I bought this ticket on a friend’s recommendation in 2012, but have since realised that I don’t like Alt-J.
Not only is their sound very contrived, but their lyrics are about the glamour of violence, in particular violence against women. You just wouldn’t guess that to look at them, would you? So squeaky clean and boy-next-door:
Nor would you guess it to listen to their songs initially: they don’t sound aggressive* – quite the reverse; the lead voice is reedy, high-pitched and sometimes contorted, as if in pain, making the lyrics difficult to hear. It’s only when you read the words that you start to understand what they’re about… although the videos do provide some clues.
The video for Breeze Blocks begins with the murder of a woman by a man, and works backwards through time in such a way that the crime appears justified:
The videos for Tessellate and Fitzpleasure also contain suggestions of misogyny. The Tessellate video depicts groups of streetwise tough guys and impassive model-like girls conforming to rap video stereotypes. (I’m not sure how this relates to the song’s lyrics which are apparently personal and intimate.)
The Fitzpleasure video presents various men within an environment of magnificent urban decay; there is only one woman who appears briefly, and she has no face. Again the action has a very macho quality which is what prompted me to look up and read the song’s lyrics.
It turns out that Fitzpleasure is about the gang-rape scene in Last Exit To Brooklyn, re-imagined on Southampton Common. The opening lines of the song are:
“Tralala, in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure
Deep greedy and Googling every corner
Dead in the middle of the C-O-double M-O-N”
The band discuss the song in this 2012 interview:
What is Fitzpleasure?
It’s not rude is it?
It is rude, well it’s not rude, it’s graphic and it’s violent. It’s based on a book by Hubert Selby Jr [Last Exit to Brooklyn]. Each chapter is about a different character and they all intertwine throughout the book. There’s a woman called Tralala so that’s why we sing [sings] Tra-la-la-la. There’s a character called Tralala and it’s just about her. So basically the phrase is “in your snatch fits pleasure, broom shaped pleasure”, so fits and pleasure and Fitz like a second name, like Fitzpatrick so we thought Fitzpleasure, so more subtle. But it’s about the end of the chapter where she gets, er, gang-raped, so it’s really horrible.
Who read the book?
I did. I always believe that you write about what moves you and although that gang-rape scene is horrible it really moved me, it’s really well written, you don’t really know which way is up after that chapter. I thought it was a really powerful thing to write about.
We like your shoes, where are they from?
They’re Doc Martins.
[A quick Google confirms that the shoes, are in fact, Doc Martins Spring Collection 2012.]
Bizarrely, the female interviewer’s response to the explanation of the song’s meaning is to change the subject to shoes! (And the crass irony of her own Google reference is lost on her… I’m sure she is very young.)
Fitzpleasure is currently featured in a BBC2 ident, along with two other Alt-J songs:
I wonder if the BBC execs who commissioned this bothered to read the song’s lyrics?
Both the interview extract and BBC2’s treatment of the song demonstrate a tendency to turn a blind eye to the troublesome subject matter of the song.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Fitzpleasure has received an Ivor Novello Award nomination for best contemporary song. I would be very interested to understand the critical analysis which led to its receiving this accolade… (Fitzpatrick/Fitzpleasure… subtle? Really?… Do snatches have corners?)
Apparently you can get away with anything as long as you appear unthreatening, geeky and self-effacing. Put a little distance between yourself and your message (by not appearing in your own videos for instance) and you can say what you like.(The band was originally called Films and their music is soundtrack-like.)
The name “Alt-J” is supposed to have some computer keyboard significance but I have a theory that it might mean Alternate Joe, Joe being the singer/songwriter. Alt-J is a vehicle for his alter-ego to express itself… sing the unsayable… a voice full of self-pity and sly triumph. Here is a man who has been made to feel insignificant by the macho values in our popular culture, but who also finds imagined violence empowering. So instead of challenging the values which have undermined him, he surfs them and invites others to join in, unwittingly or otherwise. The result – a room full of people enthusiastically singing along to a song about gang-rape:
I find this deeply sinister… and very different from an audience recoiling in horror from the actual film, or being disturbed by reading the book. As fine artists (ex fine art students) I am convinced that Alt-J must also understand the distinction. Make people recoil? Or invite them to participate?
This insight left me in a quandry: should I sell the ticket or should I go to the concert in the spirit of cultural research?
On the day of the gig I took the easy option. After establishing that none of my friends wanted the ticket, I sold it outside the venue, at face value, to a tout with one arm.
*A passive aggressive might not always show that they are angry or resentful. They might appear in agreement, polite, friendly, down-to-earth, kind and well-meaning. However, underneath there may be manipulation going on – hence the term “Passive-Aggressive”.