- Ray Christian-Dickens
Women, Death, and Decay: The Work of Hozier as Understood by Deleuze
Women, Death, and Decay: The Work of Hozier as Understood by Deleuze
An Irishman born to a blues musician, Andrew Hozier-Byrne made a dramatic debut onto the mainstream music scene in 2013 with his song Take Me To Church, an exploration of sex and eroticism co-opting the language of religion (Erhlich). A straight, able-bodied, white, man, it may be jarring to call his work revolutionary. However, I am going to argue that Hozier’s work reaches the level of artistic rebellion, specifically as it relates to Deleuze’s views on literature. There are many points of contact between Hozier and Deleuze (the existentialist tradition, Deleuze’s reading of Proust and apprenticeship, etc.) but they are beyond the scope of this paper, in which I will argue that Hozier’s work is revolutionary because of its exploration and envelopment in that which is counter to his privileged identity, something Deleuze calls “becoming” “Man, insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matters, whereas woman animal or molecular always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization”(Essays Critical and Clinical). These “major” identities (man, straight, human, living) resist the movement and fluidity, the “I am not identical to myself” moment that Deleuze sees as critical to art and it is in his subversion of domination that Hozier enters into this realm of becoming. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the three most prominent minor notes, those being the non-dominant identities, that are most prominent in Hozier’s work: becoming nature, becoming woman, and becoming decay.
It is important to establish that Hozier’s use of these identities and notes is not merely metaphorical, a violent means of reinforcing dominance through appropriating the aesthetic of the revolutionary, fetishizing these minor notes. Instead, these becomings are meant to be taken literally. The stories of Hozier’s work are complete in and of themselves without metaphorical interpretation. He (as I will be using Hozier the individual as a stand protagonist of these songs) is literally a mummified corpse in Like Real People Do, is literally a decaying body in In a Week, is literally witnessing the death of everything in Wasteland, Baby! and that notion is supported by the depth of literary description in his work, paying painstaking detail to the reality of these situations. Deleuze states “To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, mimesis.)” If Hozier were simply co-opting the signs of these minor notes in an effort to call himself identical to nature, woman, or decay, the work would be empty of literary merit, empty of rebellion. Instead, there is an overlap between what he is and what he is not and that is where the becoming happens, in the movement between rather than the formalization that Deleuze speaks against.
Firstly, I will explore Hozier’s becoming woman, which he does specifically through adopting the sexual and romantic conditions of being woman. Never does Hozier name himself or the protagonists of his songs a woman. “Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own”(Essays Critical and Clinical). This “claiming” Deleuze is referring to is the fixed “I am woman and I ought to be what I am”, formalized, in contrast to the fluid movement of literature and the minor. Instead, Hozier merely moves towards the minor note, finding a “zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or differentiation”(Essays Critical and Clinical). This proximity is most dramatic and jarring in the song Cherry Wine, an account of a romantic relationship defined most prominently by physical abuse, made clear in the lines “Open hand or closed fist would be fine/ The blood is rare and sweet like cherry wine”(Hozier). Hozier, as the protagonist of this song, is at the mercy of this woman entirely, powerless against her subjugation, “I walk my days on a wire”, and helpless in the face of her verbal abuse, possessiveness, and infidelity, “Calls of guilty thrown at me/All while she stains/The sheets of some other”(Hozier). There is also an attitude throughout that this abuse is justified, that it is a necessary cost of love, earned scorn, and Hozier’s personal responsibility. “But I want it/ It’s a crime/That she’s not around most of the time.” In “Cherry Wine” Hozier is denied the autonomous identity men are afforded by nature of their existence and instead has a definition violently thrust upon him, one that only exists insofar as it relates to his abuser. While he is still, in some ways, a man, he is wrapped in the condition of being woman in our patriarchal society.
The song Dinner and Diatribes shows a more sexual form of becoming as Hozier adopts a demure, scandalized, girlish demeanor as he shutters in anticipation of the sexual advances of a woman. Throughout the song, he begs to know “What you’d do to me tonight”, framing him as the receiver of sex (Wasteland, Baby!). This sexual reception and passivity is apparent in a line whose interpretation has been contested. The most literal, and thus most poignant, reading would interpret the following line as being about anal penetration received from the aforementioned female lover(A.K.A. pegging). “Honey I laugh when it sinks in/ Pillar I am of pride”(Wasteland, Baby!). Even ignoring this interpretation, the line still works towards this becoming woman via sexual politics. Hozier is stirred merely by the idea of sex, the promise that it will soon happen, in contrast to masculine sexual confidence. This sexual thrill is also framed antagonistically towards his sense of pride, in contrast to sex as a proud conquest of man, implying submission, sullying, and deflowering. Laughter in this line is his vain attempt to regain the composure he has lost in the face of sexual aggression.
