Beyond Postmodern Narcolepsy

On Metamodernism in Popular Music Culture


In his book ‘Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past’ (2011), music journalist Simon Reynolds states that popular (music) culture is suffering from retromania, an incurable addiction to its own past. According to Niels van Poecke, his analysis is based on a nineteenth century—and therefore very modern—notion of ‘authenticity’. It makes himself a symptom of that which he criticizes: retromania. Popular music culture nowadays is neither modern nor postmodern, but metamodern.

The Shock of the New

The famous French-American visual artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) caused an upheaval in the art world when, in 1917 in New York, he submitted his work Fountain to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. The piece, consisting of an inverted urinal, was abruptly refused by the exhibition committee. It was considered vulgar and immoral, and some committee members even considered the readymade plagiarism. After all, the artist had only strolled to a plumbing store to buy a male urinal of the brand Bedfordshire in order to place it in the context of a museum. For many, the small alterations that Duchamp made to the piece did not mean that the urinal was suddenly elevated to art. In retrospect, Duchamp’s rebellious act could be considered an apocalyptic moment in art history. The American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto (1924-2013), for instance, explicitly referred to the piece when, in the mid-1980s, he followed the German philosopher Hegel by speaking of ‘the end of art’. With his readymade, Duchamp took a mundane object out of its every-day context, and by doing so, he did what many philosophers had done before him, but what was now done for the first time in history by an artist within the field of art—that is, raising the question of what constitutes the essence of art. By Duchamp’s stunt, art became art theory, and thus terminating itself. After all, the avant-garde had always needed theory for its legitimization. With its foundations in eighteenth century Romanticism, it has created the notion of ‘innovation’ as its core belief, leading, throughout modernity, to numerous styles, conventions, and disciplines, all guided by theories and manifestos with the sole purpose of providing the public with the ‘shock of the new’. However, now art had become a concept itself, every spontaneous innovation would be an illusion. ‘Innovation’ would only be possible by recycling the past, until this past itself was exhausted and the artist would be doomed to wait endlessly for Godot—to once more feel the ‘shock of the new’.


What was once innovative and utopian—avant-garde art—now entered a creative deadlock with the reflection on its own enterprise: the striving for innovation and the creation of utopias, leaving its own history as the sole source of inspiration. This analysis has often been made of modern art, but also has a familiar ring to the ears of those who love popular music culture.

In his book Lipstick Traces (1989), the American music critic Greil Marcus, for instance, once linked Duchamp and Dada to The Sex Pistols. Though Johnny Rotten probably could not care less, this is not such a far-fetched idea. The rise of punk in the mid-1970s was just as much of a reflective moment to the history of pop as ‘Duchamp’s urinal’ was to the modern avant-garde. The punks dismantled the authentic aura of the hippie generation as a commodity, another commercial invention of the recording industry—just like self-conscious punk music culture itself. The punk movement, in other words, considered the utopian past of pop music to be highly suspicious, while the future, because of mass unemployment and the nuclear bomb, was insecure as well. While in the 1950s and 1960s pop music was a symbol of progress and future prospects, it became more and more dominated by the notion of ‘no future’ in the course of the 1980s.

Popular music theorists such as Lawrence Grossberg have described the deconstruction of the past by the rise of punk as the moment at which ‘postmodernism’ made its definite entrance into pop music (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, 1992). While there are, of course, many definitions of the term ‘postmodernism’, one way of looking at it is from an artistic or aesthetic perspective. It relates the term ‘postmodernism’ to the rise of a style or movement within the western art world in which ‘innovation’ is no longer a challenge, but a ‘blast from the past’, and moreover a millstone around the neck of the individual artist. All this is linked to the more cultural philosophical reading of the term, namely as the rise of a new era—postmodernism/postmodernity—which is characterized by a feeling of widespread disbelief at the Grand Narratives of modernity: communism, socialism, fascism. After all, these Grand Narratives once believed humanity to be capable of realizing values such as liberty, equality, fraternity, and authenticity, but one after another ended in totalitarianism and terror, and left humanity exposed.

