Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, And They Say I’m Not an Incel
I heard I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor in my first year of high school, late at night through the FM radio of my MP3 player. I thought, “hey, this song’s pretty neat”.
I played it for a group of acquaintances that summer. You had to hold the aux cable at a specific angle or the speaker wouldn’t work. Someone said “this is garbage” out loud. I thought, “this is my favourite band now”.
I loved Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not at first listen, and I still love it today. This is the first verse from the first song.
Anticipation has a habit to set you up
For disappointment in evening entertainment, but
Tonight there’ll be some love
Tonight there’ll be a ruckus, yeah
Regardless of what’s gone before
I want to see all of the things that we’ve already seen
The lairy girls hung out the window of the limousine
Of course it’s fancy dress
And they’re all looking quite full on
In bunny ears and devil horns and how
Alex Turner (singer, songwriter and frontman, who for our purposes we’ll treat as the creative director of Arctic Monkeys, even if the reality may be more democratic) efficiently sets a stage, costumes his actors, calls lights, camera, action, and then scoffs at the image he’s created. Of course it’s fancy dress. Ugh. From minute one, this is a cynical album about a simple lifestyle about going to cheap bars and hating everything about it.
This is an attitude I personally spent a lot of time in, and one I now absolutely hate. I think it had a lot more traction in the early 2000’s before home entertainment got honed to perfection. This album begs the question; if bars suck so much, and the drinks are too expensive, and the bands who play are garbage, and everyone there is an asshole, why did you go?
Alex doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s going out to see all of the things that he’s already seen. Dreams of naughtiness. Get drunk and sober back up. It’s the clarity of an addict, the emotional hype and crash delivered in the lines themselves, as the first tees us for the second in a miniature implied Q-and-A. Anticipation has a habit to set you up. Pause. “For what?” For disappointment, of course. Alex is not up all night to get lucky. He does not have a feeling that tonight will be a good night. This sentiment carries through the particulars of suburban UK nightlife that would otherwise bog this song down.
I want to see all of the things that we’ve already seen
I wanna see you take the jackpot out the fruit machine
And put it all back in
You’ve got to understand that you can never beat the bandit, no
English bars have penny slots? And they call them fruit machines? Huh? What’s a lairy girl?
This storytelling via tiny details ranges from charming (The View from the Afternoon’s chorus works in a technical detail about old-school flip phones) to incredibly funny (all of Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured) to downright gross, and I want to expand on that quality for a second. The Alex Turner of this album hates everyone, but the hatred he has for men is not the same hatred he has for women.
“I’m not like other guys” is, as they say, Classic Cringe, but Alex is really, really good at arguing this in songs. He spends much of this album saying no, there’s nothing special about him, everyone else is just so, so much worse. From Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured:
These two lads squaring up, proper shouting
Bout who were next in the queue
The kind of thing that’d seem so silly
But not when they’ve both had a few
Well calm down, temper temper
You shouldn’t get so annoyed
Well you’re acting like a silly little boy
Oh they wanted to be men
And do some fighting in the street
He said, “No surrender! No chance of retreat!”
Besides being very funny, this is a gosh darn quick read on modern masculinity. Our grandfathers fought in wars, our fathers built cities, but what now? What else is there to do now besides chase fleeting pleasures? What else do the now-free-floating masculine ideals of honour and bravery have to glom onto besides a drunken temper tantrum? Does our idea of “becoming a man” only lead us back into acting like silly little boys? Alex doesn’t hesitate — yep, it does.
Having mapped out the collective psyche of his fellow men, Alex is understandably annoyed they won’t just admit their basic motive for going out, the actual reason he’s at this bar even though he hates the music, the drink, and the company— they (and he) want to get laid. In Dancing Shoes, the chorus mixes a ‘go on then’ camaraderie with real exasperation.
The only reason that you came
So what you scared for?
Well don’t you always do the same?
It’s what you’re there for, don’t you know?
Isn’t the UK nightlife, with its fruit machines and trilbies and two for one deals and backward-facing taxi seats, just an elaborate way to charge people for having sex with each other? Isn’t it just a game, one you either win or lose?
