I was recently scrolling through Facebook when I saw something horrifying: A 25-year-old peer of mine, someone who used to be one of my high school class' biggest hipsters, posting about how they couldn't believe that emo was popular with the teens again. Here was a millennial—and a very young millennial at that, considering some of us are now 38 years old—scratching their head at youth culture and concluding, "I don't get it."
The word "millennial" has been synonymous with "youth" since I was a teenager. But at a time when engagement photos are starting to pop up alongside all the drinking escapades on my Instagram feed and people from my high school class are inviting me to follow their real estate profiles on Facebook, it can seem at times that my mid-twenties peers are already starting to fall out of the cultural limelight. Sure, we've heard of Billie Eilish, TikTok, and the Yeehaw Agenda, but they feel like reflections of a zeitgeist that is not exactly our own, as though we were standing on the other side of a divide from people who are just a few years younger than us. Culture feels like it's accelerating faster than we can keep up. Are we supposed to feel this way at 25?
18-year-old pop star Billie Eilish swept the Grammys earlier this year, winning five awards, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year. To critics, her resounding victory seemed to signify a changing of the guard—a sign that her ominous-sounding twist on mainstream pop wasn't just the next big thing; it was the thing. In many ways, she's the perfect poster-child for the zoomer generation. Her genre-defying sound reflects the borderless mishmash of content on Instagram and TikTok, while her ASMR-esque croons feel like the perfect accompaniment for solitary nights lit by the glow of a computer screen. Her ghastly appearance, disaffected attitude, and apocalyptic music videos mirror the ambient dread of our grim news climate—as though she were channeling the collective anxiety, rage, and cynicism of a generation coming of age on the brink of economic and environmental disaster—and now, in the midst of a global pandemic.
All in all, the project represents a stark tonal shift from the indie-leaning pop music of the mid-00s, when songs like Carly Rae Jepson's "Call Me Maybe" (2012) and Icona Pop's "I Love It" (2013) seemed expressly designed to encourage drink-spilling dance moves and blissful sing-alongs. And while she probably has more in common with an experimental pop artist like Grimes—both artists have garnered acclaim for breaking down genre distinctions and doing things "DIY"—the similarities stop there.
Though she's signed to Jay Z's management company, does brand collaborations with Adidas and Saint Laurent, and dates a billionaire, Grimes got her start in the Montreal underground scene; she's long insisted on doing everything herself, from making her own album art to engineering her own music, and has never had a label the size of Interscope backing her.
But where Grimes is an indie artist who makes pop music, Billie Eilish can sometimes seem like a mainstream artist who was forged in the image of indie. Though Eilish and her brother write and produce all of her songs—something unusual for a pop musician of her tier—one of the first songs she ever released got her signed to an Apple Music-related A&R company. She then quickly got hooked up with a Chanel stylist who helped shape her image—over three years prior to her debut album.
As someone who was drawn to the gothic imagery of My Chemical Romance and Marilyn Manson as a young teen, I do genuinely like a handful of Billie Eilish songs. But the obvious construction of her alternative-ness is something we authenticity-obsessed millennials are simply hard-wired to distrust.
There's another key difference between Eilish and Grimes: Whether she's toying with medieval Catholicism or creating an anthropomorphic goddess of climate change, all of Grimes' albums explore actual alternative ways of thinking about the world—frequently scanning as intentional commentaries on man vs. machine, IRL vs. virtual. Everything she does is in service to a higher meaning, a part of her grand conceptual project—a common attribute of millennial music, which seemed to always want to be "symbolic of something," whether it be identity or the dangers of technology.
Billie Eilish's meticulously assembled presentation—her strange outfits, spooky music videos and preened internet persona—suggest a similar level of conceptual commitment. However, beyond platitudinal religious imagery and one brief nod to California wildfires, her lyrics are mostly centered on teenage angst and heartbreak. Her album isn't a big statement, but a disparate collection of songs steeped in relationship turmoil, mental health struggles and The Office references.
That distinction doesn't seem to matter to Gen Z music fans. They don't seem as interested in ensuring that the art they consume is primed for The Discourse, though that doesn't mean that they don't care about politics. In a recent survey of Gen Z youths, 75% of respondents said that being politically or socially engaged is very important to their identity; as a generation, their most visible political heroes aren't musicians and actors, but activists like Greta Thurnburg, Emma González and David Hogg. They just seem to view art less as a stand-in for activism, and more as a form of escape
I'm aware that my attempt to synthesize Gen Z's cultural sensibility in the form of a VICE article is, in and of itself, extremely millennial, but I think our sense of purpose is one of our defining cultural characteristics. I see that ethos echoed in the way we post about culture on Facebook: Compared to the gushing waterfall of "just now" chatter on Gen Z's preferred platforms, TikTok and Instagram, there's a sense of permanence to a Facebook post, one that, for my generation, still lends itself to essay-length proclamations on everything from the plastic bag ban to the new Wolf Parade album.