In Would That I Hozier submits in the face of a fiery, consuming, aggressive love as a passive receiver of that passion, displayed in the refrain “Oh, but you’re good to me.” In Be, the story of Adam and Eve is subverted, casting Eve, not as a naive temptress, but as a hero making a rebellious sacrifice as an expression of great love towards an Adam who is not a victim, but freed via his passivity(Wasteland, Baby!). Throughout his work, Hozier embraces femininity not as an object to be fetishized or an identity to obtain, but as a subtle current pulling him ever closer to it. Women are, for Deleuze, a minor people, subjugated and not “called upon to dominate the world” and similarly, Hozier never expresses domination in the stories of his music. Deleuze goes on to say “It is a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in becoming revolutionary.” Therefore, Hozier ascends to the level of revolutionary by becoming this minor people(Essays Critical and Clinical).
It is important to expand the definition of becoming and becoming minor past the space of comfortable human identity. It is not just becoming a minor people but becoming a minor being and these minor beings are those that do not dominate but are dominated. Man dominates woman as man dominates nature and, continuing his revolutionary becoming, Hozier seeks to become nature. As stated before, his use of nature is not merely a metaphor as Hozier envelopes himself within nature, what Deleuze calls finding a “zone of proximity, indiscernibility of differentiation.” Becoming is to be indistinguishable from what one isn't;t, that which “strips us of the power to say I”(Essays Critical and Clinical). Hozier adopts the reality and logic of the natural elements he explores rather than being a subject viewing nature and objectively pursuing its signs. Deleuze considers attributing the signs of an object as being distinctly within the object itself, thus necessarily separate from the viewer, to be a “stock notion” to be resisted and the lack of objectivism within Hozier’s work further aligns him with Deleuze(Proust and Signs). Hozier also does not personify nature and attribute to it human elements that are not inherent to the object, which would be doing a sort of violence to the being via forcing upon it those dominant elements that seek to say “I am.”
In “Shrike” Hozier imagines himself reborn as the aforementioned bird known for impaling its prey, his lover the thorn he uses to impale. The language of reincarnation evokes this betweenness, being both who he was and what he is now, becoming something different entirely. He is similar to himself but not identical. He also does not frame this reincarnation as a regression which would point to man’s domination over nature. The song Like Real People Do explores this becoming in two ways. Firstly, the love of this tale discovers him in “the bugs and the dirt”, submerged and surrounded so that he must be dug out(Hozier). There is no mention of him being placed there, no ‘before’ that would imply a foreignness to the swamp he describes. Secondly, the story is deepened by Hozier’s inspiration from the Irish mythology surrounding bog bodies, corpses that fell into swamps and were thus naturally mummified, the implication being that Hozier is one of these bog bodies, submerged in the swamp, between mud and man, resisting definition(Erhlich). The title also invokes this, framing Hozier as necessarily not a “real” person, the fixed identity being inadequate to categorize him.
In “Would That I”, Hozier depicts his past lovers as trees that he has found solace resting underneath and a jealous lover as consuming flame. This song comes the closest to metaphor but even here is a subversion of fixed identity and domination as Hozier is passive in the face of nature. The trees evoke such strong awe in him that he must submit to him and he is submissive in his love for the fire as it consumed these past loves, fire being aggressive and uniquely masculine. He is not as he should be, a man dominating nature(Wasteland, Baby!).
In a Week bridges the gap between two forms of becoming. In regards to nature, Hozier finds peace in his and his lover’s literal decay, becoming the soil, nourishment for the scavenging foxes and insects and thus becoming one with their bodies. It is so rich and realistic in its description of decay that it resists interpretation as a mere metaphor as the details of physical decay cannot be contextualized within the human identity “Like these insects that feast on me/ A thousand teeth...so long we become the flowers/ we feed well the land…”(Hozier). This decay also crosses into one of the most significant elements of Hozier’s work: becoming mortal and thus becoming matter, put more succinctly, becoming decay.
Death plays an important role in Hozier’s work, coming up as the subject matter of many of his songs, never as the result of some violence or something to be feared, rather as an event of completion and often in tandem with descriptions of physical decay. His treatment of death aligns with Deleuze’s view of how literature should deal with this reality: as the completion of all other becomings. “Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is becoming mortal,” Deleuze says (Essays Critical and Clinical). That is because it is only the major notes, the dominant forms, that would seek to deny death and claim mastery over it. That which is not dominant and formalized knows how to die. “One becomes animal all the more when the animal dies,” Deleuze says, rejecting the idea that men, in their rationality, have a better understanding of death. He continues “...it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense of premonition of death,”(Essays Critical and Clinical). This knowing how to die references the peace with which animals anticipate and accept their deaths, contrasted with the anxiety associated with human mortality and it is peace that always accompanies Hozier’s discussions of death. Here we see the similarities between Hozier, Deleuze, and Niezchte in regards to saying “yes” to life in its entirety, which includes a death that is not redeemed or given meaning by any higher power. Hozier expresses a deep desire to say “yes” to life and to reach this state of peace with his mortality but this desire is not simply an inherent will towards truth. In his exploration of Proust, Deleuze says “There are signs that force us to conceive lost time, that is, the passage of time, the annihilation of what was, the alteration of beings.” Signs, for Deleuze, are these things experienced in life, emitted by the objects we encounter and are themselves objects of “temporal apprenticeship”, meaning our process of gaining knowledge and wisdom across time. At times, these signs can do a sort of violence in the shock they cause as we observe and interpret them and it is this violence, not any inherent will, that drives us to seek truth. In all of Hozier’s dealing with death, it is the signs of love that force him towards dealing with death(Proust and Signs).