Hmm. A bleak, dissatisfied outlook, alienation from peers, a fixation on women that somehow never extends to getting to know one…. this smells familiar. And ugly.
The lights are flashing
Down in here tonight
And some might exchange a glance
But keep pretending to dance
Don’t act like it’s not happening
As if it’s impolite
To go and mention your name
Instead you’ll just do the same as they all do
And hope for the best
Why pay to play if you aren’t trying to win? Alex, in accusing people of not being honest with themselves, never explicitly mentions anything besides Dancing. Flirting with a stranger, hooking up with a partner, dating a girlfriend, romance with a soulmate — all these potential outcomes are hidden behind a very hard-working “it”.
You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights But You Were Staring Straight at Me follows this logic further down the path. Exasperation turns into disgust:
One look sends it coursing through the veins
Oh how the feeling races
Back up to their brains
To form expressions on their stupid faces
Oof. You must be great at parties. But remember, we noted earlier Alex does not consider himself meaningfully superior to these ‘stupid faces.’ He is not casting himself as the unappreciated genius, nor the oppressed outsider. He is a regular working class guy out at a bar with his friends. The personal aha is not far behind.
Everybody’s trying to crack the jokes and that
To make you smile
Those that claim that they’re not showing off
Are drowning in denial
But they’re not half as bad as me
Say anything and I’ll agree
Cause when it comes to acting up
I’m sure I could write the book
And now that you’re more than a part in the play
It’s slightly easier to think what to say
You had us all standing on our heads
Doing our best tricks
A strong turn downwards to misogyny at the end there, or at least he’s massively dissatisfied with the gender roles he’s living in. This unhappiness is clearly rooted in a mixture of hatred for other dudes and, more importantly, himself. Alex is up all night to get lucky, same as everyone else. If all dudes suck, what does that say about him?
Moreover, if men are all silly little boys, and our narrator is too, and we’re all just out of control, caught up in a game most of us are too scared to even play…. then women must be in control, right? Someone must be pulling the strings. We are all caught up in this performance, this competition, brains vs brawn, by hook or by crook, and it’s all for you now choose someone please or this will all be for nothing I already feel so stupid.
When he shouts out “never again will there be another one quite as desirable as you” it is not a compliment but an insult, an outburst at a projection.
We find ourselves steadily, ear-worm-ingly, guided toward the mind of an involuntary celibate. The incel mentality can be roughly outlined as —
The pursuit of women (well, not really women so much as sex) is all life is, the singular goal we men are biologically created and culturally raised to achieve. When you fail at that, you fail at being a man, indeed a human, on some fundamental level. The logical conclusion is bitterness and hatred. Hatred of such a crooked world, hatred for the women who deny you this goal and the men who flaunt their having achieved it in your face. Underneath it all, hatred of yourself for eternally falling short. An incel haunts this insanely catchy album that I love.
The most charitable meaning you might extract from that last quote, any hope of wriggling away from this conclusion, pales in the anglerfish light of Still Take You Home.
Well it’s ever so funny
Cause I don’t think you’re special, I don’t think you’re cool
You’re just probably alright
But under these lights you look beautiful
And I’m struggling, I can’t see through your fake tan
Yeah, and you know it for a fact that everybody’s eating out of your hands
But what do you know? Oh, you know nothing
Yeah, but I’ll still take you home
Oh, yeah, I’ll still take you home
So what do you know?
Said, you don’t know nothing
Here, Alex is the worst kind of incel, the kind who dabbles in being a pick up artist. He’s flat out negging her. Fittingly, this grossly misogynist song is also musically the worst, although I don’t think they planned that. An entire section is just “woah”s and “da”s — having sprinted out the gate with “woman stupid”, they quickly run out of anything else to say.
I fancy you with a passion
Oh, you’re a Topshop princess, a rockstar too
But you’re a fad and you’re a fashion
And I’m having a job trying to talk to you
But it’s alright, yeah, I’ll put it on one side
Cause everybody’s looking
You’ve got control of everyone’s eyes, including mine
For all the attempts to assert dominance, Alex ends this song on a typical incel beta cuck note. Beneath the insults and disdain, he really is into this woman and wants to be with her. And maybe if he treated her like a human being, she might like him back. But he doesn’t, so she won’t.
