A Dance to the Music of Time — “Disco 2000”

The Song: “Disco 2000”
from the 1995 album Different Class by Pulp
reached #7 on the UK Singles Chart (single mix)

I turned 25 last week. I didn’t think too much about it in the leadup to the big day: there were essays to write, people to meet, online pop polls to be distracted by. But I must have been bothered by it somewhat, at least on a subconscious level, because I kept on looping Pulp’s “Disco 2000” throughout the week, humming it at the office urinals and belting the song out in the apartment stairways. The song just slowly seeped into my everyday life, the way sleep or the changing of the seasons does. But the day of my 25th birthday was when it clicked for me, because all of a sudden I found myself staring at my quarter-life crisis, and it was narrated by Jarvis Cocker.

The thing about quarter-life crises is that they always sound so exciting. It might involve enough existential problems to give Kierkegaard AND Nietzsche headaches for days, but the quarter-life crisis has kind of become the cause célèbre of the 2020s: everywhere you look now, there are artists in their late 20s deconstructing in very minute detail their latest bouts of ennui, fretting about getting one step closer to their middle age, all while still making peculiarly interesting works of art. The members of Pulp were a little older than that — half the band were way past thirty when they walked into the studio to make the Different Class album — but “Disco 2000” is still fresh and exciting, bursting with youthful energy.

It’s still very much their version of youth though: glam rock guitars, references to disco, a riff drawn straight out of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”. “Disco 2000” is the gender-flipped version of that song: now it’s the girl with the three-syllable name who’s got things sorted out, while the narrator’s still always running around town trying to get her somehow. Oh, and her name is “Deborah” (Deborah!): a name so much dowdier than the glamorous go-getter Branigan sang about; seems like she’s hardly anyone to get excited over. And yet it is exciting — Jarvis’ lyrics sketch out their relationship in a few short lines, and it’s the sort of thing you only see in the movies: born within an hour of each other, childhood friends so close they could have been sister and brother, and then of course the boy started thinking about more than just being friends. It’s the stuff that romcoms are made of.

And yet it never happens. They grew up, they grew apart. She’s moved on, on to different lovers and friends, she’s even got her own baby now; meanwhile he’s barely got his act together and is living on his own. And so the romcom is replaced by a coming-of-age drama: instead of the sunny optimism you expected, everything’s painfully tinged with a hint of regret. Now in his early thirties and alone in his bedsit, you picture him staring at the wall, muttering to himself, pondering what might have been. Maybe if he’d popped the question, maybe if he’d told her sooner, everything might have been different. Might.

“What might have been” is such a poignant question every time you reach a major milestone in your life. But you don’t ask that question when you turn 18 or 21. (If you do, then you’re a character in a YA novel.) 25 is the first instance where the “what if”s start becoming “what might have been”s, where you begin to realise your own mortality: a whole quarter-century gone just like that, and soon after that you’ll be thirty, then forty, then another 25 years will have passed before you realise what’s been happening while you had your mind on other things. 25 is the age where you start thinking of lines like “we never did it, although I often thought of it” and feel a pang of genuine regret, as your youth slowly drains from you. Those are really brief moments (nobody spends their entire day moping about missed chances), but they seem like an eternity, and there’s no way out — no way out, that is, except for that dreamy synth chord you hear in the distance. It sounds like salvation. Pulp grabs onto it, and suddenly the song explodes into full colour.

A millennium is a preposterous span. Imagining people could think about it seriously was always folly. But in the gap between people’s sense of what the occasion ought to merit, and what was actually on offer, strange things could thrive.

— Tom Ewing on “The Millennium Prayer”

“Let’s all meet up in the year 2000” is just such a lovely line. It’s one I quoted extensively in the past week, even though it’s more than twenty-two years past its sell-by date. As a number, “2000” is a nice, round, modern figure that seems to improve on the first thousand; as a year, it offered new opportunities, or maybe it was a reset, where nothing that happened while you were partying like it was 1999 (or before) mattered. In other words, it’s perfect for those of us going through our quarter-life crises: what wouldn’t we give to wipe the slate clean and live those halcyon days all over again. Back in 1995, it must have felt like the ultimate vow, a promise that you could regain your youth and your happy ending simply by turning up for a get-together at the fountain in Sheffield city centre, tomorrow or four years on; for those of us who grew up after the new millennium, though, that kind of optimism seems faintly ridiculous and naïve, even desperate. But then again, the desperation is why we have this song in the first place.

