Reading Love Songs Against the Grain (Through a Lens of Asexual Greed)

A post about a couple of songs where the whole picture clearly adds up to a conventional narrative of sexual jealousy — but for the purposes of this post, I smash that picture to pieces and reassemble those pieces into a narrative that suits me.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by Soheil Koushan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Forget everything you know about “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers. In this post, I’m interpreting it as an engagement with the archetype of the Pollyanna figure — the painfully optimistic bright-eyed “innocent” who does not want and wants for nothing. This may not be a specifically asexual archetype, but it resonates with asexual stereotypes which cast aces as eternally childlike. As a parody of this archetype, the lyrics of “Mr. Brightside” snidely invoke the idea of “looking on the bright side” even as they otherwise paint a picture of suffering and certain doom.

Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine opens the song on a note of deprivation immediately followed by denial. The very first thing we know about the narrator is his release from a cage, a symbol of captivity and suffering, and yet the very same line is quick to dismiss the significance of that experience by declaring “I’ve been doing just fine.” It’s a perfect way to establish that the narrator cannot be trusted to be fully honest with himself, which then informs how to interpret the next line:

Gotta gotta be down, because I want it all

If we interpret “down” (or willing) as “down” for sex (or “DTF”), then this line positions sex as something he “has” to put up with in order to achieve his actual goal — something required because he “wants it all,” i.e. the care and intimacy that’s largely reserved for sexual partners.

Yet despite his resolution to follow his ambition, his underlying reluctance remains — a normative “progression” toward sex does not come naturally to him. This much is made clear by the verses that express bewilderment and discontinuity. One of the narratives you’ll find in the ace community — not universal, but common enough — is a relationship to physical touch that moves us to emphasize discontinuities, rather than continuities, with sexuality. Acts such as kissing, cuddling, hugging, caressing, and other forms of physical affection are affirmed as “just” what they are, not necessarily a precursor to anything else. A more normative progression from these acts to sex, then, may be experienced as a sudden escalation, neither intuitive nor desirable. Or in other words:

It started out with a kiss / how did it end up like this?
It was only a kiss / it was only a kiss

Ultimately, the narrator finds himself too sex-repulsed to sustain a sexual relationship. This quickly results in a separation between him and the “she” of the song (Now I’m falling asleep, and she’s calling a cab), who, in the narrator’s mind, has gone seeking sex elsewhere. In her absence, the singer is plagued by intrusive thoughts:

Now they’re going to bed / and my stomach is sick
And it’s all in my head, but

She’s touching his chest now / he takes off her dress now
Let me go / ’cause I just can’t look / it’s killing me

In these lines, the narrator’s own mental images are framed as a trap (a cage?) that he begs to be “let go” from, an affliction that is “killing” him. The focus here dials in exclusively on feeling overwhelmingly miserable at the thought of two other people having sex.

“Jealousy” is explicitly named in the subsequent lines, and you might think that would disrupt this reading, but I won’t be dissuaded that easily. There are all kinds of jealousy, after all. Including an asexual jealousy. No, not nonsexual jealousy — asexual jealousy, within asexual experience, born of knowing that your asexuality makes you less valuable to other people and more likely to be skipped over for the care and attention you long for, precisely because sexual partners monopolize the top of the relationship hierarchy and if you can’t make yourself a desirable candidate for the role, well. You can expect to be passed over, again and again.

It’s after laying out this experience of affliction and nausea that the song pivots into a mockery of the Pollyanna figure, making a point through juxtaposition. On the one hand, his initial mistake was his over-optimistic pursuit of his ambition — thinking he could “have it all.” On the other hand, faced with his failure, he turns his bitter resignation into a sarcastic embrace of his “destiny” as a doomed and cheerful optimist:

But it’s just the price I pay / destiny is calling me
Open up my eager eyes / I’m Mr. Brightside

Parodying this archetype serves to shine a spotlight on the narrator’s distance from it: pessimistic, obsessive, plagued by dread, and destined to suffer the “price” of his (a)sexuality. For as much as this is a song about wanting someone, it’s about wanting in the context of not wanting — the greed of “wanting it all” as complicated by sex-repulsion and sexual refusal. These lines ominously mark his turn again to looking on the “bright side” and repeating the cycle, leaving behind his “cage” and telling himself he feels “just fine,” fine enough to ignore his limits and make all the same mistakes again. Ultimately it will always result in failure because that loss and pain, that cost of asexual greed, is, itself, his “destiny.”

