Good Pop, Bad Pop: An Inventory
By Jarvis Cocker
I can’t really sum it up. But if I had to do it, Good Pop, Bad Pop is Jarvis Cocker’s visual and textual coming-of-age collage. I’d say the book’s a rumination on material culture from a smart musician, but that’s too easy. It’s tricky, it’s playful, it’s puzzling, it’s witty, and . . . well, in the spirit of the book, why don’t you decide the rest?
Good Pop, Bad Pop is a Bildungsroman told through seemingly haphazard possessions left to decay in the loft of a house the Pulp star “lived in for a while.” Of course, it’s also a lot more than that. The book reflects on the intrinsic value we ascribe to material objects and the inevitable prevalence of pastiche. They’re all part of what makes anything “pulp,” or “pop,” as Cocker suggests. Or, in other iterations, you might even say “camp.” It’s a memoir, but it’s not. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book, but it’s also something else entirely.
Here’s the premise: Jarvis Cocker is excavating this loft space. He has invited us, the readers, to do it with him. “[W]e’re going to have to dig for it,” he writes, and clarifies, “I’m not using the royal ‘we’ — I’d like you to help me.” He wants our input! He’s going to pull out objects from the detritus at random, and we’ve gotta let him know: keep or cob? Not only are we invited into the exhumation work, but we’re also invited into Cocker’s vernacular: “We can even make a game out of it — let’s call it ‘Keep or Cob.’ (‘Cob’ being a Sheffield word meaning ‘to throw,’ e.g. ‘I cobbed it at a kid.’)” At one point, he even pulls out a Wigan Casino patch and decides he’ll cob it, and offers to bribe us with it. If we take the patch, presumably, we’ll make the best choices for all this stuff.
Yet it’s not really our story. While Cocker begins with a lot of authorial intrusion — addressing us directly with the question of keep or cob — he gradually begins to make up his own mind as the text progresses until no choice is made at all.
Throughout Good Pop, Bad Pop, the seemingly simple word “pulp” becomes a double, a triple, a quadruple entendre . . . . Yes, of course, it references Cocker’s band. It also references “pop,” with its own complicated double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple entendres (you get the idea). After all, Cocker tells us, “Pop and Pulp are interchangeable terms to me.” It’s an aesthetic — Cocker’s clothing. It’s the ostensibly shapeless mass of the objects in the loft. And Cocker himself is also Pulp. He writes letters to John Peel’s producer — reproduced in colour in the book — and signs them with the apparent moniker.
Some of the material objects are sentimental, and others are funny. Twenty-year-old Wrigley’s peppermint gum. Mixtapes. An Arctic Circle bag with reindeer that changes the terms of our agreement when Cocker says he’ll either “KEEP (or recycle).” Wait, recycling is an option? There’s some clothing, some bubblegum machine toys. All of these objects are rendered in nearly life-size form throughout the book, by the way, in full colour.
As I was reading and looking at images of these objects, I couldn’t help but think of a theorist I find really compelling, Susan Stewart. She wrote a book entitled On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. The Good Pop, Bad Pop pieces are mostly “miniatures” in the way Stewart defines the term, with “the hand being the measure of the miniature.” That is, we could hold each of them in our palm. Stewart then describes the miniature as a “talisman to the body and emblem of the self . . . as microcosm and macrocosm . . . as commodity and knowledge, fact and fiction.” Her language touches on so many of the objects scattered throughout Cocker’s book, illuminating varied elements of his life in truth and art.
Speaking of art, Cocker’s interest in visual art is obvious, with offhand references to Dziga Vertov, Federico Fellini, and other wonders of cinema. But even more than talk of film, I was struck by nods to print design. Constant use of the ampersand (you know, this character: &) plays on the idea that words and images have multiple meanings — not unlike the word “pulp.” It places Cocker out of time (most common uses of the ampersand went out of fashion, so to speak, a century or so ago). It’s also comically hifalutin (the “&” came about as a combination of the letters “e” and “t,” forming “et,” or the Latin word for “and”). But more than anything else, it serves the important function of calling our intention to typography in Good Pop, Bad Pop. At various points, Cocker writes out song counts or countdowns (e.g., 5, 4, 3, 2, 1), with the numbers depicted in large and fluctuating font sizes, making them jump out from the page. Yet when he tells a story of literally falling twenty feet onto pavement and breaking a lot of bones, the top of the page reads simply, “1, 2, 3 . . .” in the small font and uniform size used for the majority of the book’s text. The rest of the page is blank until you reach the bottom, “Ouch.” It’s a visualization of the literal fall, but it also reads like a typographical joke: that count, typographically, becomes banal.
But back to the objects. Pretty early on in Good Pop, Bad Pop, there’s “The Sexy Laughs Fantastic Dirty Joke Book” that gave Cocker his first “furtive glimpse into the adult world.” That book also serves an important role of severing the dialogic relationship between Cocker and the reader — that relationship where we discuss whether to keep or cob. We find out he’d gotten the book out recently for an ill-fated sex-ed chat with his son. Wait, we didn’t find this book for the first time in ages in the loft? The illusion gets cracked again later on, but this time temporally. Cocker pulls out a ticket from the John Peel Roadshow, remarking that he should get it framed. A handful of pages later, it’s there visually, already framed. So we didn’t find that ticket and decide to keep it? Cocker does something really smart here, revealing what musicians do all the time through song for fans: he invites us into a singularly personal world and invites us to make it our own, while hinting that it’s really his story.
I love how the book is playfully snarky, and I just can’t get enough.
Finally, the penultimate page does two things: it jerks the reader from any sense of complacency while also offering us the freedom to do with the book as we see fit. As to the former, Cocker informs us, “I have counted forty instances in this book of events that later found their way into song lyrics in one way or another. Did you spot them? I’m not going to tell you which songs I mean.” Did I miss some? Is my fandom insincere?! But then, the book ends with a welcome directive (while Cocker also gets in a quick joke at Marie Kondo’s expense): “What we’ve been doing up here hasn’t been ‘waste management’ or ‘tidying’ or evaluating possessions to check whether they ‘bring us joy’ or not — we’ve been handling the raw materials. The Good Pop & the Bad Pop. & it all counts — ALL of it. & it can be made into whatever you want it to be. That’s what I did.” Reader, think of what we could do with one of those mixtapes, the twenty-year-old Wrigley’s gum, and, of course, an ampersand.
Pick up the book here or from your favourite local shop.