What a time to be young.
City-gobbling fires and devastating school shootings are regular occurrences and it’s accepted that this generation’s grandkids probably won’t inherit much in the way of a planet. But on the other hand… the possibilities! It’s never been so easy to have a voice. To make art and put it in front of other people.
That’s especially true in music. Teenagers have had a place in popular music virtually as long as it has existed—Elvis made his debut at 19; when the Beatles released their first album, half the band was in their teens; and the Jackson 5’s whole schtick was being outrageously gifted children. But not since the early 2000s days of boy bands and teen divas have kids figured so prominently into the pop landscape.
As Gen Z artists release their first official projects, they’re firmly putting their mark on the charts. The legally troubled 19-year-old rapper-crooner YNW Melly currently has two albums on the Billboard 200. Earlier this month, 18-year-old goofball Lil Pump’s Harvard Dropout debuted at number eight. At the moment, the top spot on the album chart belongs to recently 20 Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love. And the artist best positioned to unseat Juice is the 17-year-old ukulele-playing goth songstress Billie Eilish, who will release her major label debut, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, on Friday (it’s already shattered the record for Apple Music “pre-adds”).
Streaming, of course, has brought upon a sea change in which the very notion of what a pop star is has been turned on its head—and kids have been at the forefront of the transition. Because this generation of young artists largely won their legions of fans through social media, they haven’t looked, sounded, or been received like past generations of young artists. Where the industry groomed yesterday’s teen superstars in the image it assumed other teens craved—oozing with sex appeal, impeccably choreographed, mostly white—social media rewards the kids who are the loudest, boldest, and brashest. Today’s teens are coming at pop with punk energy—face tattoos, neon hair, eccentric wardrobes—and ample artistic ambition.
And perhaps as a result—or just because they’re moving at a faster pace than the rest of us—they’re largely being taken seriously. Where teen pop has connoted something immature and superficial, the SoundCloud umbrella implies insurgent energy, amplified emotions, and angsty attitude. Colorful hair and face tattoos have become a meme of the up-and-coming generation, but one that’s not entirely unfavorable; these are markers of erratic behavior, yes, but also rebellious style and unwavering commitment (a face tattoo is an obstacle to non-musical opportunities).
By and large, today’s young artists are being embraced rather than dismissed by their elders. Critics have given artistic credence to the SoundCloud cohort’s music. And within the broader hip-hop ecosystem, a feature from a SoundCloud rap star has become a hot commodity; artists like Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and 2 Chainz have recruited the nascent genre’s biggest names to splash their recent efforts with fresh energy. Even J. Cole, a self-serious rap traditionalist, lauded Lil Pump, who had previously dissed him, in a taped conversation last year. “The more I looked at your videos, I’m like, he knows more than what people might think he does, or that his image portrays,” he said.
Almost universally, though, these intergenerational interactions have the effect of making the elder look foolish—like they’re engaging in a cheap ploy for relevancy. There’s an awkwardness to the stark disjunct in style—blue hair and a tatted face are bound to make someone in a room look out of place. But the rising generation’s public presence doesn’t help things. While they can be unhinged on social media and in their music, in more traditional mediated settings they often shut off. Cole might as well be pulling teeth talking to Pump, who, wearing pajamas, sinks into the couch and treats the conversation like detention.
The strangest meeting of generations may have come in September, though, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti teamed up with Billie Eilish for a video encouraging students to vote. Eilish, at 17, was too young to cast her own ballot, and Garcetti, a middle-aged politician, likely didn’t know who the young Internet phenom was prior to the shoot. The contrived nature of the op is palpable. With her blue hair tucked in a black beanie covered by a casual red hoodie, Eilish, like Pump in the Cole video, looks like she just woke up. She tilts her head back, swaggering when she speaks, then looks down, disinterested when Garcetti reads his lines. She’s making an earnest appeal (Vote!), but her tone is disaffected, almost cheeky. Garcetti puts on a good face, but next to Eilish he looks stiff and out-of-place, the step-dad who’s really trying. Suffice to say, the whole thing is weird.
As these young artists’ wide popularity attests, age doesn’t preclude fandom. It’s not just kids listening to Pump, Eilish, and their contemporaries—Eilish even contributed to the soundtrack for Alfonso Cuaron’s very grown-up, Oscar-nominated Roma. But there is a sense that, while these artists want to be taken seriously, they’re ultimately making music—and more generally, performing—for their peers. The irreverent cartoon raps of Pump lampoon our absurd reality while the emo threads in the music of Eilish, Juice WRLD, and deceased peers like Lil Peep and XXXTentacion act as a salve. “Kids use my songs as a hug,” Eilish told Rolling Stone in a recent profile. “Songs about being depressed or suicidal or completely just against-yourself—some adults think that’s bad, but I feel that seeing that someone else feels just as horrible as you do is a comfort. It’s a good feeling.”
One of the recurring criticisms of Juice WRLD has been his shoddy songwriting. He reportedly freestyled Death Race, recording most of it in just four days—and it shows. Many of the lyrics are hokey, if not plain puerile. “I go through so much, I'm 19 years old / It's been months since I felt at home / But it's okay 'cause I'm rich / Psych, I'm still sad as a bitch, right,” he sings on “Fast.” And Eilish isn’t immune from childish songwriting, either. Her newest single, “wish you were gay,” finds her... wishing an unrequited lover were gay—anything would be better than rejection—which is, at best, a banal premise.
And though the influences of both Juice and Eilish are somewhat counterintuitive—the white female singer was influenced by rap (Tyler, The Creator, Kanye West) as much as the black male rapper was influenced by emo rock (Panic! At the Disco, My Chemical Romance)—each is still in the process of moving beyond them. It can be hard to hear Eilish, for instance, and actually hear Eilish—not Lana Del Rey’s fluttery voice over a thumping Yeezus production, coming from a Hypebeast Evanescence. It’s natural, of course, to have limited influences and to wear them loudly when you’re not even old enough to drink legally. And, really, originality and depth isn’t what’s important for artists like Eilish and Juice.
For fans of these young artists, the vulnerable sentiments and raw feelings are what resonates; that Juice and Eilish, like them, feel sad and alienated, is where much of the appeal lies. “Even when I find my true happiness, which I find more and more of it every day, I ain’t finna stop the mission that I’ve been put on,” Juice recently told Vulture. “I’m gonna still lead people through whatever they’re going through.” Juice, like Billie, is making music for a specific fanbase—the young and the lost.
Youth never loses its appeal. But it’s ironic that as teens have pushed style to its extremes and doubled down on rejecting convention, adults have seemed more eager to embrace them. (Who can forget the spectacle of Kanye West—41-year-old, father of three, style maven and music icon Kanye West—dressed as a bottle of Perrier in an SNL performance with a Fiji-costumed Lil Pump last year?) For now, much of the power of the Generation Z kids comes from being impossible to ignore, adept beyond their years at the mechanisms of culture, and in being unknown commodities. “People are more impressed if you’re younger and good at something,” Eilish told The Fader. “Half of me doesn’t really want to age, because I don’t really want to not have that.” But unless tragedy strikes, Eilish and her peers will age. And as they do, things will really get interesting. What will pop’s oddball kids do when they have actual power and little left to conceal? When the novelty wears off, will the bond hold?