In the summer of 2006, little had been heard from Jarvis Cocker in a while. After more than 20 years as Pulp frontman, he was dropped by Island Records following the release of Pulp’s final album We Love Life in 2001. He had dabbled, almost anonymously, as half of a very low-key indie duo going under the name Relaxed Muscle, but the project had petered out after releasing an album in 2003. So when Running the World came along it ought to have been a big event in the music calendar – elegant and melodic, with incisive, satirical lyrics, it was the first taste of solo material from a Britpop icon. And yet Running the World was destined to go largely unheard because it contained a word that is still as taboo in the 21st Century as it ever was.
Running the World was always going to be a bit too hot to handle, so it was never a legitimate release. It emerged as a download-only single in August 2006 and was a hidden track at the end of Cocker’s solo debut, Jarvis, later in the year. The Sheffield singer-songwriter revealed that he’d written it on the night of the Live 8 anti-poverty charity concerts in 2005, looking back on how little progress had been made in the 20 years since Live Aid.
“If you thought things had changed / Friend, you’d better think again,” sang Cocker. “Bluntly put, in the fewest of words / Cunts are still running the world”.
“I apologise for all the swearing but sometimes that’s the only thing that seems appropriate,” he said in an internet message to fans. “It’s in no way a criticism of [Live 8 organiser Bob] Geldof & co. but I remember thinking at the time: ‘Where does engaging with these politicians/businessmen really get you?’ – (12 months on & the cunts still haven’t paid up as far as I can make out) – maybe the problem is something more ….. fundamental. Anyway, what do I know? I’m just a pampered rock star – but at least I think it’s good to discuss this stuff. Don’t you?”
In recent years, Jarvis Cocker’s musical output has been rare, but it’s just possible things are changing. Last year he brought an end to his long-term Sunday Service radio show on BBC 6music, he recorded an album with rapper-turned-pianist Chilly Gonzales and at time of writing he is about to play a series of small gigs which hopefully will usher in a new era of solo material.
A latecomer to fame compared to his mid-Nineties peers, Cocker was already in his thirties when Pulp were invited to be the last-minute replacement for The Stone Roses at Glastonbury in 1995 and were hailed as one of the greatest headliners ever, not least thanks to Jarvis Cocker’s crowd-pleasing blend of gawky Northern wit and rakish charm.
The album Different Class was a huge hit, but Pulp never quite recaptured that commercial success. By 2006 it began to seem like Cocker would be best remembered not as a cultured poet of the common people but as the drunk bloke who bared his bottom at the Brit Awards while Michael Jackson was performing Earth Song in 1996. And who knows? Maybe he will. Whilst that clumsy, drunken protest against a global superstar’s self-aggrandisement was seen by millions, very few every heard Running the World, because the language was just too strong for broadcast anywhere in the world.
And with the possible exception of racial slurs, the c-word remains the ultimate in obscene language, despite the efforts of feminist Germaine Greer in the 1970s to reclaim the word, just as African Americans had sought to claim the N-word.
“I tried to get people to say it, I tried to take the malice out of it,” said Greer in 2006, when she made a short TV programme for the BBC on the subject of the word ‘cunt’. “I wanted women to be able to say it. You think cunt is nasty? I’m here to tell you it is nice like black is beautiful, it is delicious, it is powerful, it is strong. It didn’t work and now in a way I’m perversely pleased because it meant that it kept that power.”
“I don’t think now that I want the c-word to be tamed,” she went on. “I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo, that you can hole people below the waterline. You can make strong men go pale. This word for our female ‘sex’ is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of who we are and where we came from. It’s a word of immense power – to be used sparingly.”