THE MUSIC ARTISTS THAT DEFINE GEN-Z

Lauv, Tierra Whack, and Billie Eilish. Courtesy of Glenn Francis/Tierra Whack/Interscope Records/Wikimedia Commons.

In a follow up to our previous article  “The TV Shows that Define the Gen-Z Experience” we felt it was great timing to continue the conversation with a focus on music. If the defining characteristic of the collective Gen-Z mindset on television is breaking boundaries by ignoring them entirely, then what identifies Gen-Z music as such is the exact opposite. What makes the shows we previously defined as quintessential to understanding the way Gen-Z thinks so modern is their adept ability to include once-taboo topics into their narratives without sensationalizing them. While music of the general Gen-Z disposition does in some ways adopt this mantra, for the most part it takes a different approach.

One of the main components of Gen-Z television is the lack of oppressing voices that make one’s struggle to be themselves the chief plot point; Schitt’s Creek has no one attacking main character David’s pansexuality, and at no point is Paula Proctor’s decision to have an abortion questioned seriously on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This is what we argued makes them so revolutionary. These issues are marked as important to the characters, but do not wholly define them and are generally accepted. Conversely, Gen-Z musicians tackle said issues head-on, choosing to highlight conflicts directly related to their identities and politics. The hardships they face as queer, non-white, or even just young people directly inform their music, and they fight fire with fire, not silence. In their chosen medium however, this contrasting strategy works perfectly.

In many ways this makes sense. Music has always been a direct line of therapy for many performers, with lyrics highlighting their battles as outsiders. What makes the following artists appeal to Gen-Z specifically is their brazen lack of filter regarding spilling such personal details of their lives. Their uniquely carefree-yet-doggedly-serious attitudes are what characterize this music. They are willing to not only talk about mental health, women’s rights, sexuality, politics, and religion, but also the struggles they have faced as a direct result of these issues. Its easy to think that just being sad or young makes a Gen-Z artist, but it is really the way in which they attack their feelings that endear them to a whole generation. That’s why, despite their young age and popularity, artists like Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello who tend to occupy the more traditional polished heartthrob end of the pop spectrum don’t fit this category. Obviously it is unfair to assert that Gen-Z developed this demeanor in music, but it is certainly what exemplifies it as a whole.

It is important to note that an artist’s age does not entirely include or exclude them from being a “Gen-Z” artist. In fact, the average age of artists on this list is about 23. As mentioned, it is their perspectives that put them here, and their ability to appeal to the generation as a whole. That said, the artists that embody Gen-Z:

BILLIE EILISH

It’s hard to hear the phrase “Gen-Z music” (or just “Gen-Z” for that matter) and not think of Billie Eilish. Eilish is unquestionably the poster child of Gen-Z music, and not just because of her sadcore tone and aesthetic. She is above all goofy, with a distinct fashion style that a group of Gen-X or Boomers would undoubtably describe as “what the kids are like these days.” Her idiosyncratic attitude, full of self-deprecation and jabs at her own generation, serves to facilitate that uniquely Gen-Z nihilism that has taken over both Twitter and TikTok. Billie talks openly about her mental health and body image struggles, and imagines them through the surreal lenses of her infamously quirky music videos. The announcement of Eilish as the new James Bond theme singer even led to speculation that the film would need to shift tone to match Gen-Z ideals. That’s the power of a generation.

TROYE SIVAN

Just one watch of the above music video for Troye Sivan’s single “Bloom” should be enough to contextualize his appearance on this list. Genderbending is nothing new by any means; modern pioneers of androgyny like Twiggy, Grace Jones and Annie Lennox provided much of the groundwork, and newcomers like Regulus Red have incorporated the movement into their musical identity. Troye Sivan appreciates the stories musicians can tell with their personas, and combines muted imagery with the popular ethereal style of today’s hits to create music that is definitively of its time. That “Bloom,” both subtle and oh so explicit, is unabashedly about bottoming for a male partner speaks volumes about Sivan’s willingness to address a long stigmatized topic in the gay community; and true to form, his embracing of femininity makes him a prime candidate for Gen-Z poster boy.

