment in this day and age of ever-escalating twerk-offs.

“Common People” by Pulp is a sort of class resentment anthem railing against rich girls that try to romanticize the working class life by slumming it in the poorer boroughs of London. Apparently this song was based on a girl that lead singer Jarvis Cocker met in class at St. Martin’s College. She told him that she wanted to move to working class Hackney and live like the common people. In the song, this encounter is extended, with the girl dismissively laughing away the notion of actually being poor. She’s basically a class tourist, living amid squalor just to be able to self-mythologize her youth. Cocker calls her out on this:

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.

I feel like most major American cities have their own version of this, with crappy neighborhoods that become gentrified by art school hipsters from rich families. It’s bullshit because the girl in the song has the economic means to pull out of that life at any time. She could call her dad and stop it all. The lyrical resentment, though, never really comes through in the original song. The vocal delivery is too flamboyant to really feel like a working class anthem. The William Shatner version, however, is surprisingly effective. He employs his typical spoken word delivery with the perfect air of curiosity and then ultimately condescension and even spite that the girl in the song deserves. And Joe Jackson sings his parts with the bitter, indignant cadence that the lyrics demand. To take the whole thing over the top, a backing chorus helps close out the song, as if the whole working class is joining in to take the piss out of this girl. They all get together at the end:

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do

I realize that (in addition to jeopardizing whatever credibility I’ve managed to hold onto) I’m giving legitimacy to a ridiculous man’s ridiculous music career when I say this, but I’m gonna go for it: I honestly believe that this version is superior to the original. It rocks a fair sight more and is simultaneously more angry and more fun than Pulp’s take. For a spoken word song by William Shatner, which on paper seems like the most ludicrously ironic thing ever, that’s no small achievement.

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Jeff Bennet (@JeffBennet) goes with Drake any time someone asks him who his favorite band or artist is, because he has this personality flaw where he needs to be all things to all people.

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