For pop musicians in the era of postmodernism, their Grand Narrative was also dismantled. The 1960s promised a future of ‘peace, love, and understanding’, but ended in Charles Manson and Altamont. The punk movement continued this ‘demolition’ by reducing pop music to a simulacrum—that is, the conscious invention of gatekeepers operating in the industry with the sole purpose of making profit. At this stage, ‘authenticity’ is mediatized and commodified, and becomes a burden to the artist. In their fear of being called a hypocrite, she or he can only realize the ideal of ‘authenticity’ by incorporating meta-authentic traits in their musical performance. For instance, by explicitly stressing the manufactured nature of the musical performance as well as the pop artists’ ‘status of imprisonment’, hoping that the audience will interpret this as genuine and will subsequently buy a concert ticket, CD, or T-shirt. In this respect, acts like those of Kurt Cobain, or of Lady Gaga—who systematically compares the production of pop music in her shows to meat mincers—are exemplary.

Another strategy to sell ‘authenticity’ in the age of postmodernism is by falling back on the past. By reviving styles from the past, pop music regains the desired aura of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘authenticity’. According to music critic Simon Reynolds, this last strategy is the one that has been applied the most since the beginning of the new millennium. In his book Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past (2011), he defends the thesis that in the first decennium of the 21st century, pop music increasingly started to suffer from what he refers to as ‘retromania’: an addiction to its own past, which reveals itself creatively through characteristics typical of postmodernism, such as the mash-up, the pastiche, and the citation. In his book, he provides numerous examples of retromania: from an obsession for anything vintage to retrospective rock documentaries and band reformations, and from re-issues and collected box sets to reenactments of historical concerts. Reynolds even seems to put himself forward as the Arthur Danto of pop music by comparing the technology of sampling to Duchamp’s readymades. Because digital media like YouTube have made the past instantly available, and because of years of postmodern irony, innovation, according to Reynolds, is no longer possible to achieve. To use his own words: “neophilia has turned to necrophilia”—a statement by which he seems to refer to the work of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who once compared postmodern culture to a corpse of which only the finger nails keep on growing (The Illusion of the End, 1992). Or to use another of Baudrillard’s metaphors that summarizes Reynolds’ analysis of postmodern popular music culture: “When ice freezes, all the excrement rises to the surface. When the future is deep-frozen—and, indeed, even the present—we shall see all the excrement come up from the past. The problem then becomes one of waste”. Anything that is recycled eventually ends up on the garbage dump, and causes, in Reynolds’ words, a “cultural-ecological disaster”. Moreover: what if all the past has been used up as well? From which source do we then gather our inspiration?

Flowers, checkered shirts, and beards

Apart from the artificial nature of the question of whether pop music, in the first place, exists by the grace of its (invented) past, it is rather questionable whether Reynolds’ analysis of the current state of affairs in popular music culture is a correct one. Is it really true that ‘retro’ is the dominant sensibility in pop music? Or may he be yet another prophet of doom who—after Hegel, Danto, and Baudrillard—sees art head for a certain destiny, whereas this destiny itself may be an historical fiction?

I am tempted to say: the latter. The problem with Reynolds’ criticism on postmodern pop culture is primarily that his criticism on recycling is based on a nineteenth century—and therefore very modern—notion of ‘authenticity’. His criticism on recycling continuously shows signs of a nostalgic longing for ‘unicity’ and ‘innovation’, thus making himself a symptom of that which he criticizes: retromania. Time after time he nostalgically looks back to the golden years of popular music—the years of punk, post-punk, and rave—in which, as he writes, he still felt the “shock of the new”, the feeling that pop music still was a reflection of a desired future which revealed itself right in front of your pierced nose, that is.

A more problematic aspect of Reynolds’ criticism, however, is that he focuses almost exclusively on characteristics of present-day pop music and does not include the content—the lyrics, the performance, the musical discourse—in his analysis. This is problematic, because some musicians whom Reynolds accuses of retromania, for instance in the field of new folk music (such as free-folk, freak-folk, and indie-folk), do not use postmodern characteristics such as fragmentation and deconstruction to stress that we are only capable of copying or parodying the past, but instead to show that they want to prevent their nostalgic predilection for the utopian ideals of folk music from the 1960s from becoming naive and totalitarian. In other words: fragmentation in the style as a counterbalance for a political intrinsic pursuit of ‘peace, love, and understanding’. In short this strategy is called: metamodernism.


