Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers Showed a New Side of Masculinity to Northern British Men

The Sheffield rock heroes’ fourth LP isn’t just one of Britpop’s most important albums ever, it’s also a key insight into adolescence and gender roles.

Music Features Pulp
Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers  Showed a New Side of Masculinity to Northern British Men

Throughout the year, Paste will be looking at the most important album releases from 1994 as they turn 30, from Green Day to Nas to Elliott Smith and beyond. This is 1994, She’s in Your Bones, a column of essays dedicated to one of the best years in rock ‘n’ roll history. Read our previous installments, on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Hole’s Live Through This.

In late-1970s Sheffield, a 15-year-old Jarvis Cocker was concocting a masterplan. Wanting to reach for stardom, he dreamed of being in a band called Pulp, whose sole mission was to “subvert and restructure both the music-business and music itself,” a bold claim for any artist in the music industry, never mind a teenager. It’s fair to say that the band never quite achieved that goal, but that isn’t to say they didn’t leave their mark on music in a way that a teenage Cocker may not have expected. As the story goes, despite getting early radio play from era-defining DJ John Peel, Pulp had to wait for their success. By the time His ‘n’ Hers came around in 1994, it was the band’s fourth album—but it would be the one that scored their first entries into the UK Official Charts, with “Lipgloss” in late 1993 and “Do You Remember The First Time?” in April 1994.

His ‘n’ Hers became a standout Britpop record, released just as the musical movement was about to hit peak momentum. The genre was already starting to change the face of pop music in the UK, as Blur’s “Girls & Boys” entered the Top 10 on the charts and their album Parklife would go all the way to #1. Later in the year, Oasis’ monumental debut Definitely Maybe was released as the bands’ feud began to truly take off. On the other hand, away from headline-grabbing squabbling, Cocker and his band embodied sexuality, desire and a working class perspective that few of the other bands associated with Britpop could.

My association with His ‘n’ Hers begins around 20 years later, in rural Yorkshire at a crucial period of my life. I’d just left secondary school and had a terrible first year on a football (soccer) course at college—as part of a further education course, which prepares students in the UK for university—before instead transferring to media studies. I was enduring a late period of puberty, where I had little idea as to who I was, and my head was swirling with desire. One day, when ignoring an assignment, I found myself browsing YouTube, listening to Oasis and Blur before stumbling upon the music video for “Do You Remember The First Time?”

I watched the video countless times, transfixed by the figure dressed in a bright purple shirt and a smart black blazer, stretched out on white rug, intersected by footage of young people hanging out and getting off. This was an invitation behind the closed doors of teenage intimacy and exploration, and it was something I needed more than ever. Having not experienced intimacy often in my life up until that point, I was a mess of intrusive sexual thoughts and fantasies that became a common occurrence within daily life (I probably fancied most people on the street) and I craved physical connection. Listening to “Babies” for the first time was equally revelatory: I see it as a perfect encapsulation of naivety and curiosity, two crucial aspects we use to teach ourselves about sex, learning what we like and what we don’t like.

There’s a beautiful balance found within the song, which finds Cocker not only capturing the pubescent sexual experience, but brilliantly mocking the absurdity and awkwardness of the situations we can find ourselves in. “I only went with her because she looks like you, my God,” he sings.

Around the time I started listening to His ‘n’ Hers, I lost my virginity—and I’d say that Cocker and co. gave me a better understanding of sexual education than school ever could. “Do You Remember The First Time?” is the perfect summary of society’s most hyped-up personal milestone that inevitably doesn’t quite reach expectations, but the main lesson I took away from the song was that you don’t have to take sex too seriously; it’s all about finding out what’s right for you. The pettiness in the line “I don’t care if you screw him” exposes the messiness of pining for someone who once meant something to you and has since moved on. But the jibes and bravado found throughout are simply a mask for jealousy, which we’ve all been guilty of brandishing here and there.

Looking back at that “Do You Remember The First Time?” music video, I was presented with a figure in Cocker who represented a lot of what I wanted to be. Here was a man who looked fully comfortable in his skin—and I thought that was the coolest thing that I had ever seen. Yet, he was mainly associated with “oddness”: He wore charity shop clothes, struck weird poses and, whilst he wasn’t traditionally handsome, there was an aura about him that was undoubtedly attractive. He spoke to a sense of masculinity that I was yet to encounter in my life but had someday hoped to.

Part of my identity problems around this period were concerned with my self-image. I had often floated between different social groups at school, never feeling like I truly fit in. I was deeply involved in traditionally masculine environments, most immediately the football teams, yet it never felt like a space I was ever truly comfortable or welcome in. I couldn’t stand locker room talk; I grew bored of the rinse and repeat cycle of hearing about the successful “conquests” some of the lads had over the weekend—it didn’t impress me much; I found it tedious and boring.

I removed myself from these situations and found a new idol in Cocker, an alternative sex symbol who completely changed my sense of self-expression. Listening to His ‘n’ Hers coincided with major changes in my life: I began to dress how I wanted, not by stealing directly from Cocker—whose own style was influenced by Elvis Costello and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch—but by buying clothes that I felt presented me for the first time. My only attempt to steal Cocker’s look was in the shape of a double-breasted burgundy suit jacket off ASOS, which he would surely mark me down for not being a charity shop find. Thanks to Pulp, I was finally starting to come out of my shell.

It wasn’t lost on me the fact that Cocker was a fellow Yorkshireman. I had no other Northern idols at the time who broke the mold of what masculinity in Northern England was or could be. When Cocker was young, he got a job at a fishmongers on the recommendation of a man his mum dated who thought he needed “toughening up”; it’s an attitude I saw all too often at school, in boys who would end up just embodying miniature versions of their dads rather than being allowed to express themselves. Seeing that a Northerner could embrace “oddness” and still be seen as a sex symbol, whilst rallying against the expectations that are set up for Yorkshire men came at a crucial time for my own development.

