April 21, 2021|
8 min read
Déjà vu All Over Again: Gen Z Remixes Gen X and Millennials
If you’ve been on social media over the last couple of weeks, you’re almost bound to have encountered Lil Nas X.
The rapper first made waves with “Old Town Road” in 2018. He came out as gay in 2019. With his latest video, he's upset a lot of people. What’s more is that the rapper seems to find all the (metaphorical) heat he’s taking for the religious and sexual imagery in the video for “Montero” somewhat funny. It’s like he doesn’t care.
I’m not here to debate the morality or the imagery of "Montero" or anything like that. What I’m interested in is how the video and Lil Nas X gives us some insight into perhaps what Gen Z is all about.
So, what can we take from the whole thing to generalize about Gen Z?
There is a few points here. Lil Nas X incorporates social media savvy, willingness to use memes, a political bent, more diversity, a focus on being one’s true authentic self. He just doesn’t care what you think…this is him.
But there’s more to it than that. I went down the rabbit hole of articles that assessed or obsessed of what all of it means to the bigger picture. And I even had to use a dictionary to figure out what the hell all of the language was that I was reading……and just wow! So here we go…..we can also look at the absurdist (intentionally bizarre) humour and nihilism (reject all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless) informing Gen Z’s outlook—which is on full display in content like Lil Nas X's video.
Death of the Artist?
On Twitter, Lil Nas X revealed he’d used frames from Spongebob Squarepantsto illustrate one of his ideas when storyboarding the video. He used other memes and images to piece together other parts of the storyboard.
Spongebob is infamous for its “absurdist” take on things. And Lil Nas X follows in somewhat the same vein here: he’s put on trial and judged, then seemingly killed. We, as the audience, don’t expect that. Nor do we expect the stripper pole to hell. Or basically anything else that happens in this video.
It’s ridiculous, in some ways. But perhaps, it also speaks to Gen Z’s brand of nihilism. Even if they're usually positive, Gen Z have taken on a sense of nihilism from the world around them, what they are taught in school, see on social media or hear at the kitchen table.
Millennials might even be a little bit nihilistic too, but it seems that they tend to lack the sunny disposition Gen Z has. So research suggests that Gen Z has this idea that no matter what we do, there is not much hope….for humans, environment, animals …planet…and the list goes on. If so, we might as well make life fun and put it in bright colours and swoopy fonts.
Nihilism also plays into Gen Z’s “live fast” ethos. They often feel they’re busy, to the point of being overwhelmed. This is a generation characterized by anxiety and an acute sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) of the fun. But it also speaks to their lightning-fast movement through “culture.” Back in the early days of the Internet, memes could live for weeks or even months; some were good forever. Now, a meme is lucky to live a couple of days. A week is almost eternity. And by the time I figure out what is cool, my teenager advises that I am out of touch AGAIN and continue to consistently embarrass myself. Right! How many of you are feeling me with this?😊 😊
Gen Z also exhibits this tendency in their desire for fast content delivery. They want “the good stuff,” and they want it now and they want it fast. That’s why TikToks are short, and they have to deliver upfront. It’s even changed the way music is written and performed: you need an upfront “hook” to get Gen Z reeled in.
It’s not that Gen Z doesn’t have an attention span. (You’ll see that reported a lot—attention spans are declining!) What’s actually going on here is that Gen Z has too much to pay attention to. There’s so much content out there, they can demand “the goods” up front. If you haven’t delivered in about 8 seconds or so, you’ve lost them.
They’ve moved on to the next thing, to see if it will deliver that instant hit of dopamine. This even affects how they shop. Almost two-thirds still prefer in-person shopping so they can get instant gratification. They don’t want to wait even one day for Amazon Prime shipping.
Yet this likely also contributes to their sense of being overwhelmed. There’s so, so much out there, and they’ve got serious FOMO. If they’re not invited to the group chat, what inside jokes and experiences will they miss out on? They don’t want to be caught sleeping on the latest meme or new slang.
Politics, Identity, and Branding
Again, we can see Lil Nas X’s body of work showing us the Gen Z ethos. Lil Nas X himself embodies “diversity” and “multiculturalism”: he’s a Black gay man. Gen Z is more diversethan any other generation, so this isn’t surprising.
In the “Montero” video, we can see him playing with stereotypical concepts of masculinity. He sports pink hair while “in heaven,” then proceeds to do some pole-dancing in thigh-high stiletto boots. He is not being defined.
And he’s not the only Zoomer musician to not be defined with traditional masculinity cues like this either. Harry Styles sparked controversy last fall when he appeared on the cover of Vogue in a custom-designed dress. Of course, Styles is closer to a “younger Millennial,” whereas Lil Nas X, born in 1999, is a Zoomer.
Whether or not you consider Styles a Zoomer, many of his fans are. So when he’s playing with gender stereotypes and traditional cues of masculinity, he’s also speaking directly to his audience and their concerns, their identities. And they’re taking away those messages.
Finally, given their focus on diversity and identity, it’s not surprising to see Zoomers getting involved in politics. Again, we can see Lil Nas X doing this. He has a platform, and he’s used it to call for more diversity in country music. He’s used it to uphold the LGBTQ+ community too.
Have We Seen This Before?
Gen Z s sense of humour is veering into the absurd, and seems to be a departure from both Gen X and Millennial humour.
We can also see their different approach in their desire for “wholesome” content. Facebook groups and Instagram accounts called “Heck, this is wholesome” are dedicated to sweet or feel-good content.
So, we can see Gen Z's nihilism translating into a sense of fun. If nothing matters, if we're all just going to die anyway, why not have fun and feel good? It’s refreshing after the bleaker nihilism of Gen X and Millennials’ goth-emo phase. Gen Z seems to want to share heartwarming stories of stray cats with found families and wholesome grandmas.
So, we have seen some of Gen Z’s tendencies before in previous generations, even as they depart from what’s come before them. Even a lot of the arguments around Lil Nas X’s video are echoes of the arguments had in the 1980s and 1990s—the era of Gen X.
So it seems like what goes around comes around, to some extent. Even fashion is getting recycled yet again as Gen Z revives the 1980s and 1990s.
To Thine Own Self Be True
More than anything, though, the Gen Z ethos is about authenticity. That’s why they love wholesome content, and it’s why they love artists like Lil Nas X—people who are “true” to themselves. Even on TikTok, the whole mindset is being true to yourself. It’s okay to be a bit goofy or show the behind-the-scenes stuff that isn’t so pretty.
As much as we think Gen Z is superficial and wants filtered Instagram content, they’re looking for connection. Authenticity gives them that.
So, as we market to Gen Z, we need to stop and ask ourselves why. Why are we doing this? If the answer isn’t that we’re doing it because it’s in line with our own values, our own brand identity, then we need to hit pause.
Remember to start with the why!
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