Okay, so we’ve reached a pretty firm conclusion here. Alex Turner is an incel. I’d call this a tumblr-esque read. We’ve reached in looking for things we can call problematic, and come up with a double handful. We could call it quits here, and there’s a routine debriefing we could play out. “Um, is no one going to talk about how sexist this album is?” “Why not just let people enjoy things?” Arctic Monkeys are your problematic fave. You’re allowed to listen as long as you remember the world is a slightly worse place.
Hang on now. I’ve been jumping around the tracklist. And so far, all our source material, except for Red Light Indicates Doors are Secure, comes from Side 1. And remember that was the bit about masculinity, two boys fighting in the streets because that’s what they think men would do. It comes after Still Take You Home and Riot Van, an exceedingly charming anti-cop ballad. Do we have our slide into incelibacy (coined it) out of order? Does this Spot the Sexist reading leave out the other half of the picture? Is there still hope? Musician, heal thyself?
Arctic Monkeys, like many British rock bands of their time, have a deep abiding love for older music. They play obscure 70’s gear on their tours, and on at least one tour cycle they’ve dressed all in suits. (At least one cause of their increasingly fashionable style is that they’ve become much richer people since 2006, on account of their massive pop career, but in my opinion they lean into that fact and get artistic with it.)
An example of this vintage sensibility can be seen in their albums’ consistent Side 1/Side 2 split, where the first and second halves of the tracklist are meaningfully different in tone and pace. Many classic albums were primarily consumed on vinyl records which, just a reminder, can only fit about 20 minutes of audio on each side due to the structural limitations of vinyl. The listener must take an intermission in the middle of listening to flip their album over and begin the second half.
Alex has referenced this explicitly in interviews, taking care in their albums’ tracklist to incorporate a creative pause and restart in the middle. Even when nobody is listening to music on vinyl anymore, this is generally a good way to structure albums.
So, having established Alex’s hatred of other men, women, and himself in a causal chain leading straight down to inceldom and pick up artistry… we reopen the curtain on Riot Van. The mood is chill. Alex dreamily croons about how useless policemen are, and how fun it is to run away when they chase you. If we want to fit Riot Van into our reading of this album, Alex is for once not set against his fellow peers, and it’s a relief.
“Have you been drinking, son? You don’t look old enough to me”
“I’m sorry officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?
Cause nobody told me”
And up rolls the riot van
And these lads just wind the coppers up
They ask why they don’t catch proper crooks
They get their address and their names took
But they couldn’t care less
Alex may not like other dudes, but he likes it when they screw around with cops. At the very least, he’s taking a break, going outside and getting some exercise, which is excellent incel advice.
It’s short, it’s sweet, and the only thing I want to note is that songs about how clumsy and inept police are and how funny it is when riot vans roll up have aged… oddly. Bumbling Policeman is a classic English comedic trope that does not read here in North America.
If Side 1 is going out and getting drunk, Side 2 is eating some food and feeling your head clear up. After Red Light we have another soft spot, the sober and bittersweet Mardy Bum.
Well, now then, mardy bum
I’ve seen your frown and it’s like looking down
The barrel of a gun, and it goes off
And out come all these words
Oh, there’s a very pleasant side to you, a side I much prefer
It’s one that laughs and jokes around
Remember cuddles in the kitchen, yeah
To get things off the ground
And it was up, up, and away
Ah but it’s reight hard to remember that
On a day like today
When you’re all argumentative
And you’ve got the face on
Cue Tim Allen noise! Alex Turner, dating someone? In a long term, domestic relationship? Caring??? On paper, you can take the angle that he’s whining about his mean girlfriend — but his tone of voice does not agree. He’s in genuine pain about the distance between them. He leads into a guitar solo with an emotional outburst.
And yeah I’m sorry I was late
But I missed the train and then the traffic was a state
And I can’t be arsed to carry on in this debate that reoccurs
Oh when you say I don’t care, but of course I do yeah I clearly do!
He sings it like he means it, and the snide outsider tone fades away as he snaps that he clearly still loves his partner, even if he’s an asshole about it sometimes.