Be and No Plan display Hozier’s Niezchian impulses. Be plays out the death of God, denying him the universal righteousness that would allow him to punish Adam and Eve, placing power and agency solely upon them. The refrain of the song is “Be as you’ve always been.” In the Christian creation story, it is Adam and Eve’s original sin and expulsion from Eden that curses them to die. Hozier frames this,not their original creation, as being the true beginning of their story, referencing it as the original being that must be returned to. In saying “Be like the love that discovered sin,” he is saying “be that which knows it will die.” It is the act of eating the apple, an extreme and violent display of love, that drives Hozier to search for this “being” that knows how to die. No Plan explores the direct aftermath of the death of God. Hozier finds thrill and joy in his lover’s realization that there is no God, no absolute power, “no hand on the reign”, “no kingdom to come” and it is this love that forces her to find this knowledge. He denies all of the religious promises that would deny the meaninglessness of death and, in the face of this, finds romantic love and salvation expressed in the chorus’s ending line “As Mack explained/ There will be darkness again.” His becoming immortal is also expressed in this song via his being indistinguishable from the dead. He uses this lack of separation to express great love, imagining his lover’s secrets as seeds in his body that “When I’m lying under marble/ marvel at flowers you’ll have made”(Wasteland, Baby!).
The connection between love and death continues. In Take Me to Church Hozier co-opts religious symbolism to tell a story of sexual infatuation, replacing God with a lover, referencing the expression “deathless death” to mean orgasm. Work Song promises that, in death, he will pull himself from the grave and find his lover. Death, in this instance, is devoid of an afterlife or spirituality to soften the blow of death, rather, embracing the physical realities of death to express his desire to be with his lover always. Like Real People Do, as previously stated, casts Hozier as a bog body, himself indistinguishable and yet not completely encompassed in death(Hozier). Shrike paints the act of a bird impaling its prey onto a thorn as an act of great love. At the end of the song Sunlight, the love story between Hozier, cast as Icarus, is fulfilled by his death. He is aware from the beginning that this death is inevitable as the song is written in the future tense. The wings are going to melt and he will drown and yet Hozier says “Death trap clad, happily/ With wax melted I’d meet the sea”(Wasteland, Baby!). The song In a Week, via its detailed account of decomposition, shows decay as the fulfillment of love. The fulfillment of death is not a heaven, rather, the dissolution of the body in a very literal sense described without fear or abject horror, but a sense of love and wonder that embraces this reality of life(Hozier). In all of these songs, wisdom regarding mortality is only acquired via love, the violent interaction between Hozier and the signs of love a person is omitting that gives him no choice but to see the end of all things, the annihilation.
Finally, the song Wasteland, Baby! takes this affirmation of death, as well as the connection between love and death to its logical extreme. The song imagines the death of all things, a literal apocalypse, again, rejecting metaphor by lingering on the very literal details of a sort of heat death that Hozier and his lover are privy to witnessing. The song is a literal love letter to the end of the world, not for any symbolic or religious reasons, instead relishing in its inevitability. The first line states that the end has always been, while also connecting love and death. “All the fear and fire at the end of the world/ happens each time a boy falls in love with a girl.” He contrasts his own loving affirmation of death with the response of fear and denial from others, that which is horrified to find its dominance over nature dissolving. “And you’ll gaze unafraid as they sob from the city roofs”(Wasteland, Baby!).
Hozier’s work is undeniably bound up in the capitalist music industry and Hozier is necessarily separate from the actual experience of subjugated groups. Regardless, the work of Hozier is revolutionary in the face of his musical peers who only affirm the dominant beings. While there are several other unique features of Hozier’s work, I have discussed in this paper one of the more imminent features of Hozier’s work, specifically the thematic features that are common to all of his work. These features are not incidental, rather pointing to a greater cohesive ideology within his music.
Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Deleuze, Gilles. Proust and Signs. Continuum, 2008.
Ehrlich, Brenna. “Sex, Bog Bodies And Nina Simone: Hozier Reveals His Surprising Influences.” MTV News, MTV, 18 Dec. 2014, www.mtv.com/news/2029578/hozier-interview-irish-bog-people-sex/.
Hozier. Hozier, Rob Kirwan, 19 Sept. 2014.
Hozier. Wasteland, Baby!, Rubyworks.