That Future Islands performance…

Historical perspective in contemporary music making:
Reckoning with Duchamp, the postmodern, and the language of pop


I sometimes feel like Marcel Duchamp, or the idea of Duchamp, is lodged in part of my brain, and it (he) is a filter through which ideas regarding music, art, culture etc. must pass. This raises questions: Can I justify making this and putting it out into the world when Duchamp placed a urinal in an art gallery nearly a hundred years ago? Whilst I am aware that to make such a case is a little flippant, I use it as a starting point here as it invokes a discussion of accountability and responsibility over the art that one creates, raising questions regarding the ‘why’ of creating, amongst other things – these, of course, being discussions with discursive legs to be taken forward.

Demonstrating this type of critical distance and interrogation of one’s own practice, and one’s place within a broader cultural practice, Kenneth Goldsmith, when considering the climate of contemporary poetry, claims, “we are drowning in language”.[i] Goldsmith frames his own work as conceptual poetry – a discipline which includes poems that list directories of American shopping malls; lawyers who take legal briefs, reframe and present them, verbatim, as poetry; or recently, an adaption of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot performed via iMessage using text speak and emojis. Goldsmith’s own work boasts books in which he retyped every word that appeared in a particular day’s newspaper – headings, articles, text captured in photographs and advertisements, stock pages et al – and a book that documents every movement he made between the hours of 10am and 11pm on one particular day, amongst others. In his book Uncreative Writing he writes:

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s idea, though it might be retooled as ‘The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours. [ii]

Firstly, it is not a big jump to read Goldsmith’s sentiments as equally applicable to discussions of music in the age of the internet – the opportunities for contemporary music makers to upload their sounds to an increasingly congested digital database, not to mention the unprecedented access to music of the past (both the historicised and the forgotten). Secondly, the crux of Goldsmith’s sentiment lies not in the ‘why’ of creating in this climate, but rather in the ‘how’: How do we ‘make [our] way through this thicket of information’? How do we acknowledge, explore, and engage creatively in the culture around us? And, more pertinent to discussions of the metamodern, what effect does it have when that culture is ingrained, and so well versed, in the language of postmodernity? A culture that, by design of the linear nature of time, simultaneously holds within it traits of modernity also, those that survived post-modern scrutiny. [iii]

In his essay on television – E Unibus Pluram [iv] – David Foster Wallace wrote at length regarding the tricky position American fiction writers found themselves in, attempting to come up with a new writing that could, or would, critique and move beyond the conditions of postmodernity. Wallace wrote about the pitfalls of any potential attempts, and the problematic nature of irony – the writer’s go-to tool for critique – against a culture which itself operates with irony as currency, and is thus expertly gifted in swallowing up and reframing such attempts within its own discourse. He identified that a new technique needed to be conceived of, and nearly twenty years on, we continue to grapple with what might come next.

The conceptual poets have arguably moved towards their answer with a practice that looks towards a re-imagining of the field of poetry and writing itself. What, however, might an answer look like for those making music? Two issues already alluded to in this paper are important in this regard: 1) how, or why, to create amidst masses of available sound and music; and 2) the problematic nature of creating meaning in the cultural climate of postmodernity (an issue Foster Wallace expertly articulates in his essay).

It is perhaps easy to imagine incorporating Goldsmith’s sentiments – ‘we are drowning in language’, ‘the world is full of texts; I don’t wish to create any more’ – into discussions of music in terms of sampling or collage. However, I want to progress a slightly more nuanced discussion; I want to shift this idea of ‘language’, and how an artist chooses to use it, into the realm of popular music.

