How Arctic Monkeys won the battle but lost the war
A decade on, the manufactured pop they railed against is stronger than ever.
Ten years ago this week, Arctic Monkeys released their very first single — ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’. Like everything the band did, it was a sensation: their subsequent album, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, shattered the record set by Hear’Say (you know, from Popstars) for first-week sales. Even the Telegraph got into them — as I know, because I had to spend most of 2005 and 2006 patiently taking the ‘The’ out of ‘The Arctic Monkeys’ in piece after piece after piece…
At the time, Arctic Monkeys seemed thrilling and new. Here was a band that was using the latest technology — this amazing thing called MySpace — to build up a following. In the process, they seemed to have rendered the record labels completely pointless.
Their songs were raw, personal, heartfelt, packed with a furious energy
More thrilling still, Arctic Monkeys didn’t just have a sound — they had a manifesto. Like the punks of the 1970s, they seemed to be there to save us from tedious, anodyne, manufactured pop, to sweep away Hear’Say and all the rest of Simon Cowell’s plastic androids. Their songs were raw, personal, heartfelt, packed with a furious energy: Oasis meets the Strokes with a dash of John Cooper Clarke. There were serious suggestions that they were the closest thing we’d get to a new version of the Beatles.
Of course, it didn’t work out at all like that. The band’s frontman, Alex Turner, was palpably uncomfortable with superstardom — or even celebrity full stop. That’s not to say that the band weren’t bloody successful: five successive No 1 albums tells its own story, and they even played the Olympics. But they didn’t change the world.
The reason, looking back from the vantage point of a decade, is that the band don’t actually look like something new — they look like something very old.
It turns out, Arctic Monkeys were the last big record-shop band. Their sales were physical sales, CDs mostly. Their meteoric rise was illustrated by pictures of fans queueing outside HMV or Virgin Records — remember them?
And they were old in another way, too. The reason we all got so excited — why all those hyperbolic comparisons to the Beatles were made — was that there was a sense that this was a band who mattered, whose musical ideas would (as bands always had) shape the wider culture. There was even a health scare over the fact that their album cover showed someone smoking.
The people threatening the Beatles’ records now aren’t singers, but producers
But what happened instead? The triumph not of tedious, anodyne, manufactured pop, but bloody good manufactured pop. It’s the story John Seabrook tells in a marvellous new book called ‘The Song Machine’ — how a small group of Swedish hitmakers started with Ace of Base, worked their way up to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and now, along with other superstar producers, provide pretty much every song for pretty much every major artist.
The people threatening the Beatles’ records for No 1s today aren’t singers or guitarists, they’re producers — people like Dr Luke (‘Price Tag’, ‘Right Round’, ‘Party in the USA’, pretty much everything by Katy Perry), or Max Martin (‘…Baby One More Time’, ’So What’, ‘Blank Space’, ‘Shake It Off’, and many of the same Katy Perry songs). The first collaboration between the two, ‘Since U Been Gone’, still sets the pop standard:
What happened? I give the long answer in my forthcoming book, ‘The Great Acceleration’ — available online now, pre-order fans. But the short answer is: the internet. The MP3 culture is one in which singles, not albums, are the atomic unit of music. But it’s also one in which the big hits are bigger and more dominant than ever.
The result is a music industry in which the key to success is coming up with that perfect, floor-filling single — and, as Seabrook points out, in which the beat comes first, the melody second, and the lyrics a very, very distant third.
That in turn means that no one really makes any great cultural claims for their music any more: students today aren’t sitting in their bedrooms, earnestly discussing the tracklisting, the meaning of the latest album from Led Zep or Pink Floyd or even Radiohead. Instead, we’ve got a playlist culture — one in which it really is all about not just looking good on the dancefloor, but feeling good too.
Random fact from the Seabrook book: ‘…Baby One More Time’ lost ‘Hit Me’ from the title because execs were worried it would seem to be condoning domestic abuse. In fact, Max Martin just thought it meant the same thing as ‘Call Me’.
Random fact 2: ‘American Idol’ only happened because Rupert Murdoch called up Fox (who weren’t keen) and ordered them to buy the UK’s ‘Pop Idol’, right now.
Random fact 3: The lyrics for ‘Firework’ were written when Russell Brand, her then husband, showed Katy Perry a passage in Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.
Random fact 4: Britney Spears’s label rejected ‘Umbrella’. And Pink rejected ‘Since U Been Gone’. In fact, most hits seem to have been rejected by quite a few people along the line. As William Goldman said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything.
Want to imagine an alternate universe in which Alex Turner is a superstar hitmaker? Here’s Sugababes showing that ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ is a damn fine song however you play it…
… and Arctic Monkeys covering Girls Aloud’s ‘Love Machine’, and barely keeping themselves from cracking up.
Edit: My wife’s just pointed out a piece this weekend by Janan Ganesh of the FT arguing that Oasis were the last national band, and What’s The Story (Morning Glory)? the last national album. Which just goes to show that you can be very clever indeed, but still utterly wrong.
Edit: Fixed to correct misspelling of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Doh.
Robert Colvile used to run comment for the Telegraph and news for BuzzFeed, and now writes his own stuff.