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In trying to comprehend the meteoric rise of One Direction or why Justin Bieber still exists, who doesn’t feel like the Betty White in the room?
During a memorable episode of TV’s South Park, entitled “You’re Getting Old,” Stan experiences a moment of cultural crisis: listening to the music his friends enjoy, all he hears is a bunch of choreographed farting sounds, Hershey squirts set to a beat. It’s a profound experience of alienation, a feeling of disconnection with the cultural universe around you. How can you enjoy anything you once liked when it all starts to sound like shit to you?
In experiencing cultural panic about what the kids are listening to these days, the 10-year-old Stan is a little young to be telling people to get off his musical lawn. But there’s something incredibly poignant about the idea that in getting older, we might change in subtle ways we aren’t prepared for, ones that put us at odds with the dominant society around us. Like at the end of a long relationship, we come to want different things. We’re different people now.
Disconnection used to have a certain cache for the right audience. As recently as five years ago, a man with ironic elbow patches and a handlebar mustache might have bragged to you over drinks at a party about not watching television — the implication being that he’s so square that he’s hip. But in TV’s Golden Era of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that brand of pretension has become a relic, a stereotype of an earlier age. That guy has an iPhone and an Instagram account now. Instead of drinking his Malort off the grid, he’s live-tweeting it.
I’ve never identified with that guy, the one who got off on not knowing things. I grew up in a household of Trivial Pursuit and the New York Times crossword puzzle, where the goal was not knowledge but hoarding facts. In Trivial Pursuit, being Master of the Universe means knowing that no information is useless; the most seemingly minor cultural footnote will come in handy someday, even if it’s only to help you win Trivial Pursuit.
One of the defining moments of my childhood was missing out on Jeopardy! Kids, blowing my tryout because I didn’t know the answer to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer question. I was ten and, according to my parents, not old enough to watch the show. After that day, I never missed an episode.
When you’re young, this wide cultural absorption speaks to how you understand the world, as full of limitless possibilities, a place where Dostoevsky and Don Rickles can exist in perfect harmony. To amass a pop cultural identity means slowly becoming a hybrid being and a mass of contradictions. When you ask someone what kind of music they like, the most common answer is that that person “likes everything,” an indication that their iPod can’t be summed up into a single theme. Like our lives, our tastes can’t always be narrativized.
Stan’s greater panic in South Park is in realizing his own finite nature as a cultural being. As people, we are often defined by when and how we started listening to music, the bands that will likely shape the listeners we become. Although our tastes can evolve and branch outward with the limitless possibilities that the Internet age offers, that imprint remains.
The most obvious examples of this phenomenon are the wildly popular viral videos in which old people are forced to listen to what the kids are into. When seniors attempt to dissect Skrillex, they have few tools to do so. For someone who grew up on Hoagy Carmichael and Charlie Parker, the composition of dubstep won’t make any logical sense — because the wider musical discourse hasn’t trained their ears to listen to it. It’s the equivalent of going to sleep for thirty years and waking up to find the world run by Martians with ill-advised haircuts.
However, those feelings of cultural confusion are no longer defined by wide generation gaps, the province of elderly people who still have an AOL account. To be five or 10 years removed from culture’s target audience of college students with unlimited expense accounts is to be outside of the delineated youth culture, as if leaving the 18-24 bracket were a rubicon that cannot be uncrossed.
I’m 26, and even a scant two years removed from it, I feel like I have no idea what’s going on in there. Last night, I went to a midnight screening of Neighbors, the new frat revenge comedy directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller, and I felt like an alien viewing the cultural milieu from space. Zac Efron, the young lead in the film, and I are the exact same age, the Millennial bracket who might define themselves as ‘90s kids in a nostalgic Thought Catalog post, but I felt at least 20 years older than him.
In the film, Seth Rogen’s character describes what it means to slowly become the oldest person at the party, like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. In the film, McConaughey’s Wooderson famously says: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man: I get older, they stay the same age.”
What’s striking about Neighbors is how much Efron’s frat culture resembles the college life depicted in Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, the film’s most obvious influences; this is because — when it comes down to it — little about youth culture has changed in the past thirty years. The music and the clothes might be different, but the politics are the same. It’s us that change, even sooner than we think.
We’re not supposed to feel this way until we become the couple next door with a newborn, but in trying to comprehend the meteoric rise of One Direction or why Justin Bieber still exists, who doesn’t feel like the Betty White in the room?
Since I was 12, I’ve obsessively tracked the Billboard Hot 100, a Thursday tradition as ingrained in my life as waking up with the newspaper and a cup of Folgers. As someone fascinated with the discourse of popularity, of why people like what they like, Billboard’s ability to quantify that into hard statistical data every week is like a form of very niche erotica for me. It’s my PornHub.
But in looking at the charts in recent weeks, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what any of these songs actually are. I’m aware that Ed Sheeran exists as a person in the world, but I couldn’t name a single one of his songs at gunpoint. I’m genuinely bewildered by the rise of Avicii and EDM, and I assume that “DJ Snake” is not a reptile. At some point, all of these songs have become signifiers without a signified. It’s not even trivia, just meaningless data.
As an experiment, I decided to make myself listen to “something the kids like” as a way to test myself, so I chose Ariana Grande, an up-and-coming chanteuse so suddenly popular her new single almost debuted at number one on Billboard. To achieve such a feat is the ultimate sign that your fame has reached a critical mass (ala Lady Gaga), as if you were a one-person musical tipping point.
Until this week, I hadn’t the slightest clue who Ariana Grande was, except that she looks 12 to me.
Grande’s aforementioned latest single, “Problem,” is a fusion of rap and pop in the style of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” all breathy vocals over a slinky groove. To wax melismatic over an unrequited love, Carey sampled the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” but Grande relies on jazz and Jay-Z, repeatedly invoking the rapper’s “99 Problems.”
It’s the exact sort of thing that should be made for me, as I think “Fantasy” is one of the finest songs of its decade. I can sense that “Problem” was created with artistry and that its target audience will probably adore it, but to me, it sounds like shit. If there’s a tipping point here, it’s not just that I don’t know who Ariana Grande is — it’s that I no longer care all that much.
Just as getting older is inevitable, so is the sense that we’ll leave parts of ourselves and the world around us behind, as we increasingly become the people we’ve chosen to be. As we become narrower, we discover our boundaries. In “You’re Getting Old,” Stan sees that cultural alienation as the beginning of a landslide, a process of inevitable decline that leads to our eventual death. Those feelings of isolation are just another reason to hate the world, a reminder that everything sucks.
But to look at aging as a slow process of becoming numb to the world is learn the wrong lessons from mortality, ignoring the ways in which disconnection can be liberating. In a culture dictated by trivia, we always want to know everything, but leaving the spaces blank can be just as rewarding. To paraphrase Ms. Grande, it’s one less problem.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.