TIERRA WHACK

Tierra Whack has made a huge impression on modern hip-hop with her landmark debut studio album, Whack World. The record consists of 15 minute-long vignettes, ranging from comedic faux diss tracks (“Fuck Off”) to playful laments for her late dog (“Pet Cemetery”) and the need to be optimistic in life despite dissatisfaction (“Black Nails”). It is tempting to pin the album’s Gen-Z allure on the LP’s short length and optimization for social media promotion, both indictments of the current youth generation’s supposed short attention span and predisposition to vapidness. But what really sets Whack apart as quintessentially Gen-Z is her personality: her frequent detours to the non sequitur, her wild visual imagination, her willingness to just act silly and change her voice up with every track. She hasn’t been put into the box of the ultra polished “boss ass bitch” persona that so many Black artists have been relegated to (though of course those that do occupy this space are important figures in music). Whack is a boss-ass bitch in her own right, and she accomplishes that by blurring the lines of artist and individual.

LAUV

At first glance, Lauv’s song titles immediately scream Gen-Z. The flippant yet introspective track names like “Fuck, I’m Lonely,” “Drugs & the Internet,” “I’m So Tired…” and “Sad Forever” all echo the exasperation that the entire generation has collectively felt in the wake of the “the world is on fire” mentality they embrace. But it’s not just the song titles from his debut album, ~how I’m feeling~, that signify a Gen-Z attitude; the album concept is quite modern in approach. According to Lauv, six distinct personalities (depicted on the album cover as himself dressed in differently colored monochrome outfits) combine to make up his current identity. They are represented by “purple (existential Lauv), blue (hopeless romantic Lauv), green (goofy Lauv), yellow (positive Lauv), orange (fuckboy Lauv) and red (spicy Lauv).” He consciously chooses to not focus on the past or future, instead taking into account all his feelings and moods and using them to craft a picture of himself in the moment. That feeling of being in touch with all your emotions in order to reflect more clearly is, especially for a man, very indicative of current day youth philosophy.

KEHLANI

Kehlani is one of many faces of the generation that are fundamentally opposed to the notion of labels. The young singer identifies as queer and pansexual, clarifying that she is attracted to people of all gender identities. Pansexuality has after many years finally begun to be accepted and understood by those outside of the queer community, and more and more public figures have felt comfortable expressing their lack of need for any specific label. It is not only her comfort with her sexual fluidity that makes Kehlani such a powerful Gen-Z figure, but also her candidness when addressing mental health issues. Kehlani has been open about her pain surrounding her suicide attempt in 2016, as well as the prenatal depression she experienced before the birth of her first child in 2018. Kehlani refuses to let stages in her life define her however, and makes the conscious decision to talk about them in her music as a means of healing without letting them overtake her. The title of her second album sums it up brilliantly with very modern phrasing: It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.

Kehlani performing in 2016. Courtesy of Tore Sætre / Wikimedia Commons.

This list is obviously not completely exhaustive. Artists like the zoned-out and carefree Post Malone, body positive Lizzo, proudly non-binary Sam Smith, modern queer icon Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion whose “Savage” still dominates TikTok, and the arguable progenitor to Billie Eilish, Lorde, could all reasonably be put here. What makes an artist so emblematic of a whole generation is not their exact age, but their sentimentality; not what they choose to address in their music, but how they choose to address it.

These artists grab the bull by the horns and let their freak flags fly. They are a statement of counterculture simply by being more introspective those generations before, while simultaneously staying politically active and above all, completely irreverent. No generation has been willing to laugh at themselves and the world more than Gen-Z, and it’s hard to imagine what the next generation will do to make that mentality their own with their music.

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