Bradford Cox’s mission to queer the guitar

Deerhunter's Bradford Cox; image courtesy of seattletimes.nwsource.com

It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.

I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.

The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.

However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.

My sentiments exactly; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.

Cox on the cover of Logos (Kranky/4AD, 2009); image courtesy of stereogum.com

First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.

I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.

I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.

Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.

At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.

5 comments

  1. exhaustedlove

    Oh man, thank you for this post! I had heard about both Deerhunter and Grizzly Bear from friends raving about them, but because I’m not usually into that type of music, I kept putting off listening to them. But I did now, and in reading your post while listening, I think it helped me appreciate them more. I’m particularly interested in the way Cox is unapologetic about both his queerness and his body. Learning more about the background of the members of bands always gets me way more interested in the music they make. Especially when it resonates greatly with my own experiences. As for the “It Gets Better” project, have you read this: http://tempcontretemps.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/why-i-dont-like-dan-savages-it-gets-better-project-as-a-response-to-bullying/ I think you would find it interesting.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks so much for linking the femmephane post, exhaustedlove! I did find it interesting and elaborated on much of what I didn’t like in Dan Savage and his partner’s response. Esp the bit about taking their kid to Paris, which gave me pause as well.

  2. Kathy

    Interestingly enough, I’d heard the name Deerhunter, but never their music before, and this morning after I read your post, I went to Amazon for some reason or another, and Halcyon Digest was “recommended for me” because I had bookmarked Antony and the Johnson’s Swanlights. Antony is another artist whose sexual identity has been made much of, almost to the point of overshadowing his music. Granted, there are few — few — high-profile trans people, but I hate seeing someone’s sexuality or gender presentation looked upon as a curiosity. Reading about Bradford Cox, I can draw parallels between the two.

    Truth be told, I kind of hate lo-fi indie rock, but I think a lot of it has to do with what I associate with “indie,” specifically 90s and early 00s: privilege. Middle-class, straight, college-educated white guys portraying themselves as outsiders or “sensitive” when the scene was just as misogynist as commercial hard rock. I added Deerhunter and Atlas Sound to my Pandora, though.

  3. Pingback: Losing Time | Feminist Music Geek
  4. Kat

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