Punk Rock for Sissies

Metamodernism and the Return of Affect in Early 21st Century American Indie Rock

Greg Dember
WiM on Med


Back cover of the Ben Folds Five album _Naked Baby Photos_

This is a text version of a talk I gave at the 2019 AHRC Metamodernism Conference, at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Some people who were not at the conference have asked me if there was a way they could see or hear the talk, so I’ve made this text version for them. The talk was, of course, presented to folks who were already familiar with the notion of metamodernism, so if you’ve come across this article, and you’re new to metamodernism, I recommend you check out some of the resources I’ve provided at the end.

Greg Dember with writing partner, Linda Ceriello, at AHRC Conference in Nijmegen, Netherlands

I appreciate having the chance to participate in this conference, speaking as an independent scholar, and also as a musician, songwriter and life-long music fan. I found my way into metamodernism theory when searching for a way to account for changes I noticed in American indie rock that emerged around the turn of the millennium. Just as Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker reported, in their 2010 essay “Notes on Metamodernism,” that they had begun noticing paintings that exhibited a sensibility that could not easily be explained by postmodernism, in the early-mid 2000s, I found myself noticing a similar shift in American indie rock: music that seemed to restore a place for unabashed sentiment, but was somehow also fluent in the playful, self-aware, ironic, and de-centering vernacular of postmodernism.

Clockwise: Elliott Smith, The Ben Folds five, Rilo Kiley, Sufjan Stevens

In this paper I will focus on four representative artists: Elliott Smith, the Ben Folds Five, Rilo Kiley and Sufjan Stevens. A smattering of others (from this time period) includes The Shins, Bright Eyes, The National, Death Cab for Cutie, Coco Rosie, Imogen Heap, the Flaming Lips and Wilco.

Some Theory

First, though, I must clarify some of my terms and theoretical premises.

Borrowing from Foucault (Foucault, Michel. 1966) “episteme” is my preferred term for the kind of category that metamodernism belongs to. tradition, modernism, postmodernism and metamodernism are each epistemes, describing broad, culture-wide sensibilities grounded in unconscious answers to questions about the nature of knowing. An episteme, as I construe it, has two components.

  • Primarily, it names a historical period based on a particular dominating or leading sensibility.
  • It also identifies that sensibility a-historically, potentially occurring outside of its “home” period.

Following Vermeulen & van den Akker, I observe that metamodern cultural artifacts generally exhibit an oscillation between modernist qualities and postmodern qualities.

It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern.

(From Vermeulen and van den Akker’s “Notes on Metamodernism”)

Drawing from Raoul Eshelman’s theory of Performatism (Eshelman, Raoul, 2008), I propose that metamodernism is an aesthetic shift motivated by an impulse to protect the solidity of interiority from the ironic detachment that prevailed under postmodernism. I would add that it also protects interiority against the scientific reductionism of modernism and against the pre-personal inertia of pre-modern tradition. (Eshelman primarily uses the term “subjectivity” where I used “interiority” and in a lot of my writing I also use the term “felt experience.” All three are interchangeable, for my purposes.)

Epistemic Recapitulation
In order to account for historical patterns seen in rock music, I propose the concept of epistemic recapitulation. A particular genre, may itself, on the grand scale, be associated with a particular episteme but inside the history of the genre, we may see mini-periods that recapitulate the progression of all of the epistemes in sequence.

For example, rock music began in the 1950s, approximately contemporaneously with the postmodern episteme, and on the whole, has attributes that align it with postmodernism.

Rock Music, Overall as a Postmodern Phenomenon

At the same time, one can see rock music pass through its own progression through the epistemic stages: tradition (rock and roll in the 1950s and early 60s), modernism (“classic” rock, in the late 60s through the 70s), postmodern (punk/new wave/alternative, 80s through 90s) and, as I propose, metamodern (found in indie rock and other genres, beginning in the late 90s).

Chart of Rock Music Divided into Mini-Epistemes

Eleven Metamodern Methods
Elsewhere I have proposed eleven methods that are common in metamodern artworks. Each method, in my view, potentially helps a cultural artifact protect interiority.

1) Meta-reflexivity (“Life as Movie”)
2) The narrative double frame (Eshelman’s Performatism)
3) Oscillation between opposites
4) Quirky
5) The Tiny (metamodern minimalism)
6) The Epic (metamodern maximalism)
7) Constructive Pastiche
8) Ironesty
9) Normcore
10) Overprojection (Anthropomorphizing)
11) Meta-Cute

Here I will elaborate on five of them.