Postmodernism is partly responsible for our being able to perceive a potential ‘language’ of popular music. We might consider this to be made up of musical notes, chords, time signatures etc. – the nuts and bolts used, like letters and words, to create the ‘songs’. In a slightly more sophisticated conception, we might consider the wide array of composition and performance tropes, historically established across different musical genres, as contributing to this ‘language’ – the idea of the ballad; the group; the front man/woman; the three-chord pop song; the stadium rock drum solo; the engineered festival sing-a-long chorus. We might even include, then, the cultural associations, the archetypes, the discourses that add to the discussion and inform this ‘language’ and our understanding of it: rock n roll is dangerous; the authentic and honest singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar; leather jackets; celebrity; capitalism; freedom… All of these things sit just beneath the surface, inevitably tied up in any discussion of popular music.

In many ways, those engaging in postmodernism exposed this ‘language’ as the complex relationship of constructed realities which it is, and also set the precedent for how it could be utilised as a creative energy in itself, creating work that explored this ‘language’ in the same way one might traditionally explore melody, harmony, or rhythm. But today, as the idea of (simply) acknowledging and (cynically) holding a mirror up to the absurdity of it all seems less exciting or vital over time (and that is a harsh, hindsight-informed, historicised slight on music and art I actually really love), contemporary music makers can be seen to be engaging with the presence of this ‘language’ more warmly, using it as something to be played with, as a set of jumping off points to be taken elsewhere. Here, this approach begins to link up with Vermeulen and van den Akker’s conception of metamodernism when, referring to neoromanticism in Notes on metamodernism, they state:

If these artists look back […] it is neither because they simply want to laugh at it (parody) nor because they wish to cry for it (nostalgia). They look back instead in order to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight. [v]

 As an example, the three-chord pop song is an established component within the language of popular music, heightened and (in some ways) critiqued and parodied in the mold of the postmodern by punk. However rather than parodying it, in ‘Who Could Win a Rabbit?’ [vi], Animal Collective uses that well-established compositional idea as a jumping off point to go somewhere else. It is as if now that we, culturally, have expended all permutations of the postmodern, now that we have it out of our system, contemporary artists are able to re-evaluate the situation.

The possibilities of this creative position become particularly interesting if we follow the logical extension of the premise – the recasting of a ‘language’ of established cultural forms as creative material. The potential then arises to similarly incorporate the ‘language’ of postmodernity itself. Thus postmodern discourse is understood as simply another creative material ready to be explored and played with alongside the ‘language’ of popular music. Such a position, potentially, understands the past as the wealth of creative material it has always been, but does so in a way that, due to its incorporation of the postmodern, is able to move beyond mere ‘irony’ or ‘parody’ and towards something else.

I want to use Future Islands’ performance on Letterman as an example on which to hang some of these points.[vii] In doing so, I focus on Samuel T. Herring’s vocals and performance (though this is, of course, not to say there is not interesting things going on with the other band members).

Herring’s vocal and physical performance draws from the fabric of popular music’s language. For instance, we might observe: the Tom Waits growl; the twisted re-imagining of The Temptations’ dance moves; Danzig’s crooning; the theatricality of Morrissey, Kate Bush, or even Meatloaf; the glimpse of a guttural Doom Metal bellow. On their own, these are an exciting set of materials and potential creative tensions to work with and explore. We can then go further and break his performance down and think about the way he engages with the notion of ‘the front man’ in particular (another fabric of pop’s ‘language’). The performance is clearly affected, meaning ‘performed’. It is not traditionally ‘sincere’ in any sense – it is not coming out raw and unmediated – but nor does it, really, claim to be doing so. It is obviously consciously shaped, and there is a separation between the emotion and the performer, or the performance of the emotion. It performs sincerity, essentially continuing this postmodern critique, but does so in a way that simultaneously evokes traits of sincerity in the process – the vulnerability of the performer, for example.

As an audience, we are aware and engaged (however consciously) in the discourses that have made us sceptical of anything which displays too much sincerity, feeling, or conviction; we are aware of the inherent contradictions of ‘performance’ offering anything ‘authentic’; and we are also aware of the conditions of this performance, in particular, on a late night talk show – a switch is flipped, the band get a cue, and that performance has to happen. As an audience, we could be said to have a meta-experience of the whole thing. Yet, due to all of this, we then also acknowledge that Herring is placing himself in that vulnerable position.

