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Is Reggie Watts the Most Important Artist of the Century So Far?

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by Seth Abramson
July 23, 2013 8:35 AM
2 Comments
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The only thing you need to know about "postmodernism" is that it's over. Several decades of academics goading us to dig deeper into the roots of all language, the better to see that we don't define words or understand others' speech consistently, have come to a close. That's largely because the generation of literary and performance artists coming up now has—without realizing it—eaten this "postmodernism" for breakfast every day and grown tired of it long before formal exposure to it in college and grad school. 


The harsh reality that language is imperfect is simply old hat. Instead of dissecting the realities of language, what today's youngest and most innovative artists are doing is speaking in the language of reality. They've leaped over both the hundred thousand tomes of boring European literary theory that defined academic art for decades, as well as the much-discussed sincerity-irony spectrum that was so important to Gen-X art in the eighties and nineties—think Bret Easton Ellis and "Reality Bites"—to come to a place in which what really matters is achieving in art what we all already experience in life: A sense that we move through so many online and real-time identities in our lives, and are exposed to so many different types of discussions, and are so unsure anymore about what is real and what is fiction and what the difference between the two is, that the only recourse is to live life and make art as if those identities, discussions, and realities were actually interchangeable. This, then, is really all you need to know about "metamodernism," the place America's most experimental young artists have taken us in music, literature, film, and television.

Reggie Watts, a New York City-based musician, comedian, and slam poet whose routine is heavy on improvisation and stream-of-consciousness association, is just the sort of multidimensional artist you need to be watching if you want to know what experimentation in the literary and performance arts looks like right now. Instead of academics like Kenneth Goldsmith or Rachel Blau DuPlessis performing high-concept ideas in art based on European theories about the mind and language, or young emo boys and girls painting over the gaps in their sincerity with irony, we've now got artists like Watts. His way of making art is much closer to the way we actually function day-to-day in America—something which, not that you'd know it, has been a goal of experimental art for at least a century. 


Back in the early twentieth century, a number of European literary movements, including Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism, bred young radicals who used wild-eyed manifestos and ultra-challenging experimental literature to force workaday men and women to more carefully consider the pitfalls of modern living. While sometimes this form of social protest included an element of performance, more commonly it was found in texts that—ironically—only the Continental intelligentsia were likely to ever come across. The aim of all these movements was nevertheless an admirable one: To make the conditions under which art is created and performed every bit as dramatic and complex as the conditions under which those who don’t make art are forced to live. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way this ambitious aim got sidetracked and stifled in the offices and classrooms of university-dwelling English scholars. Metamodernistic artists like Watts offer our best hope, now, of once again seeing America’s artist class making art directly relevant to how we live today.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that metamodernists like Watts don't go in for reductive titles like "filmmaker" or "poet" or "novelist" or "musician"; today's most innovative work not only crosses all boundaries of genre but in fact ignores such boundaries altogether. We see it as much in poetry as in songwriting, as much in fiction as in comedy. This metamodernist approach weaves together different planes of reality and modes of communication to build the sort of uneasy coherence that allows us to survive them intact. In other words, while it may often seem, in the Internet Age, that a stable self-identity is a luxury few of us can access or afford, what metamodernism offers us—all of us—is a way to locate an authentic self even in the midst of contemporary America’s chaotic, social media-driven culture.

Watts's tenth multimedia production, the short film "Why Shit So Crazy?", is now available for streaming download from Netflix. It's cobbled together from various clips of the performer's bizarre stage routine, a fact which itself suggests more than one level of reality: the reality experienced by the people who attended the shows we see excerpted in the video, and the new reality Watts creates by foregrounding his short film as a highly-manipulated sequencing of things that actually happened. Some of the effects in the video are "merely" stylistic—for instance, psychedelic visual echoes, or inexplicable slow-motion shots, all of which remind us we're not in Kansas anymore. But most, including countless conspicuous jump-cuts, are deliberate and force us to consider the things we do and don't count as "real" in both art and life.

More commonly, Watts is engaging in several manipulations of language that reveal the metamodernistic life we now live. Sometimes, what Watts is doing is making activities we'd normally consider secondary to a live performance the primary focus of his act, much like tooling around on the Internet has become a way of life for America's youth rather than merely something to pass the time. Watts at one point spends two minutes adjusting his microphone; later, he takes that same microphone off-stage to have a brief yet convincing argument with his girlfriend. On other occasions, common verbal tics become the entire substance of Watts's routine. And in one particularly memorable bit, Watts performs a masterful and detailed mimicry of the whispered conversations of audience members disrupting his performance. 

Often, Watts leaves his audience wondering what the baseline of his act is—in other words, who Watts himself really "is"—by switching without warning between different accents, foreign languages, timbres, and volumes. He sometimes even speaks in gibberish, though it's gibberish so convincing in its rhythm and timbre that it seems merely a reasonable continuation of the monologue that preceded it. Many of Watts's thoughts go unfinished, but in a way that mimics ADD or ADHD rather than seeming coy or ironic. Other remarks seem wise but also empty of content, like this one: "I've learned throughout the years, living here in New York, that unless you keep realistic, there's no way you can survive. You have to make sure that things make sense every day." Okay, that seems clear enough; wait a minute, what?