This splash of empathy and relaxation lends his return to sarcasm in Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But… (these titles do overstate their case, like yeah you’re sarcastic we get it) much more emotional heft than if he’d just carried on the mood from Still Take You Home. Vampires is my personal favourite, although the objectively best is still yet to come. The band has an act together, they’ve started touring, and Alex finds a group of people he knows are definitely inferior to him. Music critics. The ensuing verses are ice cold.
I’ve seen your eyes as they fix on me
‘What is he doing? What on earth’s the plan, has he got one?’
You better give me some pointers
Since you are the big rocket launcher and I’m just the shotgun
I ain’t got no dollar signs in my eyes
That might be a surprise but it’s true
Said I’m not like you, and I don’t want your advice or your praise
Or to move in the ways you do, and I never will
Cause all you people are vampires
And all your stories are stale
And though you pretend to stand by us
I know you’re certain we’ll fail
I’ve seen your eyes as they fix on me, full of confusion
Your snarl is just so condescending!
Trying to explain that we’re on to a win
If the fee we get in near recoups what we’re spending, he said
“I can’t believe that you drove all that way
Well how much did they pay ya?
How much did they pay ya?
You’d have been better to stay round our way
Thinking about things but not actually doing the things”
Alex now offers up a valid solution to the void in masculinity he outlined in Red Light. Our grandfathers fought wars, dads built cities, yadda yadda, but none of them wrote lyrics like this. He and the rest of the Arctic Monkeys gang have a fundamental purpose, a higher calling beyond substance abuse and hooking up now. They’re here to make music. They are here to do something, the unproductive minds who nitpick that goal from the sidelines can be tossed aside, and you should enjoy doing so. Separate the wheat from the chavs, Chads and chaff.
I said, who’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she had to roam the streets
She don’t do major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate
And what a scummy man
Just give him half a chance, I bet he’ll rob you if he can
Can see it in his eyes, yeah, that he’s got a driving ban
Amongst some other offences
And I’ve seen him with girls of the night
And he told Roxanne to put on her red light
They’re all infected but he’ll be alright
Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know
When the Sun Goes Down takes another crack at “other dudes suck”, as Alex and co. observe the prostitution nightlife adjacent to bars. And they’ve got a point. Certain lines across this album do come off as if Alex is just disgusted by the idea of sex in general, Dancing Shoes in particular showing quite the Puritanical streak. But in the context of literal prostitution, this angle works. It highlights how the bottom of this miserable game is a stark place.
Bet she’s delighted when she sees him
Pulling in and giving her the eye
Because she must be fucking freezing
Scantily-clad beneath the clear night sky
It don’t stop in the winter, no
I used the phrase ‘pay to play’ before, in the context of ‘bars charge you admission and per drink, and people go for excitement/to hook up.’ Here it has a much uglier, more literal meaning. This is a dose of realism and perspective that recontextualizes everything that’s come before. I can’t think of another song besides Ed Sheeran’s A-Team that gets into this topic and comes back out with something real to say. And A-Team doesn’t bop nearly as hard.
From where we’re standing now, Alex is actually correct to hate the city he lives and parties in. Because it does objectively suck, it hurts people, these streets contain women selling themselves to stay warm as well as boys desperate to feel like men. These suburbs are both mind-numbingly boring and rotten with an exploitative underbelly.
After taking an incredibly sexist POV, it’s important to note that he does what most incels are unable or refuse to do. He takes several steps back and sees things from someone else’s perspective. And it turns out, someone else’s lived experience runs counter to the conclusion he just reached. If ‘the point’ of it all is for men to acquire sex, then he’s actually just living in a city full of very scummy men and very vulnerable women. It’s not a game.
You could argue that incel ideology, becoming increasingly associated with young men committing awful acts of mass violence, warrants a more direct response. Don’t let sexism off the hook so easily! We’re still not done yet, though. Next up is From the Ritz to the Rubble, objectively the best song on this album.
Last night, what we talked about
It made so much sense
But now the haze has ascended
It don’t make no sense anymore
The refrain neatly packages it all up. We go out to bars knowing full well we’re going to get plastered and say stuff we’ll either forget or regret. Bored kids briefly escaping suburban malaise.