  • Oscillation: Vermeulen and van den Akker speak of metamodernism as a sensibility that oscillates between modernist and postmodern. In metamodern indie rock, we see oscillations between modernist sincerity and postmodern irony, between modernist certainty and postmodern doubt, between modernist enthusiasm for innovation and postmodern skepticism.
  • Quirky: The term “Quirky” emerged within film criticism around 2010 (see James MacDowell) to account for specific aesthetic qualities in the work of auteurs such as Wes Anderson, but can be applied to metamodern works in other areas, including indie rock. Linda Ceriello (Ceriello, Linda C. 2018) has theorized The Quirky in relation to television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To “nutshell” it, The Quirky offers an alternative to the Irony vs. Earnestness schism by presenting characters who are, we might say, heroically weird. Who, through their own eccentricity, reveal something simultaneously outside of the norm and universal that gives access to the kind of vulnerability that everybody experiences. Metamodern indie rock often expresses the Quirky through costuming, elements of musical production, or the actual characters depicted in the lyrics.
  • The Tiny: I’ve coined the term “The Tiny” to distinguish a special metamodern kind of minimalism as distinct from other senses of the word. Metamodernism inherits minimalism as a possible method from both modernism and postmodernism, but puts it towards a somewhat different purpose. Where modernist work employs minimalism in order to reveal the underlying structures of things, and postmodern work employs minimalism to undercut modernism’s penchant for grand narratives and its tendency to preach more/newer/better/faster/bigger in all things, metamodern artworks employ what I’m calling The Tiny in order to create vulnerability and intimacy, bringing the audience of a work closer to the felt experience expressed in the work.
  • The Epic — The Tiny’s counterpart — is a rebellion against postmodernism’s tendency to cast shame on ebullient, unabashed self expression. I’m talking about extravagant performances, lush musical arrangements, cautionless embrace of technology, over-the-top sexuality, excesses that don’t stop at just being provocative, but engage grandiose, hero-filled storytelling. Metamodernism gives permission for all of these things to promote the expression of interiority.
  • Normcore is a deliberate effort by people who have a non-mainstream identity to adopt the fashion sensibilities of “normal” people. What’s so noteworthy about wearing basic clothing? It’s a quiet instance of metamodernism in that it emphasizes relationality, the ability to connect to one’s own and other people’s inner experience, over externally focused preoccupations with cultural groups and with categorical identities that seek to differentiate one from others.


We’ll now take a look at the metamodern sensibilities embodied in the work of Elliott Smith, The Ben Folds Five, Rilo Kiley and Sufjan Stevens.

Elliott Smith

As one of two frontmen for his punk rock band Heatmeiser, Elliott Smith was poised, in 1996, for more success then he had ever imagined possible. Heatmeiser were local heroes in the Portland, Oregon scene, and had just been signed to a major label, Virgin Records. However, there was a problem: Elliott was feeling stifled by the punk-rock/alternative-rock aesthetics that Heatmeiser had adhered to.

As he says in this quote, he felt his true spirit was disguised in a “loud rock band.”

Quote from Elliott Smith

After leaving Heatmeiser, over the course of several albums, Elliott Smith arrived at a sound that was simultaneously brash, sensitive, melodically gripping, and with lyrics that braided hope and pain, longing and jadedness, innocence and weariness. He wielded his considerable instrumental chops when called upon to express complex emotions, but never unnecessarily or in a show-offy way.

According to Slim Moon, the owner of the Kill Rock Stars label that Elliott Smith ultimately signed to:

Quote about Elliott Smith from Slim Moon

A musician expressing personal feelings may seem like nothing new. However, within the postmodern, punk-rock context that this artist was emerging from, it was evidently noteworthy.

In the song “Independence Day” from Smith’s album XO (1998), evocations of positivity, idealism and unity are juxtaposed with evocations of negation, brokenness and waiting. Not in a way that the two poles cancel each other out, nor in a way that one prevails over the other, but rather in a metamodern oscillation that presences both modernist certainty and postmodern doubt.
Just to give you a sense of how the music sounds, here is a little clip of it.

Clip of Elliott Smith’s song “Independence Day”

Now let’s look at the lyrics with their wonderful oscillations between modernist and postmodern sentiments:

Lyrics from Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day”

– We have a butterfly, a symbol of (modernist) idealized beauty and grace, but it’s postmodernly conditioned as being in the future, it’s not yet realized.

Confusion, a postmodern inability to know; but it’s a beautiful (idealized) confusion.

– Skipping down to You only live a day, a sense of postmodern limitation, but it’s brilliant anyway, a metamodern romanticization of that limitation.

The perfect place (modernist ideal), yet soon but not today (postmodern sense of not yet being realized)

– And (in the second verse), one juxtaposed pair, in particular, comes with a third option: a resolution. “Stay who you are” can be understood as the metamodern, felt-experience answer to the opposition between the modernist “In a bright, ideal tomorrow” and the postmodern “Don’t go too far.”

The Ben Folds Five

The Ben Folds Five were a three-member rock band, led by piano player and singer Ben Folds. His own description of his band, “Punk Rock for Sissies” provided the title of this talk. What this moniker implies to me is something that is simultaneously disruptive and sensitive. A defiant vulnerability. I think it is an apt characterization of the music of the The Ben Folds Five and also one angle on metamodernism.

