This article proposes that the 2006 post on the website of David Byrne, the vocalist/guitarist of Talking Heads, announcing his self-diagnosis as an autistic person, invites a reappraisal of the band’s discography, especially Fear of Music (1979), which foregrounds his lyrical approach. Fear of Music, I suggest, relies on “autistic misdirections” that illustrate Byrne’s “different thinking” about his body, mind, communicative (in)ability, and relationship to physical spaces – all prominent and productive areas of exploration within critical autism studies.

“Different thinking” is taken from the 2020 memoir of Chris Frantz, the drummer of Talking Heads, in describing, retroactively, how his thinking was distinct from Byrne’s. For Byrne and the listener, autism becomes a critical part of the strategies of misdirection that shape Fear of Music. These strategies of misdirection depart from traditional definitions of humanism as they have applied to rock music, especially by portraying the world as anything but simply received images from an individual human perception. The album, then, questions the belief that perception is transparent, that the world comes to each of us (as the all-seeing “I”) without any mediation.

To explore how the album shifts to a systemic, autistic worldview requires a focus on communication systems, which is the primary focus of systems theory, more popularly known as cybernetics. Through Byrne’s interest in communication systems, we can unpack the dense layers of communication that comprise Fear of Music as post-humanist collective art – a record that, moreover, can only turn out the way it does because of Byrne’s provocative questioning of the social norms to which autistic persons are supposed to conform.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License