Arctic Monkeys weren’t quite full-fledged rock stars in 2011; in the Suck it and See era, they were still seeking fame, rapidly evolving from acne-clad British teens to California-based, Elvis-inspired rock ‘n’ rollers. Though many die-hards consider Humbug (2009) to be Arctic Monkeys’ most expertly crafted record, the LP left fans somewhat confused, in that it strayed from the hyper-energetic guitar rock of their early work that had earned them stardom. But Suck it and See was a redemption for some critics. They were the darlings of British publications like NME, but in the United States, they were still playing mid-sized clubs, despite a growing army of teenage fans on tumblr. I was one of them.
I was sixteen at the time of their Suck it and See tour, which hit Fort Lauderdale’s Revolution Live in October 2011. Arriving at the venue at about half past noon, I sat outside on the hot Florida pavement until the doors opened seven hours later. Earlier that day, NME staged an Arctic Monkeys photo shoot by some abandoned train tracks on the highway; across from the perfectly desolate landscape are mini-golf courses and go-kart tracks, which of course, are not pictured. Every time I drove on that highway, I remembered Arctic Monkeys’ presence.
After the Sheffield-bred four piece finally delivered a well-rehearsed and fine-tuned set, I waited outside in a thunderstorm for two hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of Alex Turner. My parents, thankfully willing to deal with my manic obsession, waited in the bar next door.
Revolution Live is more glamorous than the dirty pubs in Miami like Churchill’s, yet it’s nothing compared to the venues that Arctic Monkeys’ stadium-sized sound seemed to desire. Fans like me knew the anatomy of these venues. We shared information on tumblr – how the Arctic Monkeys tour bus was large and white with blacked out windows, and how usually, Alex Turner and Matt Helders would come outside to greet fans in the early afternoon. Sometimes, you could be lucky enough to get invited inside for soundcheck. On tumblr, we found camaraderie with other fans who were just as crazed as us. We bonded over our unique love, travelling to meet each other “IRL.” We saw through Arctic Monkeys’ leather-clad rock star act and remembered their roots as awkward teenagers just like us, yet we still worshiped these men like Gods.
On tumblr, I met two girls a bit older than me named Ronit and Margaret, who waited in the torrential downpour with me. They offered me my first cigarettes, which I declined, worried that I would immediately get addicted, or worse, that my parents would find out. As Ronit and Margaret sparked up, cupping their hands around their cigarettes to avoid the wind and rain, I noticed how cool they looked. They looked like the kind of girls who belonged here. I wanted to belong. I wouldn’t realize until years later that the people who listened to rock music all shared the simple desire to belong. At the time, I belonged more than I knew.
We waited together, huddled under a concrete overhang in the storm. Ronit and Margaret left around 1 AM, because Ronit’s dad wouldn’t wait any longer to pick her up. I was a good kid who did nothing wrong, who was too afraid to even smoke a cigarette with the cool girls from the internet, so my parents were more lenient with me. This was a once-in-a-lifetime night. I never stayed out late. I earned it.
Soon after Ronit and Margaret went home, Alex Turner sauntered out of the back door of the venue with a tall, leggy blonde woman. I became startlingly aware of my youth, my insignificance; I was a sixteen-year-old girl whose biggest stress in the world was perfecting my score on the SAT. I wanted to run after Alex, to take a picture with him to put on my tumblr, to tell him how his lyrics inspired me to be a writer. I was frozen, watching him cross the street in the rain with this beautiful model. They stepped into a stretch limo and drove away. This was Arctic Monkeys in 2011: leather-clad, cigarette-smoking, and motorcycle-riding. This was when Alex Turner’s hair was coiffed (not his best phase). Moreover, I wondered what the value of any of this would be – to run after Alex Turner in the early morning when he clearly didn’t want to be bothered. I started to see rock stars as people, though they are so far from ordinary, even in their most ordinary moments.
My parents soon fetched me from the venue, upset with me for waiting alone after the other tumblr girls left. We walked towards the parking lot. My dad suddenly stopped me in my tracks, pointing at a tall man in a leather jacket.
“That’s one of your monkey guys, right?” my dad asked. I started to tell him it couldn’t be them – that I saw Alex Turner drive away in a limo, but then I turned around. My dad was right. It was Jamie Cook, margarita in hand. In my memory, he’s smoking a cigarette, but I don’t think he actually was – I think I just remember it this way because he was so intimidating to me, a real life rock star, a rock star whose music “changed my life.”
I asked Jamie Cook to sign my album, and we took a horrible photo on my dad’s Blackberry. I dropped my sharpie multiple times, nervous to be in his presence. I knew then that even if rock stars were regular people under all that leather, I wanted to belong in their orbit.
I moved to Philadelphia when I was 18. While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, I became an amateur music journalist. I worked my way up through local blogs, eventually maneuvering my way into bigger publications, determined to begin a full-time career in music journalism. I worked in a New York City-based music PR firm, went on tour with some bands, even interviewed Tori Amos, who complimented my dress and told me I’m “going places.” I got backstage passes to photograph shows, constantly putting off my schoolwork to spend nights at Union Transfer and PhilaMOCA. I even got to photograph the Alex Turner/Miles Kane side project The Last Shadow Puppets a few years ago.
