We are truly living in an era of dejection and disillusionment, and our art is proof of that.
If there is one thing that college has taught me so far, it is that our generation is facing a plight of unseen proportions. We have been burdened with the effects of the choices made by older generations.
The activism you see happening around this country is a positive force, but it comes from a dark place: the responsibility of solving the world's problems has been left to us, as no one else wants to step up. We simply don't have a choice whether we fight or not, we are the ones who will be affected if steps aren't taken. And I believe that this is where my generation's cynicism comes from.
We feel abandoned by a world that continues to beat us down. College prices are exorbitant, we probably won't be able to afford to buy a house, capitalism has reached a tipping point, we are going to have to see this green earth shrivel up and die before our eyes, and, to top it all off, gray-haired men just keep telling us we're too naive to change the world because we have cell phones.
It is unanimously agreed upon that the art and creations of a society or a time period reflect the inner working and beliefs of that era. We create what we experience. We output, what we take in. This doesn't just apply to thousand-year-old Italian paintings or Egyptian sculptures. This idea permeates every age and group of people across all of time, and continues to do so. Currently, music is the most absorbed art form. It is everywhere, and our generation has turned this mass media form into a powerful microcosm. If there is any proof that this generation is suffering, it is, without any doubt, embedded in what we are creating.
Conan Gray, a mid-level YouTuber with just under 1.2 million subscribers turned into a rising pop sensation nearly overnight when he released his first album, Sunset Season, on November 16, 2018. Gray went from a small, cover singer on YouTube, to a songwriter appearing on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," several YouTube pop culture channels, and opening for a Panic! At The Disco concert. How? He relates perfectly into our generation's composition, mostly because, at 20 years old, his is part of our experience. Gray's outward expression online and in his videos present a Gen-X/Millennial classic sarcasm and dark humor that we have adopted to save ourselves from being too affected by the realities of our day to day lives. But, when Gray is serious, such as when he is singing, we can see the true nature of his (and our generation's) feelings seep through.
"Generation Why," the first song released on his album could not be any clearer. This upbeat pop sensation has dark lyrics that are all too familiar to today's young adults. After the release, the internet exploded with teens from all over the country flocking to Gray's fanbase. Some even called the song "the anthem of our generation." The music video features Gray riding his bike through your average, affluent, suburban town. He is playing as a paperboy, throwing newspapers into the driveways of the homes he passes. The newspapers have disturbing and depression headlines. During the chorus, Gray is seen facing off with faceless men in suits and dress shoes. The lyrics tell a story of hopelessness in today's young adults, and of society's push back towards us. The 1950s/1960s aesthetic of the video eerily reminds us of the age of rampant optimism and positivity, something we are so far from today.
The song, in conjunction with the video, almost act like a tribute to the 'good-old-days' of American society, or to the personal memories of one's own happy childhood (as the video features Gray playing with a friend on a playground, and playing hand-games). In the chorus, he sings,
"'Cause we are the helpless, selfish, one of a kind
Millennium kids, that all wanna die
Walking in the street with no light inside our eyes
We are the worthless, cursed with too much time
We get into trouble and lose our minds
Something that I've heard a million times in my life
Combined with both what we see ourselves as (helpless, one of a kind, losing our minds), and what society sees us as (selfish, worthless, getting into trouble), Gray tells a perfect story of our plight. He touches on bigger issues too, such as mental health with the line "all wanna die." Later on, he also sings,
"Cause at this rate of earth decay
Our world's ending at noon"
Presenting yet another reason that we have "no light inside our eyes;" climate change, he proves thatt we are truly the generation of "why?" Why try when we keep getting beaten down? Why try when no one takes us seriously? Why try when the world will end soon, anyway?
