Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
He wants to commute like common people do.
Public transit announcements can be useful, but they rarely sound like a lewd suggestion—unless they’re read by Britpop alumnus Jarvis Cocker, that is. To mark last Friday’s BBC Music Day, the former Pulp frontman re-recorded the voiceover announcement for Sheffield, England’s Supertram light rail network. Read by Cocker in a mock seductive tone, it’s a speech most people in the northern English city will recognize instantly: Its warning to passengers to “hold tight, please” (now something of a local catchphrase) rendered by Cocker to sound less like a warning and more like an invitation.
The pairing of Cocker’s voice and Sheffield’s tram could hardly be more apt. Both products of the same hometown, Sheffield’s Supertram was launched in 1994, on the same day that Pulp released their single “Do You Remember the First Time”—and much like Pulp themselves, the service was a slow starter initially deemed a failure. More broadly, much of Pulp’s music has celebrated their ex-industrial home city, bringing it to life as a faintly neglected, off-the-trail place where beauty still pushes up through the cracks. Pulp’s Sheffield is an unforgettable place, appearing as a place of equal romance and menace, at times full of unkempt magic (in songs such Sheffield, Sex City or Wickerman) and at times a place where just looking a bit different can get you beaten up.
It’s not clear if it’s for official use or just an unusual project from Cocker, but who better to be the voice of commuting in Sheffield? Above all, Pulp’s music isn’t about glamour, at least not the obvious kind. It’s mainly concerned with people living the kind of humdrum lives most of us recognize—one that involves muddling through with options sharply limited by money and making expedient, provisional choices that can only look cool from the privileged outside. As their anthem “Common People” makes clear, it isn’t music about people speeding past in fast cars. It’s about the people those cars speed past at the bus or tram stop, wondering if their tram is ever going to come.