Car Seat Headrest and Asexuality


by Owen Murray

The sexual coming of age story has been retold in song thousands of times, and will doubtless be told a thousand times more. A blend of confusion and lack of confidence, followed by some bravery, a pinch of magic, and hooray! It’s a compelling story and an almost universally relatable one. Loads of LGBTQ+ artists have helped form the way this story is told in music to make it more inclusive. But what about the people who don’t relate to the story at all? Asexuality doesn’t quite have a place in the compelling coming of age narrative, but Car Seat Headrest manages to make it work. 

Car Seat Headrest began as the solo project of Will Toledo, the band’s lead singer, and has since evolved into a full-band ordeal. The first Car Seat albums were released on Bandcamp and featured intensely personal lyrics often dealing with clumsy sexual encounters, mental health, and self-examination. On these albums, Will anxiously questions his sexuality, gender, and the significance of gender identity in general. Amid the anxiety, there are moments of clarity, many of which come while Will considers the idea of asexuality. I’m not going to speculate as to how Will identifies—to the best of my knowledge, he has not publicly specified. If we are to judge by the line “I don’t care about hundreds of hypothetical people and their hypothetical sex-deals. I care about me and my sex-deal. What about my problems?” from “It’s Only Sex,” (Living While Starving, 2013) then Will is still figuring it out himself. Instead, what I want to look at is some of the clear asexual themes in his music that make his take on the sexual coming of age story unique. 

If there’s a single song than embodies Will’s confusion“It’s Only Sex” is the one.  The tension and confusion are so concentrated that the song works as somewhat of a Car Seat Headrest thesis statement. From the frantic and heavy-handed introduction Will makes it painfully clear that it’s not only sex. “The other night I cried while thinking of having sex with you. Not out of desire, or shame, but some subconscious impulse to feel pain. I wiped my tears on my face, and neck, and the back of my ears and said, ‘now it’s sweat, now it’s sweat, it’s sweat now,” he rants on top of a driving, distorted drum loop. Later in the song, he elaborates on his feelings for his gender non-specific love interest and the impending anxiety he feels about sex. “What happens if I don’t like it? I like you,” goes the refrain. The pressure is intense. Finally, the truth bursts out. “Sexual desires, speak! I want to hold you tight. I want to feel your love, physically. I want to sleep with you. But only in the literal sense!” The burst of clarity and honesty brings a rush of relief. Will is released from the pressure to have sex when he isn’t sure he wants to. Then he repeats the refrain. “What happens if I don’t like it? I like you… It’s only sex.” And this time he means it. 

Elsewhere in the Car Seat discography, themes of asexuality are not as panicked or heavy-handed. On “Strangers” from Teens of Style  (2015) Will is far more sure of himself. “Society wants me to fuck, well fuck ‘em. Car Seat will be a genetic stop sign,” he declares. “No Passion” which originally appeared on My Back is Killing Me Baby (2013) crosses into the absurd and borders on self parody with the line, “In my wildest sexual dreams I dream that I’m watching porn/but there’s too much sunlight/shining on my laptop monitor so I can’t see anything with any amount of clarity.”  

This acknowledgment of asexual feelings casts Will’s earlier music in a different light. Twin Fantasy (originally released in 2011, re-recorded and released in 2018) had a 17-year-old Will examining his sexuality while also working through mental health issues and personal relationships. For the most part, gender remains ambiguous when Will talks about people he is intimately involved with.  “Beach Life-in-Death” is an exception that includes the line, “It’s been a year since we first met, I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.” Twin Fantasy is one of Will’s most sexually charged albums that changes quite a bit when viewed through the lens of asexuality. 

On one of the album’s highlights “Bodys,” Will desires intimacy even as it sparks existential dread. He fantasizes about being with someone—in his own odd way—in the lines “I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you” and “those are, you got some nice shoulders, I’d like to put my arms around them.” But sure enough, just as things seem to be working through the anxiety Will bursts out with, “Don’t you realize our bodies could fall apart at any second?” On the very next song, “Cute Thing,” Will sings about sexless intimacy and finally sounds at peace. “I would sleep naked. Next to you, naked” he declares at the song’s climax. The admission sounds absurd, but it feels triumphant. 

Of course, Will Toledo is not the only musician who has explored asexuality in song. Asexuality has informed Deerhunter’s music in an entirely different way. Frontman Bradford Cox—who is openly gay and asexual— told Noisey in early 2019, “None of our albums have ever been romantic or sexual. All of our albums have been about what most people consider things you don’t want to look for as subject matter in entertainment.” In the same interview, he reflected on how his sexuality affected how Deerhunter was perceived in the public and in the press.

 “I think we were one of the first queer bands in our genre. I find it interesting now. It’s very easy for bands to market themselves as queer… Me being who I was, was a handicap in a way… What was really ironic about the whole thing was that I remained a virgin through all of it. I was never sexually active. I never had any interest in any real relationships or sexuality. I think that earned me a disentitlement from my queer legacy. “Oh, he’s not actually gay.” I think I am, actually.”

While Cox has been consistently outspoken about his sexuality in interviews, he makes music that purposefully and defiantly ignores sex altogether. On “Helicopter,” from Halcyon Digest (2010) Cox sings about Dima, a gay Russian porn actor who got caught up in sex trafficking. But the lyrics focus entirely on the tragedy of the situation and his mental state, putting aside entirely the scandal of promiscuity of his story. Dima’s story is told in an incredibly sympathetic and non-judgmental way, without any the focus of the story being placed on Dima’s well being, not on the specifics of his tragedy. The way Cox chooses to frame this story is a powerful and mature approach that speaks to Cox’s experiences as a queer person in a far more subtle way than Car Seat Headrest’s music speaks to the experiences of Will Toledo. Cox sends the message that sex is not as important as it is made out to be by refusing to make it the focus of his songs. 

In a sense, Car Seat Headrest’s music isn’t as radical a departure from traditional sexual norms as Deerhunter’s. Will Toledo doesn’t abandon the sexual coming of age story, but instead, he adapts it and twists it. He finds a way to insert himself in a story that didn’t quite have a place for him. And with that, he’s carved a place for others who are similarly uncomfortable with how the story is told. The angst, insecurity, confusion, aggravation, and desire are all there in one way or another. Will simply changes the details. The fantasy isn’t making sweet love to the girl of his dreams, but rather just sleeping naked next to a gender-ambiguous romantic partner. Not much is different, really. After all, it’s only sex.