He's been called a "national treasure" in Britain, he's made numerous and well-remembered European TV appearances, and the BBC aired a documentary in 2006 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his most famous song. In America, however, Jarvis Cocker is mostly known as a relic of the 90s Britpop era, but a closer look at his career reveals his quiet and persistent influence on fashion, the arts...and even historic preservation.
Jarvis Cocker was born in the 1960s in Sheffield, an industrial city in South Yorkshire, England. The area was largely working class, and in 1984, local coal miners went on strike to protest the mine closures and job losses that were happening at the time. Over 25 years later, the strikes are still understood as an example of Britain's endemic class struggles. When Jarvis Cocker formed the band Pulp in 1978, he may not have been particularly interested in politics, but his songs would eventually reference and respond to issues of class that played out in the background of his Yorkshire childhood.
Pulp's most famous song, Common People (released in 1995) is a highly stylized narrative about the culture gap between working class and wealthy people. It's also an icon of mid-90s Britpop, a musical movement that diverged from the decade's overriding grunge style and rather favored slick, catchy melodies and sarcastic, witty lyrics. As a pop star, Jarvis Cocker's style was individualistic — he wore skinny suits and extra-large glasses. "He's eccentric, he's a complete one-off, totally idiosyncratic," Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand told the BBC during the making of The Story of Common People.
His charismatic personality and imperfect, gangly appearance appealed to interviewers and TV producers, and after his career with Pulp ended in 2002, Cocker went on to record solo albums and participate in projects related to art, culture, and design. Eurostar enlisted him to be their "cultural ambassador," promoting museums and arts venues in major European cities. He's hosted a television program on Outsider Art, he has a Sunday BBC radio show, and he's made cameos in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.
This year, he recorded an album (downloadable for free here) for Britian's National Trust. National Trust: The Album features a series of soundscapes recorded at historic sites, from a 17th-century house that's rumored to be haunted to the 1930s-era billiards room of a historic mansion. He told The Independent, "I hope it has the feel of one continuous journey and conjures up an image in the mind's eye of the places featured. I also hope it could inspire the listeners to then visit the sites for themselves."
Respect for history and cultural heritage is a thread that can be followed from the lyrics of his Pulp songs to his recent work with organizations like Eurostar and the National Trust. Cocker has used his distinct style, as well as the force of his personality, to draw attention to everything from cross-cultural art "happenings" in London to the formal gardens at Powis Castle in Wales. For more on the projects mentioned above, click through the links below.
• The Story of Common People from TripWire
• Jarvis Cocker Curates National Trust Album from The Independent
• Jarvis Cocker Launches Eurostar Culture Connect
• Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service on BBC6
• Jarvis Cocker Talks About Outside Art from The Times
Photos: Screenshot from video for Common People by Pulp (1), Subterranean Tourist Board used under Creative Commons License 2.0 (2), Pulp Promotional Image via Wikipedia (3), Pulp Different Class Album Cover via Wikipedia (4), Jarvis by Jarvis Cocker from Amazon.com (5), James Long used under Creative Commons License 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (6), Olaf Tausch used under GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons (7), Boaz Sachs used under Creative Commons License 2.0 (8), Fantastic Mr. Fox via IMDB (9), Mike Mantin used under Creative Commons License 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (10)