What does it mean to be the voice of a generation?
I stumbled across a video recently from an American comedian name Adam Conover; in it Adam spent around 30 minutes arguing that generations don’t exist – they’re nothing more than a condescending and stupid idea, which lacks any real scientific grounding. He had graphs to prove it – we’re all just people really.
Who am I to argue with science?
And yet as university students I think we’re extremely generation-conscious, especially with music. It’s undoubtedly the best source of communal nostalgia you have available to you here; after all, it’s highly unlikely that the friends you make in freshers’ shared your school, your football team, or the street you grew up on as a kid. I might be wrong, but I got the sense listening to Adam Conover that he’d never set foot in a British club, especially one that’s about to close. If he had, he’d have witnessed first hand that sort of euphoric camaraderie that possesses a room as I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor kicks in in. I can’t help but feel that there must be something that drives that mass recognition, something that makes that track, and others like it, such irresistible fuel for 90s kids.
I think that for most of us, developing an appreciation for nostalgia is an important dimension of maturity. Being able to reflect upon something – a TV series, a film, an album – with genuine, retrospective appreciation and affection is arguably one of the key signs that we’ve moved on from teenage life; that we’re no longer desperate to be older than we are.
I guess in terms of reach, it didn’t really matter where you were when the Arctic Monkeys hit it big. Nonetheless, in terms of my relationship with this album, where I grew up was quite an important bit of context. I grew up in Derbyshire, and went to college in Greater Manchester. I was ostensibly a northern lad, but in truth probably not as much of one as I always wanted to be. A second, perhaps equally important bit of context was probably my age – I was around 13 at the time, a baby-faced teenager with illusions of maturity. The more I look back on it, I think my aspirational northern-ness and my immaturity were probably the two factors that determined my love of the Arctic Monkeys – and I did love them.
Now I know what you might be thinking, why would a 13 year-old lad from Derbyshire feel such a connection with a bunch of 20-year-old lads from Sheffield?
But it wasn’t empathy, or at least initially it wasn’t – it was aspiration. I didn’t love the Arctic Monkeys because they were like me; I loved the Arctic Monkeys because I wanted to be like them. They didn’t give a flying fuck, or didn’t seem to; they were brash, laddish, they drank, they spoke to girls, they were popular, they were northern. It wasn’t just me – of course it wasn’t – this is the fastest selling album in British history. The Arctic Monkeys shifted 360,000 copies of Whatever People Say in the first week; it went platinum in February 2014, having sold over 1,500,000.
All of this, from an album that is essentially a POV account of the Sheffield club scene:
“Though they might wear classic reeboks, or knackered converse, or tracky bottoms tucked in socks…”
I’m not mocking it – far from it – this album is the prime example of why say-what-you-see carries artistic weight, merit, and legitimacy. You don’t need to write conceptual masterpieces like The Dark Side Of The Moon to connect with an audience. In fact, when it comes to a generation of teenagers, the best route to influence is via reality or aspiration. Give them something can relate to, or else give them something they wish they could relate to.
In the end, the Arctic Monkeys delivered both. For me, as I’ve already touched on, my initial feelings toward with Whatever People Say were aspirational – I wanted to have mad weekends round Sheffield city centre with _my_mates. As I moved through my teens, I was still a fairly consistent fan – the childish sense of aspiration somewhat thawed, and was replaced by the perhaps even more childish sense of fulfilment, which was affirmed with every stolen beer and ‘last-train-home’.
But I don’t really listen to the Arctic Monkeys anymore. I can’t exactly pinpoint when it was that I stopped listening. In fact, it wasn’t until I returned to this album in order to write this column that I really began to question why I stopped.
Musically it’s still a really tight record, with the sort of raw enthusiasm you’d expect from of a bunch of young lads on the brink of the big time. Lyrically it’s still all there. I can just about remember most of the words, and the little references have stood the comedic test of time. But I know that as soon as I stop listening to this album in order to write this article, I won’t go back to it… it’s not the same – I doubt it ever will be.
I guess one potential reason is my age. Aside from my pitiful desperation to sound more northern than I naturally do (four years in Exeter will do that to you) I’ve outgrown most the aspirations that tied me to Whatever People Say. Maybe I’ve outgrown the sense of fulfilment too. I’m now older than the Arctic Monkeys were when they made this album – I’ve come to realise that in the real world, most the brash, laddish people I’ve met are kind of dickheads. The nights out have started to lose their air of mischief, mystery, and anticipation… I don’t even get ID’d anymore.
And yet all is not lost in amongst that creakingly bleak maturity. Because I know that however old I am, if I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor comes on, for the next two minutes and fifty-four seconds me, and every other 90s kid in the room, will be 13 once more.
Maybe that’s what it means to be the voice of a generation?