Another point, then, is that the performance seems knowing of its context – knowing of being on stage, knowing of all of the things I have just outlined. Traditionally this might be a criticism, a self aware or removed performance that is not ‘in the moment’. But this is at once in the moment and not in the moment, and like the multi-layered approach to sincerity, seems to destabilise any such discussions. So, with its fluid ability to incorporate, negotiate (oscillate between), or simultaneously occupy both sides of historically established ideals, critiques and discourses provided by postmodernism and popular music itself, elements of this performance perhaps start to align with conceptions of a potential metamodernism.

It is impossible for Future Islands to remove themselves from the established historical discourses that comprehensively deconstructed sincerity. To that end, they, and we as an audience, are aware it is a largely pointless task. Yet there is vitality and urgency present and the performance is undeniably refreshing. I would argue that part of this vitality lies in its indulgence of its own futility. What the performance is doing is perhaps boldly acknowledging being dealt (along with the rest of this generation) the unfortunate position in time that designates an imbedded awareness of both the modern and postmodern. But, rather than struggling with it as a burden, as people might have done previously, Future Islands seem to offer an alternative – a recasting of the ‘burden’ as a creative opportunity, indeed even as a privilege. We can see traces of the same sentiment in Jerry Saltz’ words, as quoted in Notes on metamodernism:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. […] It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly self-conscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind […] [viii]

I want to stress, in relation to how I framed this earlier, that this position can then be intrinsically linked to the historical perspective allowed by our particular moment in time. Not only are we a generation that subconsciously just gets postmodernism, but what Saltz observes as artists ‘at once knowingly self-conscious about art’ can be understood too as a result of having the entire history of art, political, philosophical, and social movements and ideas available at our fingertips. Add to that the ubiquity of language, art, film, music etc. and it leads to conditions ripe for the critical distance, interrogation, self-reflection, and re-evaluation of how (or why) should I engage with the culture around me, how (or why) should I make art? Plainly put, I would put forward that a sense of historical perspective, and an awareness and responsibility over one’s place within it, is a potential trait of the metamodern. From this fairly sophisticated position, looking back to Duchamp (for example) becomes not daunting or intimidating, but rather exciting and creatively engaging, as contemporary artists in all disciplines are able to address the past and its influence without conceding to it as a passive or inevitable force.

In conclusion, I do not think it is the case that the postmodern is dead and we are now dealing with something new, postmodernism itself might indeed be over, but we are very much still dealing in the conditions of the postmodern.[ix] It is the presence of the postmodern in the cultural consciousness that leads to the tension in Future Islands’ performance on Letterman (the awkward and/or uncomfortable reaction we potentially feel as an audience). Future Islands, though, have brought that tension into their performance, their practice, and into the wider discussion; they have claimed it as a creative tension, finding in it a dynamic to play with. We might even see it as a calling out; an attack on what David Foster Wallace refers to as ‘the postmodern cool’. Perhaps, then, metamodernism is not to be conceived of simply as the successor to postmodernism in the historical trajectory from modernism forward; it is not about winning a race to christen a new cultural era. Rather, metamodernism engenders forms of cultural production that might be understood as negotiating the leftovers of postmodernism and the cultural climate in which we find ourselves. Such artistic practices might offer some examples of maneuvering two opposing poles – moving beyond the stale pull of reconciling those forces – and might offer some precedents to the matter of how to create art, and indeed how to get through our day, up against what Saltz refers to as this ‘compound-complex state of mind’.

[i] Kenneth Goldsmith, “Kenneth Goldsmith’s manifesto for poetry now”, Dazed Digital, 2014.