The Ben Folds Five came out of the punk rock scene of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were American Southern, but suburban, not country. The music was brash, loud and exuberant, but musically sophisticated, and poignantly emotional as often as it was clever or goofy. Many of the songs are about the community and personalities found in the punk rock scene.

One song in particular I’d like to look at is called “Philosophy.” Its narrator contemplates his role among a youthful group of outsiders, as they hang out at night, observing an urban landscape.
Here’s a little snippet of a live performance, from 1997:

Clip from “Philosophy” by The Ben Folds Five

Here are the lyrics of the song, and below I will highlight the metamodern concerns expressed therein:

Lyrics from “Philosophy” by The Ben Folds Five

Won’t you look up at the skyline/ At the mortar, block, and glass
And check out the reflections in my eyes

Here the lyrics can be understood as the singer takes these icons of modernism, that might usually come across as alienating, and makes them intimate and personal, as reflections in his eyes.

I see that there is evil /And I know that there is good/ And the in-betweens I never understood
Acknowledging the entire moral spectrum, including the gray area between the poles, which, being harder to understand may be the most intriguing to the singer.

Would you look at me I’m crazy /But I get the job done/ I’m crazy but I get the job done
Acknowledging postmodern chaos, but not being stuck in it: he gets the job done.

So go ahead and laugh all you want/ I got my philosophy/ And I trust it like the ground/ That’s why my philosophy keeps me walking when I’m falling down
Accepting (“go ahead”) the postmodern tendency to scoff (”and laugh all you want”) at any attempt at a “philosophy” or notion of solid “ground” and yet ultimately defying that cynicism. If he were expressing a modernist perspective, he might insist that the philosophy was true for all people, but instead he only justifies it as being useful for himself.

I pushed you cause I loved you guys/ I didn’t realize/ That you weren’t having fun/ And I dragged you up the stairs /And I told you to fly/ You were flapping your arms /Then you started to cry, you were too high
He recognizes a mistake he’d made in attempting to universalize his philosophy. It’s true, but not necessarily true for everybody, and it doesn’t have to be true for everybody for it to be important. This may be the emotional heart of the song, because it’s where the singer reveals why all of this is important to him.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley was a band formed in Los Angeles in 1998 by two former child actors, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennet. Lewis has also gone on to a very successful solo career. Now, let’s just jump right into an illustrative metamodern song.

“Better Son/Daughter,” released in 2002, is a song of triumph over self-doubt, anxiety and depression. It begins with Lewis singing in a little-girl voice (exemplifying The Tiny) about her inability to get out of bed, and the weight of all of the concerns keeping her there.

This clip begins about halfway though the song, where she transforms depression to expressed anger, and then triumph and possibly healing. I’m not going to provide a separate close reading of the lyrics, like I did for the last two songs, but if you follow along with the on-screen lyrics, and equally important, feel the emotions expressed by Jenny Lewis and by the band, the metamodern sensibility should be readily apparent.

Clip from Rilo Kiley’s song “Better Son/Daughter”

On a musical level, I think you can feel how the song embraces the tiny and the epic, vulnerability moving to despair to anger and finally achieving an inner strength, even if it is a performed strength. Lyrically, it oscillates between a backward look towards innocence, a cynical realism and a fight for hope, ultimately evoking a metamodern sensibility.

Sufjan Stevens

My last clip is from Sufjan Stevens, a Christian singer-songwriter and band leader who combines epic whimsy with profound seriousness in a way that appeals equally to both spiritual and secular audiences. For this song, a live version of his 2005 “Casimir Pulaski Day,” I’m not going to focus on particular lyrics, but I will say that the song tells the story of a teenage boy dating a girl who has bone cancer, coming to grips with the ways in which reality does not conform to the expectations his church has instilled in him about prayer, sex and community. In the clip, please notice the juxtaposition of the serious storytelling, delicate singing, musical arrangement growing from tiny to epic, and the whimsical (quirky) costuming with the butterfly wings attached to quasi-military uniforms.

Clip from Sufjan Stevens’ song “Casimir Pulaski Day”

So, that’s Sufjan Stevens, Rilo Kiley, The Ben Folds Five and Elliott Smith, just a few examples of the metamodern shift in Indie Rock music that happened around the turn of the millennium. I think that all four exhibit an interiority-protecting sensibility that expresses a modernist yearning for truth and goodness coupled with a concession towards postmodern uncertainty, irony and self-deprecation. You can hear this braiding in the sound of the music itself, understand it in the themes of the lyrics, see it in their visual presentation, and gather it, in some cases, from the things they’ve said about themselves.

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Ceriello, Linda C. “The Big Bad and the Big ‘Aha!’: Metamodern Monsters as Transformational Figures of Instability” in Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques
Monstrosity and Religion in Europe and the United States, Michael E. Heyes, ed. New York: Lexington Books, 2018.

Eshelman, Raoul. Performatism or the End of Postmodernism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. (Original Edition: 1966)



Greg Dember
WiM on Med

Human-centric ontological adventures! (a little bit of heart, a little bit of brain) (topics will vary) gregdember.com