And I’ve been there: in the past couple of years, but especially since the pandemic began, I’ve felt the twin menaces of age and loneliness inexorably creeping up on me. As I approached my mid-20s, and realised I was doing very little with my life that wasn’t being an insufferable academic, that feeling of despair grew ever more potent. I was frustrated at being constantly left on the sidelines — “I had to watch them try and get you undressed” — while being frustratingly unable to move on from people whom I’d crushed on but remained implausibly out of reach (“oh, it meant nothing to you/ Cause you were so popular”). I don’t think about those missed opportunities all the time, but when it does hit me, it hits me like a bullet train. And Jarvis doesn’t just get that, he seems to be living it still: I love the way he puts a particular oomph into “oh, the boys all loved you, but I was a mess”. Been there, mate. Still there myself.

The thing is, that desperation isn’t just a moment in time. It builds, it has longlasting effects, and it only gets worse as you age up. You realise that you’re only going round in circles, stuck in a loop of self-pity and regret that you only feel like you’re destined to repeat as you go decrepit and ugly and your teeth falls out, or whatever it is that happens when you get old. The second time we hit the chorus, it’s already obvious that it doesn’t have the energy of the first: he’s stuck repeating the same old melody, rehearsing the same old sentiments. The promise to meet up fades away, leaving only the stale, musty smell of the bedsit he’s in. So he breaks it off: “do it,” he says, or rather snarls, an angry snarl almost buried by the sound of breaking glass. For a few seconds — what seems like an agonisingly long eternity — he sounds like he’s given up, that he’s seen his hopes and dreams crashing down before him.

ALLISON: When you grow up, your heart dies.
BENDER: Who cares?
ALLISON: I care.

The Breakfast Club

When I first heard “Disco 2000”, which was not that long ago, I thought it sounded utterly romantic. Yes, this song was obviously a tragedy, but it was a beautifully observed, sonically astounding tragedy — and it was a tragedy you could dance to. (You’d expect that, wouldn’t you, from a song called “Disco 2000”, but Pulp normally employs irony like it’s the last worker on Earth, so.) But I read Marcello Carlin’s review of Different Class last week, and in particular his suggestion that the song “barely conceals a bitter self-realisation of the singer’s unutterable, premature failure as a functioning human being”. I wasn’t so sure whether I should love it anymore after that. It was a hyperbolic indictment, but it was still true, there was no way around it. And if I identified with the guy at the centre of the song — if I identified with Jarvis, basically — did it mean that I, too, was a hopeless failure of a functioning human being? Was I doomed to live out the same tragedy till I turned to ash, my charming potential forever untapped? It seemed true in the lead-up to last week. It still sounds true even as I type these words out.

But maybe I’ve been looking at this the wrong way — maybe it doesn’t really matter. Because romance is definitely one parameter of success as a human being, and I think it’s more important than the naysayers like to claim it is, but it doesn’t have to be the only parameter. That we see one guy being absolutely shit at charming this one particular girl does not necessarily mean that he does not have a successful writing career, or has no other passions or hobbies, or is not a gawky 32-year-old musician who was somehow once voted Britain’s fifth sexiest man. The milestone that is your 25th birthday may signify the death of a particular form of youth, but it is also the prelude to another 25; part of growing up is realising that there are worlds beyond your youthful obsessions, and that new starts are possible. (After all, it was at the age of 25 that Jarvis took a break from Pulp and enrolled in Saint Martin’s College.) Sometimes these new starts are frightfully similar to the old ones, but in the light of experience they can seem a whole lot different; that a dream causes hyperfixation does not mean that the dream itself is not of value — indeed, is very much worth having for the visions it inspires.

