As a young man, I had no concept of England. From what I learned in history class, they were our origins, then our enemies, then our allies. Culturally, they were The Beatles. That was it. But I didn’t know anything about the way people talked, the way people dressed, the way people see others in Britain. The concept of Northerners or chavs or pie and mash or anything related to class were all completely over my head because they were concepts you had to live within to understand.
Currently, working with exclusively British writers has reminded me of how much I still don’t know, so much so that considering “dinner” a Northernism (in reference to lunch) was an entirely novel concept. It’s a fascinating lesson in cultural education, but also a gap that I’m finding harder and harder to bridge, even as I get more familiar with it. So, to do my homework, I decided to consult one of the first texts that I initially related explicitly to the Northern English experience: Arctic Monkeys and their song ‘A Certain Romance’.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, for an impressionable young American, is a wonderfully jam-packed album to explore a very specific vision of England in the mid-2000s. I can read all the interviews and Wikipedia articles that I want, but the best way to understand Alex Turner’s point of view as a teenager from Sheffield taking in the richest of details of the club and pub atmosphere is just to listen to the songs within the context of each other.
‘I Bet You Look Good on The Dancefloor’ has more inherent meaning sandwiched between the anticipation of ‘The View from the Afternoon’ and the pride-swallowing put-ons of ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ than it does just on its own. The darker recesses of prostitution on ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ plays as a comical romp when ‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’ sees bouncers trying to crown themselves king of the grimy streets. And of course, the totality of the album could be seen as one big fun night out if Turner didn’t pointedly end on a note of discontent: ‘A Certain Romance’.
With mentions to the chav subculture that favours Reeboks, drunken brawls, and aggressive dickish behaviour, ‘A Certain Romance’ helps colour the entirety of Whatever People Say I Am with more nuance and dichotomy. It would be all too simple, especially as someone who doesn’t know a thing about young life in Northern England, to romanticise the excitement and openness of Turner’s tales, especially when they’re souped up with explosive indie rock instrumentation. But ‘A Certain Romance’ is about a feeling that is purposefully saved for the very end of the album: exhaustion.
As the pool cues and ringtones start to run together into a redundant cycle, the lack of warmth and beauty and true connection starts to eat away at you. At only 19 years old, Turner was able to articulate how being a young barfly always looking to fight or fuck isn’t a sustainable lifestyle and will eventually necessitate a change of course. Turner was already feeling those desires before he was even in his 20s.
‘A Certain Romance’ does end in some form of reconciliation, and the ragged final chord that rings out as the band closes the door on another night out practically begs you to return to the beginning all over again. You, too, can experience all the lust and glory that comes with being young and horny and on top of the world, but by the end of the night, you’ll still feel lonely and empty. That’s because there’s no romance around there, and if even a naive, culturally inexperienced American can see that, then it must be the truth.