My story isn’t special. So many of us love this band – their awkward hair choices aside – but that’s what makes our collective story meaningful. So many of us can say that our love for this band “changed our lives.” Rock music gave us a sense of identity in a time in life when we felt like we didn’t matter.
I think about the mom in Almost Famous, who claims rock music is satanic, inspiring children to do wrong. And maybe it’s true. I still don’t smoke cigarettes – I narrowly avoided that vice – but it was around the time I fell in love with bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes that I realized that there was more to life than my SAT score.
Rock music was a way for us to break out of our insecurities. We grew up and became better versions of ourselves, confident and passionate, emboldened by records like Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006). Bands like Arctic Monkeys gave us something to love as teenage girls, a time when it seemed impossible to love ourselves.
* * *
Today, I wake up early to go to Penn’s Student Health Service. I’m injected with five vaccines: rabies, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis, and Japanese encephalitis. I’m moving to Laos next month. It’s also the morning that Arctic Monkeys’ first album in five years, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is released. A friend from tumblr who I’d lost touch with texts to ask if I’ve heard the album. I tell her not to spoil anything for me – I’m waiting until I have a chance to really sit down with it, which I can’t do while I’m getting prodded with needles at the health center. Spoiling an album isn’t quite like spoiling a movie, of course, though she knows what I mean. Listening to new music by your favorite band is nothing to take lightly.
After my appointment (and still before I listen to the album), I take graduation photos for my freshman hallmate Regina. We’re sentimental about when we met freshman year (think: the AM era). We joke about when a pipe in my historic quad dorm burst, flooding the room with hot water. My dorm was damaged beyond repair, destroying the walls and everything on it, including my Jamie Cook-signed copy of Suck it and See.
As I listen to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino for the first time, I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not – maybe this is why I got rejected from that Pitchfork internship. When it comes down to it, I’m really not a great music critic. I struggle to describe the way music sounds. Writing reviews feels like pulling teeth. I’ve realized that what I love about music is the experience. I need to be present, surrounded by people who foster the same irrational passion for these songs as I do.
What I can tell you about the new Arctic Monkeys album, though, is that it feels like a destination. On a literal note, it’s a concept album about a hotel, a place to go and escape monotony – Take it easy for a little while / Come and stay with us / Four stars out of five.
I intentionally avoided reading any articles about Arctic Monkeys in the months leading up to their sixth album release; I wanted to hear the album without a press release lingering in my subconscious. Given that Arctic Monkeys didn’t release a single to promote the album, this press blackout seemed like what the Monkeys wanted.
Upon my first few listens to the album, I imagine the Hotel & Casino to exist in an undefined place: it could be a Southwestern Desert as well as it could be an Asian capitalist megacity. Despite clues from song titles like “Science Fiction,” I don’t know until I read the album’s Pitchfork review that the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is supposed to exist on the moon, though this newly charted territory is getting gentrified, as Turner notes in “Four Out Of Five.”
Laos may as well be the moon to me. I never dreamed of moving to Laos – just moving somewhere far away, no matter where it may be. Yet the way Turner imagines this intergalactic resort seems to criticize those with an impulsive desire to escape. I fear that soon, I might realize what a bad idea this is.
In “Star Treatment,” Turner opens the album: I just wanted to be one of the Strokes/now look at the mess you made. In an interview with NME, the now-thirty-two-year-old musician explains, “The first thing that line does is make me think about then and how much time seems to have suddenly passed.”
I, too, think about how much time has passed – how I have changed since 2013, when the band’s fifth album AM came out, and I would drive around Boca Raton, Florida in a beat-up Honda, fantasizing about what would happen if I kept driving without stopping. These dreams were sometimes literal, in which I would drive into a brick wall near my high school and crash. Other times, I would drive north for as long as I could, until I inevitably ran out of gas money and got stranded somewhere in North/Central Florida. It’s no wonder why South Florida feels so suffocating – the weather never changes, and you must drive about thirteen hours to cross state lines. A place that seems like paradise becomes imprisoning. And for Alex Turner, it appears that the paradise of rock stardom isn’t as interesting as it used to be.
When I left South Florida for Philadelphia in 2014, I was naïve enough to believe that geography is what makes us feel trapped, and that a change of scenery would free me of all of my anxieties. And sure, Philadelphia has felt freeing, morphing itself into the first home I’ve ever chosen for myself. But four years and one new Arctic Monkeys album later, as I move to the other side of the world, I know that I cannot rely on the distance and glorification of Southeast Asia to make me feel that I am where I need to be. As Alex Turner shows us, even the fictional Tranquility Base on the moon is still plagued with earthly trials and vices like gentrification, monotony, and gambling. Our goal is not to escape, but to learn something that makes us feel that we belong.
I don’t know how my life will change when I move to Laos, but I know, at least, what album I will listen to on my flight across the world.