What could be more traumatic for a rock star than watching fans butcher your songs at karaoke, right to your face? Britpop god Jarvis Cocker found out the hard way August 7th, judging a Pulp karaoke contest in Brooklyn. It was a brilliant idea, since no night of karaoke is complete without a drunken romp through "Common People." Jarvis has been a sex muse to the sunlight-averse masses of the rock world ever since 1992, when he first tasted the lips of genius in the classic Pulp single "Sheffield: Sex City." But even by his jaded standards, this was one bizarre scene. As he confessed beforehand, "It's something that I'm slightly frightened about."
The singers ranged from a woman attempting "Help the Aged," disguised as an old lady — during the song, she threw her cane away and did a striptease — to a 9-year-old boy doing "This Is Hardcore." The clear-cut crowd fave was the dude in the red velvet suit who sang "Babies," dancing so hard he tumbled off the stage. But in the true karaoke spirit, he rolled back up to resume the song right on cue. "I have fallen off the stage many times," Jarvis said. "The first concert Pulp ever did, the bass player fell off the stage. So you're keeping a tradition alive." He added, "You have the moves. Now I can retire."
The contest was part of the U.S. premiere of the documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, which opens in November. The screening was on an industrial Brooklyn rooftop, where the aroma of rotting garbage somehow seemed to suit the shabby allure of Jarvis' songs. The movie isn't a standard rock doc — it doesn't aim to tell Pulp's story or give a sense of the band's music. Instead, it's a portrait of their U.K. hometown of Sheffield, a notoriously tough steel city. One local guy explains why he loves Sheffield: "You usually know the person who's mugging you."
Cutting a dashing figure in a dark suit and criminally high heels, Jarvis spoke before the movie to warn us it would be tough to comprehend the South Yorkshire accents. (He was right.) Most of the doc is long, sentimental interviews with oddballs around town, as the local fans gear up for Pulp's 2012 reunion tour. There are many moving scenes: Pulp keyboardist Candida Doyle reveals how she developed arthritis as a 16-year-old punk rocker, hiding it in shame over "an old person's disease." Drummer Nick Banks proudly shows off how Pulp sponsors his daughter's football team — their jerseys have the logo of what she calls "me dad's crap band."
When a fan asked after the movie about legendary Sheffield bands like ABC and the Human League, Jarvis replied, "You left out Def Leppard — the greatest. 'Pour Some Sugar On Me!'" He added, "There's a duality to Sheffield — very blue collar, but with an eye on the future as well. We're very fond of bass. In the Sheffield steelworks, they all went deaf, so all they could hear was bass." (See the classic 2001 doc Made In Sheffield for the full story — plus priceless interviews with Jarvis and his sister.) But he fiercely defended his hometown's music legacy. "It's given a lot. If you compare it to Leeds, which is only 30 miles a way, it pisses on it."
Yet the highlight of the night was the karaoke afterparty. A few lucky contest winners were chosen ahead of time for the honor of singing to Jarvis. Full disclozh: I entered the contest, lobbying to do my room-clearing version of "Do You Remember the First Time?" But the organizers wisely passed, no doubt fearing my pheromone-scrambling moves would have incited a riot.
This most benign of pop stars was clearly uncomfortable being forced to rank and rate the singers — rather than go into Simon Cowell mode, he made like Kesha on Rising Star, with praise for all. When an Italian dude in a white suit blew the final chorus of "Disco 2000," Jarvis gallantly stuck up for him. "The part where you missed the words — they were using an alternate version, so you actually got it right." (Jarvis is 100 per cent right about that — Sing Sing on Avenue A uses the same karaoke version, so I always blow that final chorus too. I now feel validated.) He told another contestant, "A truly awe-inspiring performance. I'm slightly speechless."
The whole crowd, in true karaoke fashion, got drunker and more unruly after midnight. Everybody not-so-secretly hoped Jarvis would step up and sing himself. Ah, no. The night took a dark final turn when the 9-year-old boy got up to sing "This Is Hardcore," one of Pulp's dirtier songs, creeping the crowd out severely. The kid ended up winning the contest, obviously, since no rock star ever wants to be caught on camera making a child cry — but even Jarvis had to admit, "In some ways I was kind of disturbed by it." Still, even in this situation, he remained an impeccable gentleman, choosing his words carefully. "I will not forget that, ever, in my life." Jarvis spoke for us all. But then, he always does.