Well, I’m so glad they turned us all away, we’ll put it down to fate
I said a thousand million things that I could never say this morning
Alex’s observational tone avoids making a judgement call. Is Saturday night a time when it is okay to act vicariously, a PvP zone to square off with tossers and say awful stuff specifically because you’d never say it in public ‘on a Sunday’? Or is it the old saying “drunk words are sober thoughts”, and we should hold each other accountable for the stupid and harmful things we say, no matter our BAC?
Ritz does not have answers, but it raises the right questions. How much credence should we give the lyrics this album has given us? Is it just a haze of drunken wordplay poured over a collage of adolescent temper tantrums? If we’re just killing brain cells, shouldn’t we just stop? How deep is too deep?
The finale, A Certain Romance, takes a crack at answering. And somebody call a certain Charles, because it’s a tale of two cities.
Well oh they might wear classic Reeboks
Or knackered Converse or tracky bottoms tucked in socks
But all of that’s what the point is not
The point’s that there ain’t no romance around there
And there’s the truth that they can’t see
They’d probably like to throw a punch at me
And if you could only see ’em then you would agree
Agree that there ain’t no romance around there
Another step back. This isn’t the only town with alcoholic teenagers. And they might sort themselves into subcultures, define themselves with fashion, but these groups are all alike in their differences. The violence they collectively participate in is bad.
But I said no, oh no
Well you won’t get me to go
Not anywhere, not anywhere
No, I won’t go, oh, no, no
But over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And they might overstep the line
But you just cannot get angry in the same way
No, not in the same way
Said, not in the same way
Oh no, oh no, no
The tone is indeed romantic, cheerful, fond. Everyone involved is forgiven, including himself. We should just all go easy on the beers and not be dickheads eh?
We do not get an explicit disavowal of his ugliest lyrics. But we do get what might be the next best thing, something that might be more helpful to struggling incels today. He lets go of the personal dissatisfaction and alienation that led him into this mess to begin with.
For all its faults, his hometown is his home, and as much vitriol as he feels towards everyone else in the club, they are his friends and neighbours. He drops the ambiguity and announces his love for his hometown. It’s a classic small city emotion. It’s a toilet, but it’s our toilet, and nobody disses it but us. He’s not going anywhere, so you just cannot get angry in the same way. The curtain closes with the Arctic Monkeys knowing where they are. They are home.
You can still totally argue that Whatever gets off too easily. You can’t call women “filthy little swine” and absolve that with a “let’s all just get along” conclusion!
I am also very sure that Alex Turner didn’t mean to make a dissertation on incels. Why grade him so thoroughly on a project he wasn’t doing?
Let’s cut this album some slack. It’s a working class pop-punk debut album from 2006, made by teenagers, years before everyone was online talking about incels and before the men who identified with that word started killing people. It is, first and foremost, a fun, catchy album. Let’s not forget their peers were selling singles about boners. Grandiose statements about sexism aside, this album punched above its weight. If it fails, it falls just a little short of a goal other bands never attempted in the first place.
For a genre rife with Still Take You Home-style misogyny without substance, (here’s a great example of a contemporary band with a “it’s a bop, but holy shit those lyrics”) I think it’s absolutely masterful to spend Side 1 indulging in that mindset, and then spend Side 2 offering a gentle antidote — perspective.
This album doesn’t disavow its sexism. However, it would be pointless to deny the clarity with which it vividly describes many of the key ingredients that are ‘in the water’ of casual sexism.
Some incels get called out, their worldview shattered to pieces. Many others quietly grow up and move on. Countless more young men find themselves on the threshold but turn away, for a number of reasons. This album demonstrates a positive way to do that, and lists some of those reasons. The antidote may be too gentle for some, but it does work.
Cut the crap. Get outside and talk to other people. Whatever haze you sink into will ascend, sooner or later. You should love and identify with where you are and who you’re around. See what they’re going through and compare it to your situation. From the closing refrain of a song I criminally overlooked,
Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook
Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook
Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook
Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook, yeah
Whatever people say they are, that’s what they’re not — but the Arctic Monkeys are not incels. Let’s see where they go next.