Gen Z culture is more direct and face value. Billie Eilish is scary. That's the appeal. She's not holding up a mirror to the ways late capitalism and our political system are failing us; she's not trying to be anything other than what she is. And maybe that's why her music resonates: According to a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association, Gen Z youths are more anxious about gun violence and climate change than any other generation. It's no wonder that their music channels a feeling of dread.
Post Malone and 100 gecs, two other artists that are popular with Gen Z and often associated with its cultural sensibility, are also delirious conglomerates of discrete musical styles and cultural references packaged into one thing. But despite gecs' anarchic presentation, there's no twelfth-dimensional meaning to their music. Their lyrics are either straightforwardly ironic ("Hey you lil piss baby / You think you're so fucking cool?") or candidly emotional ("Used to love that ringtone when you call me / now it makes me sick").
Post Malone sounds like every conceivable pop genre put through a zucchini noodle maker—or, as the NYTimes Popcast put in a 2019 episode, like "everything and nothing" at once. That's not to say that Gen Z music is simplistic or straightforward. It's complicated and nuanced in a much more casual, free-associative fashion—a product of a world where culture, news, shitposts, personal anecdotes, advertisements, and earnest cries for help all congeal into one big puddle of content.
Still, one thing I have trouble wrapping my mind around, as a younger millennial, is this music's relationship to the marketplace. At the beginning of the 2010s, millennial music fans were still using the term "sellout" to describe musicians who sprung for sponsorship deals or signed to labels that weren't run out of living rooms. As the record industry has shifted to a streaming economy over the last decade (with album sales pivoting to "equivalent album sales" on streaming platforms that pay penny fractions-per-stream), the finger-wagging toward artists just trying to get their bag has declined. But while the dissolution of boundaries between the indie and the mainstream was one of the main narratives defining the music of the millennial generation (including the story of Grimes), we seem to be so far removed from the era of corporate independence that it's as though that debate never existed—even if terms like "DIY" and "bedroom pop" are still a badge of cool.
In the underground, that blurred relationship to commerce can produce results that one could be forgiven for mistaking for branded content on first listen. On their late 2019 album, Somewhere City, the D.C. emo band Origami Angel warmly references Happy Meals and Dr. Pepper, inviting listeners to an escapist fantasy land full of 24-hour drive-throughs and Nascar-sponsored theme parks. Last month, the electronic pop producer Gupi and his collaborator Fraxiom namechecked Coca Cola and McDonald's on their Extremely 2020 track, "Thos Moser," which has golden arches in its cover art. Rappers have been signaling their loyalty to brands since at least as far back as 1999, when Redman touted "Calvin Klein clothes" on a Biggie song. For the aforementioned artists, though, it's less a flex than a reflection of a world where the language of advertising itself has become seamlessly integrated into everyday internet culture, one where chain restaurants make posts like this and Instagram personalities are always trying to sell you something.
Which brings me to one of the most glaring differences between Gen Z and millennial music fans: We millennials seem to always want our music to stand for something political—loudly and clearly. I can't think of a better example of this than Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," one of the most iconic songs of the millennial era. Released in 2015, at the crest of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a succinct political statement of Obama-era hope in the face of strife—of defiance in the face of racism and police brutality. It was a reminder that, no matter how bad things got, we were "gon' be alright." The next year, Donald Trump was elected into office and everything went dark.
Remember those first few months of 2017, when we were all holding our breath for an artist to swoop in and make an era-defining political masterpiece to inspire us? That moment never came, and there doesn't seem to be anyone who's filled the lane of Kendrick Lamar in Gen Z culture. On the contrary, their hip-hop idols are rapping about suicide and addiction,
and many of them have died tragically young from opiate overdoses and nihilistic violence.
As much as I dislike the way the boomer generation condescendingly ascribed it to us, I do think that stunted growth was part of the millennial identity. Many of us leaned into the "I'm baby" mentality of flailing in our twenties and retreated into Netflix binges and video game campaigns. We were dealt a cruel hand by the recession, and I think we turned to culture for purpose because we couldn't find it in the hollow, ineffectual politics of neoliberalism.
I don't know if Gen Z views culture as this moral guiding light, as this beacon of purity and purpose. Given the pitiful youth turnout in this year's primaries, perhaps that's reflective of a generation that's disengaging from politics entirely. But it could also be a sign that Gen Z is simply less interested in conflating art with action, and more interested in confronting politics with the sort of grassroots activism that might actually spark change, whether they're rallying to push gun control legislation or confronting climate change with the vigor it deserves.
As someone just a year older than the youngest millennials in existence (they're 24), I feel like I have one foot on either side of this generational schism. And as much as I still believe that political art is a valuable tool for channeling abstract concepts about identity and inequality, I also wonder what our obsession with making truth-to-power art has really gotten us in the last ten years. Maybe it's time we take a lesson from the zoomers and be a little less precious about our art—if only because the world it's reflecting back to us needs our hands-on assistance, not our songs.