Billie Eilish, a 17-year-old, has nearly reached superstardom with her haunting songs. Eilish's words are just as terrifying as Gray's, but she has the music and tone to match. Whereas Gray juxtaposes saturated videos and carefree tones with depressing words, Eilish jumps right into what she really means. A recent release of Eilish's, "Bury a Friend," made some fans worried about her mental health. The music video is horror-movie style, with a deep, monotone, devilish voice that lurks in the background of her lyrics. The chorus is as follows,
"Step on the glass, staple your tongue (ahh)
Bury a friend, try to wake up (ah ahh)
Cannibal class, killing the son (ahh)
Bury a friend, I wanna end me"
"What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me?
What are you wondering? What do you know?
Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me?
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?"
Billie said, "I also confess that I'm this monster." The song seems to discuss mental health, and bring to light the monster that lives inside of this depressed generation. There is a very non-ambiguous, very literal reference to suicide in the line, "I wanna end me." The questions Billie asks are questions to herself. She thinks she should be afraid of the monster inside of her, but she isn't. "Why aren't you scared of me?" she asks. "Why don't you run from me?" It relates to the natural inclination hopeless/mentally ill people have to "step on the glass, staple your tongue," to bring yourself closer and closer to a breaking point through self-harm, self-punishment, or self-hatred. Billie doesn't shy away from this either. "We're all sad as hell," she says. "We're sad as sh*t."
Asking where we go when we fall asleep could be a cry out to one of the biggest generational questions; is there an afterlife? Is religion real? Our generation is remarkably unreligious, and the absence of knowing what comes next weighs heavy on us. Additionally, Eilish could be asking if she can still achieve a possible afterlife if we kill ourselves? Judging from the rest of the lyrical meaning, it seems plausible that Eilish is wondering what her fate would be if she gave into the monster.
Lorde, a 22-year-old singer, brings us just as analytical lyrics. One of her biggest hits, "Ribs," discusses the troubling nature of growing up, and how wonderful it would be to be naive children again. In this repetition based song, with ethereal music, Lorde sings,
"This dream isn't feeling sweet
We're reeling through the midnight streets
And I've never felt more alone
It feels so scary, getting old"
Lorde talks of the familiar feelings of becoming a young adult. And how, even though when we were young we thought aging would be exciting, it's really just sad. She presents adulthood as a "dream" not a reality. And, now that she has reached that "dream" she realizes that it is far from "sweet." Bringing in both the ideas of hopelessness and mental illness, she conjures up relatable emotions to our generation such as feeling more "alone" as we grow up and begin to understand the world. Earlier in the song she sings,
"The drink you spilt all over me
'Lover's Spit' left on repeat
My mom and dad let me stay home
It drives you crazy, getting old"
These lines are a shoutout to all of our younger selves, and the futile attempts we made to be older, such as going to a party where there are drinks, or staying home alone. But, she knows now that growing up "drives you crazy," and she should not have craved aging as much as she did as younger teenager. This is a huge truth for the young adults of today. We are so hyper-aware of our unfortunate situation in the world, and the piling up responsibilities of that situation, that becoming an adult seems as though it may not have been worth it.
All of these artists, and many more, have plenty of songs that describe the culture of today's budding adults, but none do it better than those listed above. What we can grasp from this is that while today's generation may present sarcasm on Twitter, or laugh at memes and vines, we aren't all that carefree. Our outward expressions of humor aren't a joke, they are a pathetic form of escapism. If we can laugh at depression, or climate change, or debt, maybe it gives it less immediate power, or maybe it just desensitizes us. Who can tell? What I do urge you to do is pay attention to what we produce.
Behind the smiles at family gatherings, and laughs at funny TV shows, and complaining about trivial problems, we aren't shallow, we aren't content, and we aren't complicit. We are truly living in an era of dejection and disillusionment, and our art is proof of that. At least the Lost Generation of the 1920s, or those who grew up under Cold War nuclear threat have been able to influence and inspire with what they produced. Our art might not help any future generations. There might not be any future generations to help. How can you blame us for making stupid decisions, being pessimistic, or having little care for our futures when our futures might only last another 20 years? We are not Generation Z, we are not Generation Tech, we are Generation Why.