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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

02/10/2016

Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts
Arctic Monkeys

There’s always somebody taller
With more of a wit
An easy quip to enthrall her
And her friends think he’s fit
And you just can’t measure up no
You don’t have a prayer
Wishing you had made the most of her
When she was there

CHORUS
They’ve got engaged
No intention of a wedding
He’s pinched your bird
And he’d probably kick your head in
Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts
You’re better off without her anyway
You said you wasn’t sad to see her go
Yeah but I know you were though

He might be one of those boys
That’s all pretty and vain
Likes to go in the sunbed
And stays out of the rain
So that he don’t get his hair wet
You wouldn’t want that
At least he hasn’t got a Nova
Or a Burberry hat

CHORUS

Have you heard what she’s been doing?
Never did it for me
He picks her up at the school gates
At twenty past three
She’s been with all the boys
But never went very far
She wagged English and Science
Just to go in his car

They’ve got engaged
No intention of a wedding
He’s pinched my bird
And he’d probably kick my head in, oh
Now the girls have grown
But I’m sure that they still carry on in similar ways

CHORUS

Recently my sister told me not to watch the film Withnail & I ever again. It might seem like a strange request, if you knew us in our early 20s. I’m not sure how many times we watched that film, but we were invested enough to know that the narrator who went by the first-person singular pronoun (& I) was actually named Peter Marwood. When we met a fellow from Liverpool, we immediately asked if he’d ever been to Penrith, a tiny northern English town where the bulk of the film’s action takes place. When my administrative assistant drinks coffee out of a handled soup bowl, I try not to laugh at him, because I know he’s not meaning to reference the film’s opening scene, in which Marwood sips coffee out of a soup bowl using a spoon.

What I mean to say, I guess, is that Withnail & I has been a fundamental part of my life, and also my sister’s. We both have a copy of the film on DVD, and even now, we occasionally quote the movie to one another in passing. It’s one of the building blocks in our adult relationship, part of a series of inside jokes and common interests that has informed our sense of humour and our respective interests.

I understood what she meant when she said I shouldn’t rewatch it, though. She’d shown it to her now-husband shortly before they got married, which made sense. It’s one of her favourite films, after all. But at 32, the film wasn’t the same as it had been at 22. There were shades of nuance she’d missed at the younger age that made what once seemed funny quite tragic, and experiences that turned some of the scenes from exciting to terrifying. The fond memories she has of that film are now coloured by the realization of how difficult and sad the film actually is.

I haven’t rewatched the film. In our conversation about it, I wasn’t sure if it would have quite the same effect on me that it did on her, but at this point I value the memories of our shared love of that film enough that I don’t want to risk it.

Part of this, I think, is simply growing older, experiencing more, and by extension understanding more. The other part, though, is that as our society shifts, how we understand things shifts as well, and that’s not necessarily a function of growing older.

I had a similar experience myself, recently, which has caused me to think about it more. I haven’t listened to Arctic Monkeys much in recent years except for a few of their older songs that I listen to while I run. This week, though, I decided to seek out one of my old favourites of their songs, Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts. I seemed to recall having some success last year with listening to the band again and feeling nostalgic and all that jazz.

The thing I liked about early Arctic Monkeys songs were about how real they were. Alex Turner, their lyricist, sang in his own thick Northern accent about the world he understood with a surprising degree of nuance for one so young. It’s easy for lyricists, especially young lyricists, to revert to cliché and bad rhymes, but he tended to avoid that, and it was one of the things that drew me to the band in the first place.

Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts, though, was much less insightful than I remembered it. Or, more likely, I have higher expectations about how insightful people are supposed to be. You see, on the one hand, it’s kind of pitifully funny. The speaker is trying to make the best out of a depressing situation (“at least he hadn’t got a Nova or a Burberry hat”), and the turn at the end where he admits he’s talking about himself is rather poignant

But here’s the problem I developed with this song: why, in a song about a girl who’s left the speaker, is he talking about the boy she left him for? Why is he not talking about her? Why is he sad to see her go? The only reason he mentions her in the song is to say that she’s doing things with other boys. And then he kind of implies she’s a slut, which is casting a rather childish judgement on her that doesn’t seem to be related to why he’s upset in the first place.

All of this suggests to me that it’s much less about loving this girl, and far more about being upset that she left him for a boy with higher status than he has. Unlike songs like A View from the Afternoon or Dancing Shoes by the same band, this one doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand how unfair or silly he’s being. When it’s about an abstract woman, as the two aforementioned songs are, he can be self-aware and self-mocking, but when it’s about a specific person, he’s mean and self-pitying.

The trouble with all of them, mind you, is that none of these are really about women at all. They’re about him, and how he feels about women and what he thinks about women. At 21, I think I had some sympathy for a guy going through rough times and trying to navigate it without success. At 31, though, I don’t really care what he thinks about women because it’s clear he’s never bothered to sing about one like she’s a human being instead of a prize.

Of course, that song came out more than 10 years ago, so it’s very possible Alex Turner has grown up a bit, as well. A cursory glance of his more recent lyrics suggests he hasn’t started to talk about women any differently, though. So I don’t think it can just be about getting older. Not for both of us, anyway.

What this means for me, though, is that I am definitely not watching Withnail & I ever again.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings