Earlier this year, Olivia Rodrigo released her debut album, Sour, which earned her not only the no. 1 spot atop the Billboard 200, but the intense affection of millennials, as evidenced by scores of essays and memes proclaiming her as the voice of teenage nostalgia. She’s an 18-year-old singer-songwriter turned zoomer superstar on the strength of her debut single, “Drivers License,” a dream-shattering piano ballad about teen heartbreak. Rodrigo grew up listening to Taylor Swift, Green Day, No Doubt, and Avril Lavigne. Her second single, “Deja Vu,” credits Swift, and her third single, “Good 4 U,” her biggest song to date, credits Paramore. Sour splashes pop punk, emo, and grunge on a few songs; taken altogether, it’s a soft, sad, pop album more in the spirit of “drivers license.” It’s this sort of lush and diaristic songcraft, notwithstanding her pop-punk flourishes, that’s got fans and critics positioning Rodrigo as “the next Taylor Swift.”
She may well be the next Taylor Swift. She may well be a generational talent. But which generation are we talking about here? It’s surprisingly easy to discuss Sour at length without stumbling upon any hints of departure from millennial culture. On some level, the album marks the broader advancement of Generation Z into adulthood. The critics engaged with the idea of zoomer succession in pop culture clearly expect to see some great clash. Writing for The Washington Post, Molly Roberts, a millennial, describes Rodrigo as “a new avatar” in “the war among generations” despite her own pertinent observation about Sour: “We recognize ourselves in the music.” This isn’t a coincidence or a testament to universal appeal. Olivia Rodrigo is a Swiftie with Riot! characteristics. She doesn’t sound particularly interested in creative emancipation from her forebears. She doesn’t seek out or represent any sort of generational break in popular music. In fact, she sounds rather determined to sound how pop radio has played since I—a critic twice her age—was in high school.
I can extend this observation to other prominent zoomers, such as Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X—entertainers often characterized as representatives of a burgeoning zoomer culture despite their smooth continuity with millennials. Billie was hardly the first teenager to turn her hair green, prefer baggy jeans, and write sad songs in this century. Yet her breakout song, “Ocean Eyes,” released six years ago on SoundCloud, marked the earliest transition from talking about millennials to talking about zoomers, as if the difference were radical and self-evident. Lil Nas X stands out as a happy provacateur and also the first openly gay rapper nominated in top categories for the Grammys—but even he sounded more or less content on his debut album, Montero, to reheat the sounds and tropes of every big-budget rap record released in the nearly 12 years since Thank Me Later. The extreme moodiness in so much zoomer music, especially zoomer rap, isn’t some new and novel divergence. It’s the continuous echo of the millennial idols Drake and Kanye West. In fact, the zoomer ethos so far recalls the late hypebeast pioneer Virgil Abloh and his “3 percent approach” to fashion: revising old pieces only slightly to create new, original designs. This mindset has so far spawned a new generation of assimilationists, eager to co-opt every bit of culture once embraced by millennials. They listen to the same music, watch the same cinematic universes, and obsess over the same apps.
How did “the war among the generations” come to be so peaceful? Why do zoomers seem so unlikely to ever contradict the culture of millennials? You might say it’s simply too early to assess the cultural integrity of a cohort that’s just now entering the workforce. The childhoods were a bit different, but barely so: Zoomers grew up in the dawn of streaming music and social broadcasting, a series of technological advancements that have scrambled the whole notion of genre and reinvented the whole notion of celebrity. These shifts began with millennials, and zoomers are better understood to be partners, not rivals, in these transformations. The transformation from three-network broadcast television (baby boomers) to cable TV (Gen X) is much larger than the difference between Vine and TikTok.
Now recall the many heresies and rebellions by which millennials alienated Gen Xers and boomers at the stage that zoomers are at now. Millennials complained about “unfulfilling” work and reassessed traditional values around home ownership, marriage, and children. Millennials even relocated the capital of hip-hop from New York City to Atlanta so they could spend a couple of decades producing music which proved incomprehensible and infuriating to boomers and Gen Xers. What’s the closest zoomers have come to wrong-footing millennials? JoJo Siwa? The word “cheugy”? White girls dressing like Kid Rock and Juelz Santana?
Millennials and zoomers aren’t forefathers and offspring respectively but rather siblings, one older and one younger, both forged by the internet; both rightly regarded as a single generation with some minor differences of opinion regarding slang, emoji, and hashtags. They’re a young, web-savvy generation forged by the development of a bustling digital monoculture since the turn of the century. And yet the “Greatest Generation,” the “Silent Generation,” “Baby Boomers,” “Gen Xers,” “Millennials,” and now “Zoomers”: these terms cast several demographic cohorts as distinct caricatures, each identified by a variety of political, economic, and technological developments as well as their respective pronouncements in popular culture.
The Pew Research Center publishes a quarterly magazine, Trust, and a couple of years ago the magazine published a primer for the organization’s earliest research into Generation Z. “Baby boomers grew up as television was expanding. Generation X grew up as the computer revolution was unfolding, and millennials came of age during the expansion of the internet,” the editor Daniel LeDuc writes. He describes zoomers as “the first generation to come of age with technological advances such as the smartphone not as something new to be adopted, but simply as an accepted part of everyday life.” Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research, adds that zoomers inherit “a different kind of economy” (compared to millennials who graduated into the Great Recession) and “a different political environment” (compared to millennials who might recall the political order before the current age of hyperpolarization). The literature never gets much more specific than this.
These reasons for differentiating zoomers from millennials sound rather soft and vague compared to the impetus for grouping the baby boomers apart from other generations. It seems we’re being invited to equate the conclusion of the deadliest war in human history with the popularization of the iPhone. Writing against the generational labels for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker underscores the concept creep from the Silent Generation to Generation Z. “Baby boomers are the only currently living cohort defined by an actual demographic event,” he writes. The trivialization of these terms begins with Generation X, a generation entirely defined by its favorite musicians, movies, authors, and drugs. That’s where generational sorting becomes less of a political concern and more a recurring pseudo-crisis for arts critics. Like many critics of generational sorting, Pinsker sees pundits and pitchmen pushing these terms and pitting the so-called generations against one another in order to captivate a target audience with age-related insecurities. It’s often clickbait.
It’s trivial to note that zoomers, unlike millennials, were too young to witness 9/11. It’s apparently much harder for surveyors to articulate what that substantially means or why that sort of observation should serve as a basis for a new demographic identification. There’s a certain grasping in these terms, so easily made to sound, as Louis Menaud notes in The New Yorker, like astrology. Pinsker quotes Bobby Duffy, author of The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think, who discounts the generational labels at length in his book. But Duffy sympathizes with the urge to draw such distinctions—“We love to tell ourselves these stories about who we are and aren’t,” he tells Pinsker—and Duffy resigns himself to the quick ubiquity of such terms. “They’re out there,” he says, “and our job is to improve the analysis.”
It’s perhaps asking too much for social scientists to invalidate half a century’s worth of demographic assessment of the baby boomers. But what about “Generation Z,” a term that’s so far struggled to establish any meaningful difference between millennials and zoomers? Are we really, simply stuck with these terms? What do we lose in rejecting “zoomer”? We stand to gain a far more accurate and sensible comprehension of our culture, and ourselves. We can speak about Olivia Rodrigo without speaking in circles. We can begin to understand why two supposedly divergent generations both mostly echo Drake, Kanye, Taylor, and others. It’s not too late to improve the analysis. We’re just a couple decades—and a generation deep—into the millennium.