Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mona Lisa's Got You All: Bradford Cox and the Death of the Author

"Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality."- Michel Foucault from "What is an Author"
"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again."- Eric Dolphy 

Although Bradford Cox, the singer/guitarist of Deerhunter and sole member of Atlas Sound, makes hypnotic music that conveys an easy familiarity with the rock and roll tradition, he is notorious for being interminably opinionated and a difficult interviewee- this was satirized in a video where he gets psychoanalyzed. That video plays on the suspicion that his unfiltered thoughts, while always entertaining, could only be understood from a psychiatrist’s distance; similarly, his music sounds very vulnerable, not because his delivery is unapologetically nasal, voice-cracky, or out of tune, but because his voice, mixed low and drenched in reverb, constantly threatens to disappear into the wash of sound.

This dampening of the voice is related to his overall aesthetic:
 “If I could just put the stuff up there, and remove ego and name and possession from it, just to have immediacy...if there could just be a direct, like, route from my brain to instruments to the audience…”

Cox thinks his status as a creator impedes his ability to express himself. He laments that he has to preoccupy himself with presenting, packaging and distributing his music. Michel Foucault expresses comparable sentiments in his 1969 essay "What is an Author?"- which leaves its titular question open. "What is an Author" is Foucault's response to the 'death of the author', an event which used to dominate the French intellectual scene. For Foucault, recognizing the 'death of the author' meant recognizing that someone's biographical information, taste, and emotional proclivities were no longer useful criteria for analyzing a work. Rather than rendering authors anonymous, the 'death of the author' renders them irrelevant; discourse, even artistic discourse, operates according to its own rules- it hardly matters whose name is attached to what. The immediacy that Cox strives for is ultimately impossible because familiarity with a discourse- in this case, Cox's familiarity with rock music- doesn't allow one to mobilize discourse to be especially effective or expressive or descriptive; it instead exposes the artist to the irrelevance of their own human interiority to discursive practices. Foucault writes, "Discourse is not life, its time is not your time...". Cox's lyrics reflect this, for instance on "Disappearing Ink", where he seems to blame external forces for compelling him to write. The song is totally self-referring but can only be understood in terms of its 'unfolded exteriority'; the lyrics themselves make it clear that the circumstances they were written under are irrelevant:

I got a message/ Can you guess what it said?/ Drive alone/ Drive straight home/I did as instructed/ Closed my door and locked it//Sat and wrote a letter/ I described the weather/ And the scene/ Remembering/I forget tomorrow/ All sickness and sorrow/ Disappearing ink/ But the words still sting/ What was I thinking?/ What was I thinking?”

Many of his songs include similar intimations of the futility of human effort and the uselessness of curiosity (how many poverties were interrupted by learning how to read? he asks). Despite his seemingly pessimistic ‘message’, his music is still very popular- and deservedly so, given how oddly comforting it is. If Atlas Sound and Deerhunter were placed in genre confines, they would likely be labeled shoegaze or dream-pop; their music washes over you but never really sinks in...

The lyrics on "Agoraphobia" describe a dream about being locked in some kind of deprivation chamber:
"I had a dream/ No longer to be free/ I want only to see/ Four walls made of concrete…I'd lose my voice, I know/ But I've nothing left to sayNo echo in this space"

Implying that we are living in a world where our own pronouncements are already-ephemeral echoes, where the condition of our speaking is that we speak into an echo chamber, Cox advises that we do as he does- blather on. On "Nothing Ever Happened" he sings, “Focus on the depth that was never there/ nothing’s easy, nothing’s fair”.


  1. Nice article! I definitely see the connection between the Foucault/Barthes "Death of the Author" and the sort of psychedelic self-negating word of Deerhunter. I always thought his persona is at odds with his music but it looks like you found a connection. One correction--it is the guitarist who sings Agoraphobia, not Cox

  2. Thanks for reading! and I'll fix that mistake.

  3. and thanks for the thoughtful comment also, i really appreciate it