In 2010, Dutch cultural philosophers and art theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published an article called ‘Notes on metamodernism’, after publishing a blog of the same name on the subject. In the article they set forth that a paradigm shift from postmodernism to metamodernism is currently taking place within the fields of art, economy, and politics. In their definition, the term ‘meta’ does not refer to taking a reflective meta-stand, like for instance Lady Gaga does, but to ‘metaxis’, a term coined by the Greek philosopher Plato. To Plato, the word ‘meta’ had several meanings: both ‘with’, ‘between’, and ‘after’. As a result, the term ‘metaxis’ refers to an oscillating movement, both between and beyond two opposite poles. In other words: metamodernism continuously oscillates between the two ‘opposite poles’ of modernism and postmodernism, and simultaneously passes both movements, in search of new ground.

To be more precise, metamodernism is not a new art movement inasmuch as it replaces the old, but rather a new ‘structure of feeling’ that ‘reveals’ itself in different everyday and artistic practices. With the term ‘structure of feeling’, they refer to British philosopher Raymond Williams (1920-1988), who invented this concept as an alternative to very general terms such as ‘worldview’ or ‘Zeitgeist’. To Williams, a ‘structure of feeling’, very broadly speaking, refers to a shared set of values, notions, and meanings of a culture, subculture, or generation, which mainly reveals itself in the artistic practices of that culture, subculture, or generation (Marxism and Literature, 1977).

Taking this into account, ‘metamodernism’ could be considered the dominant structure of feeling of a generation born in the peak of ‘postmodernism’, roughly between 1960 and 1990. A generation that grew up in economic prosperity, but which, because of the financial crisis, witnessed the collapse of the neo-capitalist dream and, as a result, the evaporation of the political essence of the 1990s. A generation, moreover, that experienced abundance, but is confronted with an ecological crisis and the necessity of limitation. A generation that experienced years of irony and skepticism, and because of that suffers from what American writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) once referred to as ‘analysis paralysis’, the inability to make a choice or decision, but still needs to make choices and decisions in order not to perish. In short: a one-hand-other-hand generation that has a lot to choose from and faces important choices, but has difficulty making them because there is no comfortable lead—no universal Grand Narrative—to base a choice on, and that is, moreover, quite skeptical towards the universal power of Grand Narratives.

For this reason, metamodern mankind experiments and improvises, for instance by urban farming, sustainability, fair-trade clothing, setting up pop-up stores, and by founding cooperations for bartering goods and services. According to Vermeulen and Van den Akker, these are forms of “constructive engagement”, by which individuals in present-day Western society, unblinded by ideological dogmas, try to realize their engagement within society. So no more political actions against the state or against society, but Doing Things Together in a small-scale setting: the city, the neighborhood, the network. For the simple reason that there is no longer one big society which you can encounter as a group or individual. Due to globalization and technologization, society has become complex and indefinite, and due to the absence of prescriptive Grand Narratives is without direction as well. A society therefore, according to Dutch professor Hans Boutellier, which gradually takes the shape of an improvising jazz orchestra (De improvisatiemaatschappij, over de sociale ordening van een onbegrensde wereld, 2011). In which individuals aim to provide direction to complexity by establishing networks based around likeminded ideas or ideals, and subsequently consists of numerous small worlds or, as Boutellier calls them, “jazzy structures”, rather than hierarchical and big institutions. Structures that sometimes lead to harmonious singing and playing but, as with all forms of improvisation, often lead to chaos and disharmony. Because, as Vermeulen and Van den Akker remind us, mankind in metamodern times continuously sways back and forth between engagement and pragmatic indifference. As they describe apltly: “Fair Trade? Many of your T-shirts are still produced in sweat shops. […] Climate change? You may install solar panels on your roof, but your car still runs on gas. During Occupy Amsterdam someone was carrying a sign with the slogan: ‘I am a hypocrite. But I keep trying’”.

