ALEXA CHUNG STOLE MY BOYFRIEND
Of all the thousands of paparazzi photographs of Alexa Chung clutching Alex Turner, the one I love and loathe the most is from the night in October 2007 when they were shot together for the first time. It was the evening of the Q magazine awards ceremony in London, a ceremony at which Alex’s band, the Arctic Monkeys, had won in several categories, re-confirming their status as the most popular new-ish act in the country. The members had gone to celebrate in the Met Bar and, at some point, Alex met up with Alexa, with whom he had begun a relationship that summer.
They danced and kissed in the bar, and when they began to attract attention, made a dash for a cab that would take them on to Bungalow 8 on St Martins Lane. Of course, there was a bank of paps waiting outside and one of them got a picture that showed her, jaw set firm, brass-buttoned dandy-highwayman coat buttoned up, bracelet-sleeves flapping in her wake, resolutely dragging him by the hand behind her. His eyes were saucered in the flashes, his mouth agape, his expression bewildered. The scenario resembled one in which she was an alien who had been beamed down to Sheffield from a planet populated entirely by nocturnal preying mantis/fashion model hybrids, whose diet consisted mainly of successful indie singers; here she was, hungry and selfish, stalking back to her spaceship with her unsuspecting prey behind her. He, meanwhile, looked like a startled baby fawn being dragged by a lioness. To me, anyway.
I think I have the perspective pretty much to myself, but to me that hungry-alien scenario was roughly how I saw the burgeoning relationship between the singer and TV presenter/model/It girl/icon/whatever she was. Of course, it was a well-worn plot, one that had been enacted over a decade ago, albeit in a more mad-for-it 1990s way, by Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit (yes, yes, fashion people, I know Patsy Kensit and Alexa Chung are very different. But you see what I mean). Young, northern, working-class ingénue, effectively kidnapped by a glamorous, superficial, metropolitan Child Catcher who has dazzled him; it ought to have All Gone Wrong, with him Learning an Important Lesson, but as we know, it didn’t, and in both Williamsburg and east London they have conducted themselves entirely sensibly. Which is even more annoying to me, because the music has changed, taking with it the character I imagined Alex Turner to be and leaving in its place a disappointingly independent, well-rounded person.
At this point, for the benefit of people who are not Arctic Monkeys fans, I should perhaps summarise their records to date. If you know this, you can just skip the next two paragraphs if you want. The first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, featured mostly clever, observant, witty and wistful songs that nailed day-to-day and night-to-night life in modern, urban Britain, with what the music critic and social commentator Johnny Davis called “complete, forensic detail”. One, Fake Tales of San Francisco, attacked fashion victims “with their trilbies and their glasses of white wine”. Another, A Certain Romance, captured the loyalty you feel to slightly dodgy old pals. What I really liked was that, altogether, it was great at reminding you of a lot of specific but hard-to-articulate man feelings, such as beleaguered-trying-to-do-the-right-thing-ness, you-and-me-see-things-they’ll-never-see-ness, and the vague idea that comradeship should come before self-improvement. You don’t really get that sort of thing anywhere else, books being too erudite and telly too crass for it.
The second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, recorded after they became very successful and famous, had some lame songs about being on the road and how annoying the media could be, but also some that sounded like a more grown-up version of the first one, and one (Do Me a Favour) about (the danger sign!) splitting with his old girlfriend (a student and in a band, now goes out with Matthew Followill from Kings of Leon). Critics were happy and said, well, he couldn’t keep writing about going out in Sheffield, could he? And I thought, oh, right, suppose not, but secretly wished he could. Anyway, then came Alexa, a solo album, a move to live with his new love in Williamsburg and Humbug, a third Arctic Monkeys album, partly recorded in the Mojave Desert with Josh Homme. Critics lauded this album for being a move forward, but although I knew I was wrong, all I could hear was the absence of songs about Sheffield and the presence of songs about Alexa, “celebrity lifestyle” and sort of mythic femmes fatales. “She swam out of tonight’s phantasm / Grabbed my hand and made it very clear / There’s absolutely nothing for us here”, goes Secret Door, for example. “It’s a magnolia celebration to be attended on a Wednesday night / It’s better that than get a reputation as a miserable little tyke.” BUT I LIKED THE MISERABLE LITTLE TYKE, I thought angrily to myself. I liked the idea of a sardonic, oversensitive curmudgeon, rather than someone sensibly learning to fit in as one half of an It couple at a fashion party.
The new album is better (for me) than the last one, but it’s obvious that it’s never going to be like the first time for me and Alex again, and I can’t help feeling a resentment towards HER for it. (A friend who interviewed her in Williamsburg a few months ago told me he had tried to ask her about Fake Tales of San Francisco; she appeared to be barely aware the song even existed. How could that happen?) In part, this might be a lingering idea that an indie singer is going astray by being involved with someone so involved with fashion, but of course this has been outdated since Britpop. As Davis points out, “That idea of musicians ‘selling-out’ in their dating belongs to a previous generation. Ten years ago when The Strokes guitarist hooked up with Amanda de Cadenet, and the drummer went out with Drew Barrymore it seemed a bit of a shame, but today it wouldn’t seem that unexpected or naff. Showbiz stuff is much more mixed-up now.”
But I mention all this because this piece is supposed to be about why men feel disappointed when their favoured pop stars or actors (or perhaps, in some cases, football players) go off with fashion-y women, and the point is that there is nothing about it that is logical or even grounded in objective reality. In this respect, men are ridiculously self-contradictory; they mock women’s interest in celebrities and gossip because the subjects are frivolous and insubstantial, but then persist in constructing around their figureheads elaborate fantasies that are then reinforced by journalists. It is, for example, quite clear that almost all football players are motivated by money, and will sign for whichever club offers the best conditions and chance of winning trophies; nevertheless, every time a player leaves his home-town club, or the one he claims to have supported since he was a kid, fans and media indulge in speculation about his wrenched feelings and “regrets”. Politics seems much the same to me; compared with the fantasy characters that men project onto other men in these areas, women’s speculation about Jennifer Aniston’s hopes for her relationships are almost factual.
The reasons are complex, certainly more so than secretly wishing to be the hero, as is often said. The sense of common cause is more important. It is often remarked that men are not interested in relationships, but this isn’t true; it’s just that, as a rule, they’re not all that interested in relationships with women, and their relationships with men are best when they have an element of heroic conflict with other men. This is why almost all great men’s drama is about a big, powerful group being taken on by a small good one, a band of brothers, a rebel alliance, you and me against the world, kid. And that’s how a lot of music (and acting, and football) works (for some of us, anyway); your own ideas and attitudes coincide with the hero’s, and his outsider status not only makes yours feel better, it also draws you into that Live Forever thing. “I think you’re the same as me / We see things they’ll never see / You and I are going to live forever.” Personally speaking, if I was a woman trying to “understand” men, I’d forget about them being “unemotional” and think about that song instead.
The problem with a fashionable, successful woman like Alexa, or Patsy, or Yoko Ono for that matter, is not just that she takes him away, but that she looks confident and at ease in the world. She is the stuff that everyone sees, and if he can live in that world, then by definition it can’t be you and him against the world, can it? She means you’re not going to live forever; he’s going to furnish a nice flat, and enjoy it.
Obviously I’m not saying men actually think about all this when listening to old David Bowie records or watching The Sopranos or whatever. I’m just suggesting that, if you think about it, their ideas about some of the people they respect and hate are a bit odd, and that this might have something to do with it. And if your boyfriend or husband shows signs of irrationally hating Alexa, too, tell him to get in touch and we’ll try bonding over lager and print-outs of the lyrics to Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
by Richard Benson