Which is why our narrator pumps himself up — “oh yeah, oh yeah” — and launches back into the same pre-chorus, all fired-up with energy and verve and the determination that he will NOT be screwing this one up. He turns his anonymity into a strength — you didn’t notice me at all? Well then, here’s your chance for a fresh start with me. He throws his hands up, and howls his invitation to the heavens and maybe Deborah one last time: “let’s all meet up in the year 2000/ Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown? Be there two o’clock by the fountain down the road!” We’ve come a long way from the bitter, reflective man we found at the beginning: for a few moments, Jarvis sounds young and invincible again, the kind of guy who might wag his bottom at Michael Jackson and come out the moral victor. And then he catches us and himself by surprise as he makes one final leap: “what are you doing Sunday, baby? Would you like to come and meet me, maybe?” In the hands of Pulp — Jarvis, Candida, Russell, everyone else — this liminal coda becomes another eternity, one moment suspended in time, a dance to the music of everlasting youth. I hear desperation, yes, but I also hear euphoria in those little “oohs” at the end: it sounds like he’s achieved the impossible, and made it through after all. Maybe he’s worked it out, maybe he hasn’t. You can fill in your own happy ending there.

And that is where we leave him: cocooned in bliss, perhaps deluded; but better to have dreamt of a bright, fairytale ending than to despair that you’ll never get there. Nothing has changed by the end of the song, and nothing needs to. The ephemeral moment of the song passes, we leave pondering the wonders of this romance, wondering where we will go next.

There are, after all, other things that matter besides aiming for an improbable harmony between the inner life and the outer.

— John Sayre Martin, The Endless Journey

When I began this piece two days ago I literally had no idea how to end it: I was more focused on writing down as many words that came to mind as possible, and had no real idea of how I might wrap it all up together. (Subjects broached during that initial frenzied hour included Mad Men, my own misery, and the loss of Jarvis Cocker’s virginity.) I generally have problems wrapping up pieces like this: they’re a brilliant flash of an idea when I start writing it down on paper, then I get about halfway in and then realise that I’ve thrown too many elements together and now I don’t know what my conclusion is. I’ve had slightly better luck with this one, but the stakes seem somewhat higher this time: I’ve put some bits of my quarter-life crisis on the Internet, and now I have to somehow tidy it up and find a way out of it. Simply put, there needs to be an answer.

But that’s the problem: we leave the narrator of “Disco 2000” in his own little wonderland, but we do not know what happens to him after that. Does he wake up and find himself alone and broken again, or does he find Deborah after all? What about those little regrets he had along the way, does he ever come to terms with those? In the same vein, I have to ask myself: well, what now, now that I’ve reached 25? I’ve come to that threshold; I’ve stumbled over it without knowing what comes next. Will I keep on making those same mistakes, over and over and over again? Will I ever come out of my comfort zone and build a path to success, or will I watch my life slide out of view? These are questions that bugged me before I created the document for this blogpost, and they are questions that bug me still. And I can’t think of any answers.

But I guess that’s what life is, really: you try to find for it a nice, happy ending, only to discover that nothing really seems to fit; you try to figure a way out, and nine times out of ten you go back to the same old ways. There’s still that one time where you do better, and it’s no small consolation, but progress is slow, apathetic, moved along in fits and starts with no discernible direction. And so I finish this blogpost the way you finish “Disco 2000”: resigned, melancholic, a little bit hopeful. It turned out alright for Jarvis in the end, and I suspect it’ll turn out alright for me. It’s not the ending I hoped for, but it’s the ending I got, and meanwhile there’s 25 more years — heck, even the whole 21st century to look forward to. Life goes on, as it always has.

And so we keep on going, living and dreaming, dreaming of living, cause it’s the only thing to do. And who knows: maybe someday, I’ll get my shit together, and we can meet by that fountain down the road. It’s a promise.

It’s okay to grow up — just as long as you don’t grow old. Face it… you are young.

— sleevenotes to Pulp’s This is Hardcore

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