Growing up, I could see those expectations of what masculinity is “supposed” to look like in Yorkshire passed down generationally. It’s something that was especially prevalent at school and can be especially harmful in heteronormative sporting environments, as West Yorkshire artist Corbin Shaw explains in an interview with The Face in 2019. It can manifest in even seemingly small ways, the odd jibe here and there such as “man up” or “stop being so soft.” I saw this happen frequently before my eyes, the queer kids were relentlessly bullied and mocked by their heterosexual peers who deemed themselves superior because they weren’t “poofs.” Any item of clothing deemed too fluorescent or even just showing an interest in art or dancing was an automatic pass for people to be labeled and shunned. And why? To appeal to a previous generation’s idea of what a man was, which ran like an infection through some of the other boys my age.

Even just seeing Cocker’s awkward shoulder shuffles and bare chest exposed in the “Babies” video was enough for me to start seeing that these behaviors and expectations I was used to weren’t healthy and that they definitely weren’t normal. Even that small realization helped me to determine that I was less of an outsider than I thought. It makes sense then that Cocker grew up in a mainly female household: You can see how that upbringing influenced his perspective on songs such as “Someone Like The Moon,” which translates female loneliness in what is arguably the most heartbreaking moment on His ‘n’ Hers. “She likes to watch the moon as it travels through the sky because she’s heard it’s romantic, though she can’t really see why.” Cocker’s ability to embody this is an example of that alternative sense of masculinity manifested on record, the shrill vocal shrieks you hear from him throughout the record also lean more towards the feminine side. Tracks such as “Lipgloss” and “Have You Seen Her Lately?” rally against shit men found in the lives of the song’s empowered female protagonists.

In his 2022 memoir Good Pop, Bad Pop, Cocker describes his life living with his mother and sister after his dad left when he was only seven. He would often eavesdrop on the conversations between his mother and her friends, especially. With that in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine how the lyrics for “Acrylic Afternoons” came to Cocker later in life: “Whilst children play outside and wait for their mothers to finish with lovers and call them inside for their tea,” he sings, and it’s easy to see that story coming from the gossip shared between his mother and her friends. Whilst my dad is a positive influence in my life, during my early teenage years he worked away in shifts on oil rigs—where he would be away for at least two to three weeks at a time in the North Sea. I believe that the extra time spent with my mum and sister definitely contributed to me having a greater sense of femininity in my perspective, which was a big part in helping His ‘n’ Hers to resonate with me.

In hindsight, there are few albums I have experienced listening to where a male-fronted band writes about sex with little concern for masculine tropes. There’s not much ego to be found in the scenes Cocker paints of the bedroom. Take “She’s A Lady,” where instead of the usual cliches of a woman pining after an ex, Cocker embodies that role, struggling to carry on in the absence of a lover: “Whilst you were gone, I got along, I didn’t die, I carried on. Oh yeah, you’ve got to hold me tight, so I can make it through the night.” It subverts the narrative to where the woman clearly has the power in this situation. The way Cocker treats the women in his lyrics is with a mixture of instinctual, ravaging horniness but also a refreshing intimacy where women aren’t throwaway objects—instead he wants to “hold you forever” in “Acrylic Afternoons.” The extra touches of embrace and femininity found throughout Cocker’s descriptions of sex on His ‘n’ Hers gave pop music in the ‘90’s a refreshingly anti-masculine perspective that spoke of the power either sex could have in the bedroom, a space where ego shouldn’t have to matter.

Blur and Oasis were my first introductions to Britpop, but I never quite connected with them in the same way I could with Pulp. Oasis were the confident Northern lads of the genre that embodied the young people of working-class Britain and emboldened them to dream bigger. Meanwhile, Blur were creating effortlessly catchy, brilliant pop songs—but as journalist Simon Price notes in the documentary series Britpop: The Music That Changed Britain, they were culpable of perpetuating a cartoonish version of working-class Britishness. Within ‘90s Britain, a time where alcohol consumption in young men was rising, Blur and Oasis were very much a part of that “lad” culture. Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers, meanwhile, was seen as an album for outsiders—but, actually, their stories were grounded in a reality obscured by commercialism.

Any post-Britpop analysis should consider the role of class in the genre, and Blur were an example of a middle-class band who used working-class tropes in their songs (looking at you, Parklife), which meant that I struggled to fully connect with them. I was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class household, but the rural part of Yorkshire I lived in was largely working class. When I listen to Pulp, I hear genuine reflections of that environment. Whether it be the small town gossip, the melodrama involved in young relationships or just simply reveling in the freedom of being young, hanging out with friends, drinking together before you shoot off towards adulthood—which is the subject of album closer “David’s Last Summer.” The band showed me that refusing to subscribe to the sense of masculinity I saw all around me was not only a possibility but an essential part of my sense of place, where I could finally find real connections with people going through exactly the same thing.

His ‘n’ Hers was the best album for me to grow up alongside. At a time when I was searching for my sense of identity, I found it in not only the stories in the album but in the introduction of Cocker as my guide to finding comfort in an alternative sense of masculinity. The legacy of this album will continue to endure far beyond Britpop, which of course ended up imploding due to far too much money being thrown around by major labels in an effort to capitalize on a movement that was always destined to fizzle out. Pulp may not have totally subverted and restructured the music industry as a young Jarvis Cocker had wished, but they did leave a lasting imprint on young Northern men for generations to come. He and the band told us that we were allowed to fully embrace our inner-sense of self, that we didn’t have to conform to societal norms of masculinity, that we could express ourselves and our desires in whatever way we deemed fit.

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