Plastic People
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Plastic People

How a song can be a hyperfixation

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

A hyperfixation, or special interest is a highly intense interest in a subject, usually associated with autism and ADHD specifically. It can be anything: a fictional universe, a celebrity, a genre of music, a historical period. I’m going to write here specifically about hyperfixation in relation to autism because this is quite a personal piece and that’s what I know (I don’t have ADHD) but a lot of the larger points will still be extremely valid.

I am, to be completely truthful, writing this article largely because I want an excuse to talk about one of my favourite songs ever. Thankfully, it also lets me explore how even the most narrow of autistic interests can be expansive and wide-ranging at the same time.

Note: I will use the term special interest when discussing the historical and cultural framings of autism because it is primarily the one used in medical discussions of the conditon. I’m agnostic about it, primarily because I think there is scope for us to reclaim the word, I just prefer hyperfixation as getting to the core of what it feels like.

Because special interests have historically been seen as a symptom of autism, which in turn has historically been classified as a mental disorder, there has in turn been a need to differentiate them from the non-pathological, leisure interests and hobbies of non-autistic people. As the medical framing of autism, until recently, posited autism as an extreme male brain, these interests are alo coded as masculine ones. The Wikipedia page for Aspergers’ Syndrome (a now outdated classification that is considered to fall under the umbrella of autism) features a boy sitting at a table, playing with molecular models. This image conveys useful (though disturbing) information about the perception of autism in telling us that no ordinary child would play with molecular models. Almost all interests in which autistic people are heavily represented have been understood in social and cultural terms as the staple of recluses and social outcasts: ham radio, computing, trains, a myriad of video-game series.

The confusion and pathologisation of the interests of autistic people is such that scientific and medical research and even the interventions provided for autistic children, fail to differentiate between obsession and interest. Only a few years ago, SSRIs were trialled for repetitive behaviours and obsessions in autism; a measure which seems rather futile given that they are already given out for OCD and given the overwhelming comorbidity between the two.

That narrow, detail-heavy and masculine coded interests have been used as a symptom and sign of pathology, and thus a cause for early intervention, limits our cultural understanding of the depth and boundless joy of hyperfixations. It also prevents those without diagnoses — who are often from marginalised backgrounds — from seeing themselves in how we talk about autism. Many do not realise they are autistic precisely because the things that they have developed interests in are not coded as autistic.

Just as I have passionately argued that listening to repetitive music is a form of stimming or self-stimulation, I think our conception of what special interests are can and should be expanded well beyond masculine coded, scientific and detail-heavy subjects.

Sometimes, these interests are explicitly framed as a desire to collect or amass information on a topic without any concern for its value or application. In my view, this is because we value and understand information differently when we see it in this frame. My essays at university were marked worse when I was too interested in the subject at hand, because my totally unending fascination in the subject meant I lost sight of how to filter that information in a way that non-autistic people specifically find valuable and useful. I don’t think this is because the essays were worse, just, different. In a good way.

It Ain’t Me, Babe

It Ain’t Me, Babe was released in 1964 on Bob Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, a disarming stop-gap between his early protest music and the amphetamine-feulled electric trilogy. The emotion and pop sensibility of many of the songs Dylan wrote in this period precipitated their uptake by pop and folk-rock groups like the Turtles and the Byrds. In its original form, it is, to me, Dylan’s pop song. It does not have the wistfulness of Mr Tambourine Man, or the sneering brashfulneess of Positively Fourth Street. It has five chords and a beautifully uncomplicated (and probably slightly chauvinist) sentiment: I can’t be the person that you need me to be.

You say you’re looking for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you and defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me babe.

The academic and Dylan scholar Betsy Bowden has called it Dylan’s first major ‘nonlove song,’ with lyrics that inverted common tropes in pop music at the time. Whether or not Dylan is singing on the record about on-off lover Suze Rotolo, or the folk movement, it has taken on a multitude of afterlives through Dylan’s sprawling live catalogue and the work of other musicians. It seems only fitting that I first heard the lyrics to the song interpolated in another song by the British folk singer, Laura Marling.