Before going any further it is important to state that Kenneth Goldsmith is a product of a particular privileged white-male cultural discourse, and Charles Whalley offers an important critique of Goldsmith’s ideas by highlighting the potentially overlooked political implications of conceptual poetry. To be clear, I use Goldsmith here as a starting point in order to apply his observations specifically regarding ‘a thicket of information’ and how an artist chooses to use language to the particular discussion of contemporary music making I hope to develop.

Charles Whalley,“I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best”, Notes on Metamodernism, 2014.

[ii] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1.

[iii] I am echoing observations made by Linda Hutcheon in 2002 here – Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (New York/London: Routledge, 2002), 165-6.

[iv] David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer) 151-194.

[v] Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, ‘Notes on metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol 2, 2010, 12.

[vi] Animal Collective, ‘Who Could Win a Rabbit?’ Sung Tongs (Fat Cat Records, 2003).

[vii] David Letterman – Future Islands: Seasons “(Waiting on You)”, 2014.

[viii] J. Saltz, ‘Sincerity and Irony Hug It Out’, New York Magazine, May 27, 2010.

[ix] Again, echoing Hutcheon – note 3.

There are 6 comments

  1. Greg Dember

    Craig — I hadn’t known about Future Islands before reading your really well-presented article here. I want to share some thoughts about my reaction to Samuel T. Herring (is the “T.” an essential part of how he is named?)’s performance style and your discussion of it, vis-a-vis Metamodernism, but first I must say that it’s hard to start a comment on a topic that involves the intersection of popular music and Metamodernism without first attempting to situate myself. SO: I’m a huge fan of Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, Jenny Lewis, Coco Rosie, etc, all of whom I consider exemplars of a Metamodernist move in pop/rock music. And I’ve been fascinated by the general cultural/artistic movement in all fields towards Metamodernism (even before I learned about and got on board with the term) for many years.

    I agree with you that the way Samuel T. Herring dances and carries himself on stage, and his strange mix of unadorned vocals, awkward gutteral yelps, and occassional smooth crooning, comes across as Metamodern, albeit in a manner that is quite different from the other artists I mentioned. (I could write a lot about how Future Islands’ Metamodernism is different from the others, but it’s not my point, and you’ve already done a good job of explaining Future Islands, and it would take too long for me to detail the other bands.)

    Here’s what strikes me: After watching the vid that you shared as well as about 5 others of theirs on Youtube, I’m pretty sure that I don’t LIKE Future Islands. I do appreciate the unabashed normcore dorkiness of Herring’s dance moves on a conceptual level. However, on a visceral/aesthetic level, I’m mostly just kind of grossed out by what apparently is exhilaratingly disturbing and expressive to plenty of other people. Of course, “different strokes for different folks” applies, but honestly, it’s the first time I’ve had such a stark reaction of “Yes, that is definitely Metamodern. No, I am not into it.”

    I do understand that Future Islands is probably just not my cup of tea, yet still a legitimately talented band. That is my prevailing opinion. But there is also a “minority opinion” elitist inside me who simply believes that Future Islands is somehow objectively flawed and “not as good” as the other Metamodern-ish bands that I mentioned earlier. And that elitist (and the cynic) in me is led to wonder: As Metamodern work moves from being something that creative on-the-edge artists were just finding themselves doing (spurred by their own impulses and reactions to Postmodernism, etc.), towards something that has a name, a clearly marked path, a proven audience, and several mini-generations of pro-genitors, will we find ourselves overwhelmed with derivative work that mimics the easily identified markers of Metamodernism, but fails at making beauty? Is it happening already, even though the term iteself, “metamodern” (as an epistemic distinction), is not yet widely known?

    Even if, as I considered before, Future Islands is not an actual example of this “weakened Metamodernism” my own distasteful reaction towards the band did get me thinking about the distinction between being a proponent of the notion that Metamodernism is HAPPENING in today’s culture, vs. being a fan of every single given instance of it.

  2. fairly slaked

    What you lot call Metamodernism is the same thing as drug companies inventing mental disorders and then selling the medications that keep them under control.

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