As if to hammer home the point, the song closes on a note of eternal absence and negation: the repeated, mournful refrain of “I never.”

For a view of what would have happened if Mr. Brightside had actually gotten his way, we can analyze “Genghis Khan” by Miike Snow as a different trajectory for the same type of character. This is an interpretation that comes easily to me because some of the things the singer says about himself sound exactly like the kinds of things I’ve heard people say about mixed relationships — figuring asexuals as predators, as vampires, as cons, guilty of bait-and-switch, selfishly trapping in relationships that cater strictly to themselves. What makes this rendition hit different is that “Genghis Khan” tells this narrative in first-person, as sung by the “guilty” party himself, over a melody of upbeat dance music. And as much as it internalizes and accepts that framing of events, there’s also a palliative promise in leaning into the worst of it — in plunging face-first into self-deprecation, embracing the role, and making mud pies out of mud-slinging.

In the very first lines, the narrator introduces the “you” of the song as someone with whom he shares some type of atypical, nameless, nonnormative connection:

I know there’s no form / and no labels to put on / to this thing we keep

No labels, no form, unstructured, perhaps even unrecognizable to most, this already sounds like a narrative about asexual relationships, and just like with “Mr. Brightside”:

The waves hit my head / to think that someone’s in your bed

The singer here is decisively, viscerally uncomfortable at the mere thought of this person having sex with someone else.

In this version, though, this discomfort is metaphorized as the demanding intrusion of an emperor:

I get a little bit Genghis Khan
Don’t want you to get it on / with nobody else but me

In the full context of the song, this line represents one piece of the singer’s ambivalence. This extra provision — the “but me” in “nobody else but me” — might be interpreted as implying some amount of sexual desire, but later lines deny that desire, and still other lines express an unresolved ambivalence. On the one hand, he says outright, “I don’t really want you, girl.” On the other hand, he’s not entirely sure what he wants: “I wanna make up my mind, but I don’t know myself, no I don’t know myself.” It’s a narrative that to me reads as very gray — as murky, ambiguous, and conflicted. That’s not to say that all gray-asexuals share this experience, but that it is a type of experience I associate with grayness.

Because of this indecision, he’s demanding sexual exclusivity despite some amount of sexual disinterest, which he himself sees as an unfair restriction:

I don’t really want you, girl
But you can’t be free / ’cause I’m selfish, I’m obscene

It’s not his sexual desire for her, but his desire for her to not have sex with anyone else, which is driving the action here, and the resulting behavior on his part is directly, explicitly framed as immoral. The option of having sex with other people is framed here as “freedom,” and the narrator of the song is keeping her from being “free,” something he attributes to his own selfishness — casting his interference as “obscene” misbehavior.
Stuck wanting something from someone he “doesn’t want,” he can’t make sense of what he’s feeling and can’t “make up his mind” because doing so would call for recognizing the asexual nature of his greed. Without that (asexual) framework at his disposal, though, he flounders and falls back on a more conventional understanding himself as simply noncommittal and cruelly controlling — the narrative of the asexual leech who traps people in sexless relationships, a sexual conquest in the form of celibacy.

Even without endorsing that approach to relationships, it’s possible to unearth something resonant about that tension, that sense of desires and aversions as out of sync, as exceeding their appropriate bounds, as wanting “too much,” as selfish, as obscene. “Obscenity” is an especially interesting choice of words here because despite its usual connotations, it nonetheless feels like a perfect fit for this reading of the song — a profane asexuality, that crass and sickening excess at which polite company balks.

What better word than “obscene” for something that makes people cringe?

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