You want a woman cause you want to be saved
Well I’ll tell you that I got a little lot on my plate. You want a woman who will call your name? It ain’t me babe.

Laura Marling, Master Hunter, Once I Was an Eagle (2013)

This interpolation is so telling precisely because it exposes the flexibility and multifascetedness of the original song. Marling is refusing to slot into the overtly gendered role of whoever Dylan is speaking to. She’s not refusing to be the one who protects and defends, or comes with flowers every time her lover calls— she’s refusing to be the one who needs defending.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I also have an enduring obsession for a chord sequence that I term 323, which alternates between the minor 2nd and minor 3rd in a given key. As it turns out, this sequence is the musical bedrock of the song, underscoring the question being posed and building harmonic tension that can be resolved when the song pivots back to the root chord.

[Bm] You say you’re looking for [Am] someone
Who will [Bm] promise never to [Am] part
[Bm] Someone to close his [Am] eyes for you
[Bm] Someone to close his [Am] heart
[C] Someone who will [D] die for you and more
[G] Well it ain’t me babe

There is a reason that, amidst all of the hundreds of reinterpretations of the song, the vast bulk of them retain this crucial musical component. It is as fundamental as the lyrics are.

What really drew me into the song was not only this chord sequence, not only the resonance that the song has had through Dylan’s live catalogue and the work of other artists, but the way that it continues to hold such emotional potency — even when transposed across decades and performed by artists with totally different live experiences? Even the worst versions of the song, bad covers and probably bad songs to anyone else, seem to reach something inside me that other music just cannot get to. What might seem from the outside as information-gathering is really a prolonged quest to understand what makes a song (and each subsequent version of it) tick.

Take the 1975 version from Dylan’s iconic Rolling Thunder tour, which began as a kind of travelling roadshow playing small venues with little notice and careered into the divorce catharsis documented on the live album Heavy Rain in 1976. The 1975 shows which were recently collected in the archival Bootleg Series feature a thunderous version of It Ain’t Me Babe, with fierce drums and offbeat guitars evoking the reggae that was achieving increasing popularity in the US at the time. Dylan’s voice, striking and powerful, was as good on this tour as it ever was.

Then look at, say, the 1973 version by glam-rock star and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry, who croons over clebratory drums and brass like a man who’s hired a band and orchestrated the glitz of a proposal to break up with his girlfriend. Whatever you might feel about the positively OTT arrangement and performance, it exposes a malice and selfishness that can be read into the heart of so many Dylan songs. Ferry sounds like he knows he is at least capable of being the man she needs him to be, but he doesn’t want to. And he’s still saying it ain’t me babe with a straight face.

There are hundreds of other live versions, and I could probably write an entire article examining the differences between them: from the duets with Dylan’s former flame and collaborator Joan Baez to the demo recorded by Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. From the cover by Johnny Cash and June Carter to the cover of that version by Jacquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line. It is a testament to the power and resonance of the original song that each cover is at least interesting. Or maybe it’s just that I’m autistic and hopelessly fascinated with the song.

What prompted me to revisit and finally write this article was asking a group of neurodivergent friends about their hyperfixations or special interests. The answers were hugely diverse and wide-ranging, from the Japanese pop-music genre of visual kei to the British National Formulary. The response from all of us, deeply felt and strangely emotional, was a sense of communal joy. These are not joyless things which should be used to put us in boxes. They are not interests for which we do not have real appreciation, caring only to categorise and store information. For many of us, these interests give life meaning. We do not acknowledge as a community how limiting and short-sighted the pathologisation and medicalisation of interests in neurodivergnt people is.

That also does not mean denying that there is something qualitative and unique about the special interests that neurodivergent people have. That is why this blog exists and why I will keep interviewing neurodivergent people about whatever they want to talk about.

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A blog about about culture and neurodiversity

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Avery Adams

Avery Adams

Writing about music, neurodiversity and disability.

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