Pop music beyond the ‘end of pop music’

As stated earlier, “constructive engagement” does not only manifest itself in everyday practices, but also, and perhaps in the first place, in the present-day art world and culture industries. According to Vermeulen and Van den Akker, the metamodern sensibility is most clearly expressed in what they refer to as the ‘neoromantic turn’ in contemporary art and popular culture. This romantic turn is not surprising, since the romantic attitude of the early nineteenth century could be precisely defined by its oscillation between opposite poles—between the attempt to realize the absolute in the here and now, the infinite into the finite, the mystery in the ordinary, the unfamiliar in the familiar, while recognizing, at the same time, that this can never be realized. In movies, the visual arts, and architecture, Vermeulen and Van den Akker have noticed that artists often express a very modern longing for alternative worlds and worldviews, while at the same time they counterbalance this longing by applying postmodern irony, pluralism and fragmentation. To illustrate this, they for instance refer to movies by Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, in which it is attempted to retrieve an irrevocably irretrievable naïve and childlike imagination; to the photography of Gregory Crewdson in which civilization is adopted by the primitive, and to the architecture of Herzog and de Meuron in which the permanent negotiates with the temporary.

Another example of a typical metamodern artist is the British visual artist David Thorpe. In his installations, drawings, paintings, and collages, Thorpe depicts alternative societies that refer to the utopias of the past. They for instance symbolize technological progress or a harmonic relationship with nature. However, his works disseminate more than a naive longing for a ‘paradise lost’, for the bottom line of Thorpe’s art is that it is drenched with irony. In many of his pieces he refers to the dangerous sides of utopian longings, or to the impossibility of realizing a utopia in reality. After all, the strive for universalism and modernity has ended in failure: a message which we have understood by now, after more than five decades of postmodern skepticism. And thus, Thorpe, like a true metamodernist, continuously swings between a modern and postmodern viewpoint: between the longing for change and the impossibility of change, between sincerity and irony, between hope and skepticism, between construction and deconstruction—into infinity.

A similar point of departure or strategy can be perceived in present-day pop music. That is to say, not all pop music is metamodern; taking into account acts like those of Lady Gaga, the postmodern strategy of creating ‘innovation’ is still present. But I dare state that metamodernism is at least an influential dominant in pop culture. Think, for instance, of the rise of a new longing for sincerity in bands such as Bright Eyes, Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy, and Cat Power. Or think of the rise of new folk, to which I referred before. To interpret genres like free-folk, New Weird America, and indie-folk as an incapability of a postmodern generation to step out of its own shadow of retrospection, like Reynolds does, would be to draw a hasty conclusion. After all, it is equally possible to recognize the return of craftsmanship in the fingerpicking of American Primitivists like Jack Rose, Ben Chasny, and James Blackshaw. Or to perceive a longing for childhood in the music of Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie. Or to discover a new harmonic relationship with nature in the tracks of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Antony & the Johnsons. In my vision, these are manifestations of a generation that does no longer takes the existing political structures for granted and is in search of innovation. In art, and in pop music as well, it finds an anchor in that quest. The utopias of the past provide a driving force, but never have the pretense to become totalitarian. In that respect we all have adopted postmodern irony and skepticism. Or, as the Swedish electronic duo formulated effectively in the short promo video of their album Shaking the Habitual (2013): “What we do is political, that should be impossible to misunderstand. We use our lyrics to not be misunderstood. We’re longing for something else. Like a more bearable world. I think music can be a tool to create movement, a room where everything is possible. In our lyrics we criticize, like, for example, the construction of the nuclear family, an institution that concerns inequality, and injustice, and exclusion. The challenge is to live in solidarity beyond nuclear families, nations and economical unions. It’s time to move, to fall, to fly.”

A Dutch version of this article was previoulsy published in Gonzo (circus) Magazine #120 (Jan/Feb 2014).

Top Image Courtesy The Knife.

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