These purposeful eccentricities emphasize just how much of the language we come into contact with daily is noise that nevertheless feels essential and true. For instance, sometimes Watts will sing his lyrics "incorrectly"—offering a word that's other than the one we might have expected—though as the entire routine is improvised, it's up for grabs in this type of performance what's "correct" or in error. Elsewhere Watts seems to bare his heart with a searing sincerity, though as it's in the context of an improvised Jamaican pop-song scat, who knows: "I've been in love so many times before, it's hard to count. And when I fall in love again, I won't know if it's really love because I can't remember what it was the first time I fell in love. Because it's a construct of your memory. But it's a feeling nonetheless, and I've got to respect that in the process. And everyone knows, everyone feels inside: that's Life." Some, all, or none of this may be autobiographical, but it's undeniably catchy as a sung lyric. It's also wise, yet it’s presented in just the sort of frivolous package we'd expect to find nonsense in. That's how the Internet Age feels sometimes, and Watts knows it. The same can be said of his use of "call-and-response" techniques. Usually, the sound that echoes back to him on stage is quite different from the sound he requested from the audience, demonstrating for us that even when we want to be in concert with one another, it's impossible.

Watts also goes into sudden diversions of thought and manipulations of fact that frustrate even our most modest expectations. For instance, he tells a story about his Montana childhood, and then he casually mentions an incident that happened to him as a youth in the 1950s (which is impossible; Watts just turned forty last year). Later, he details the history of the venue he's performing in with great authority, then subtly changes major facts the second time he repeats them. More broadly, "Why Shit So Crazy?" slides seamlessly from one topic or genre of performance to another, as when Watts moves from miming to narrative to scat to hip-hop without pausing, or fills his improvised songs with "plain speech" no one would ever set to music.

Yet even Watts's "plain speech" is quite a bit more—that is to say, quite a bit less—than it at first appears. At one point Watts speaks of how men and women "are" without ever completing a thought or making a coherent observation. Women think and do things, Watts explains, speaking as if he's exposing a fundamental truth of great import, and men also sometimes do and say things. And this, Watts concludes, "explains" the situation in Palestine as well as the on-again, off-again military conflict in Kashmir. It doesn't, of course, explain either of these things, but Watts nevertheless ends each sentence of his mini-lecture with the words, "know what I mean?" Another of Watts's songs is comprised entirely of gorgeously sung profanities coupled with a recitation of the parts of speech in English (e.g., noun, adjective, adverb). Still another reproduces the compelling non-narratives of everyday gossip using a string of sung pronouns: "I've got you, and you've got him, and he's got her, and she's got she; he's got he and we got them. We is them too when we go there--well, no, I don't know."


It helps that Watts is an excellent singer, lays down some of the best beats you'll ever hear, has impeccable comic timing, and can improvise narrative better than even the most talented slam poet. Which is exactly what this new mode of art calls for: Excellence in multiple types of language—and in the realities those languages create for us—rather than specializing in obscure theories about how individual parcels of language sometimes operate. It's like today's young innovators are looking upward, toward the many different realities layered atop our everyday one, whereas yesterday's aging innovators are forever looking down, trying to see how many angels (or European scholars) they can fit on the head of a pin (or in scholarly treatises no one reads). 

We're seeing this same sort of emphasis on "super-consciousness"—that is, on how realities collide and accumulate in the lives of real Americans—not only in stage performances like Watts's, but on the page, too, in the poetry and fiction of young literary artists who live and write in multi-genre communities. Increasingly, these literary artists are found in graduate fine arts programs across the nation, even as they experience social networking phenomena on a daily basis like the rest of us. If the previous generation of artistic experimenters was fascinated by basic Internet-Age technology like search engines and "uncreative writing" (the idea that you can take a text that already exists and pretend it's "poetry"), the younger generation Watts is a member of is more interested in having fifty tabs open in a web browser all at once and moving seamlessly between them as through a single "reality." Sure, it was interesting and instructive when John Cage recorded his "4'33"" in 1952—a "song" that's simply four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence—and Kenneth Goldsmith intrigued many younger artists when he typed up an edition of The New York Times in 2003 and called it a book of poetry (Day), but neither teaching us to appreciate background noise nor challenging what sorts of material can be used to make a poem resonate in 2013 the way they once did. If anything, today's young people are so suffused in noise and so bored at the way language is constantly being thrown at them in tiny, marketing-savvy packets that what they’re looking for is something entirely different: A way out of the nation's gummed-up language matrix that makes them feel more human rather than less.

We've become accustomed to thinking that America's poets and novelists don't write much if anything of relevance to today's youth. But with more and more young artists sticking with their artistic ambitions through college and graduate school, we're more commonly seeing young American creators who are eccentric but not, importantly, separated out from their peers like the solitary geniuses of America's literary past. The result is a generation comprised of young poets and novelists—and musicians, comedians, and genre-bending performers of all types—who seem like the sort of people you'd want to get a beer with, and who, however strange and distinct their performances or modes of writing, are somehow capturing what it means to be in your twenties or thirties or even forties in the Internet Age. The list of such artists includes poets like Donald Dunbar, Chelsey Minnis, and Sampson Starkweather; musicians like Lady Gaga and Bo Burnham; filmmakers like Joss Whedon, Shane Carruth, and Terrence Malick; and multi-genre performers like Sarah Silverman and, of course, Reggie Watts. Ultimately, these men and women are among the most successful experimental artists in the United States not because they're boring and obscure, but because they're exhilarating and only obscure in the way modern living sometimes feels obscure. It's all right to be confused and frustrated by the simultaneous identities and realities our technologies force on us, but Watts and other young artists in the metamodernistic mold teach us that it's okay to laugh at and embrace and combine these conflicting realities, too.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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2 Comments

  • Cory | August 3, 2013 7:23 PMReply

    Watts' work is amazing! Also: I agree: postmodernism is dead. And its remnants constitute a fertilizer for the current development, "the everything all the time!"

  • Phil T | July 24, 2013 8:04 PMReply

    The answer is "no"

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