How Gen Z Hears the Sirens of the Past A GenZer considers her generation’s entrapment in a technology so thorough it even mediates how to escape its clutches.

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A Gen Z teenager starts her day by dressing herself in a confusing amalgamation of styles from decades past. Flared pants, an ’80s-style ski jacket, and a pair of chunky white Sketchers straight out of the ’90s might serve as this teen’s daily look—and as an example of the historically intermingled assortment of clothes that make up a fashion-forward outfit in 2019. The teenager then pops in her wireless AirPods, blasting a Spotify playlist entitled “Old Songs,” combining hit songs from over 50 years, ranging from ’60s psychedelia to ’80s hair bands to ’90s grunge rock.

To a young person in today’s culture, there is not much difference between a clothing item from the ’60s and one from the ’90s, or a rock song from the ’70s vs. one from the ’80s. We constantly see clothes from the past making a “comeback,” so often that the shelves of stores are lined almost exclusively with modernized versions of past styles. Similarly, musicians and cultural icons that dominated in years past have managed to remain relevant to teens today. The stylistic innovations and interests of the past decade are reminiscent of a remixed song—holding recognizable elements from the original, but ultimately creating a new commodity. And young people, like this teenager, have created a culture of hybridized nostalgia—an aestheticization of the fashions and lifestyles of the past through a modern lens.

To a young person in today’s culture, there is not much difference between a clothing item from the ’60s and one from the ’90s, or a rock song from the ’70s vs. one from the ’80s. We constantly see clothes from the past making a “comeback,” so often that the shelves of stores are lined almost exclusively with modernized versions of past styles.

Many teenagers and young adults in 2019 are repurposing popular styles and cultural icons from previous decades into their own modernized conglomeration of past lifestyles. It is unclear if 21st Century teens have a defining element or “voice” that will mark their legacy in the future. With the presence of the internet, there is access to an overwhelming amount of cultural content we have consumed through screens and repurposed into updated versions of past cultural elements. The 2010s are mere days from coming to an end, and it is hard to pinpoint a stylistic or musical innovation that is not a reprised version of the past.

Teenagers of the past two decades possess a strange duality. They are not the first generation to have experienced massive societal change—teens of the past lived through the invention of the automobile, radio, and film, all which massively shifted everyday culture. However, 21st Century Teens were born into the Internet Age. With the internet’s immersion into everyday life, we now have access to an insurmountable volume of content and information, on a scale that previous technological innovations could not provide. The internet, through its wealth of cultural content, allows for unbridled consumption of aestheticized images and ideals of the past. The children of the future can rummage the past as if it were a store.

The concept of longing for “simpler times” is not unique to today’s generation. As the world progresses, every past generation has felt in some sense that the previous decade was a better time to be alive. However, unique to today’s culture, the age group most incessantly longing for simpler times is teenagers. Older generations often look down upon Millennials and Gen Z, accusing them of almost “appropriating” a culture of music and style that they do not understand. But when explored deeper, there is a reason that youth so desperately clings to scraps of the past, finding comfort in holding on to these pieces of culture.

What is it about our current cultural climate that makes teenagers pine for lifestyles of past decades? Why are we, as a generation, unable to move forward?

 

Shiny and New

Some teenagers spend their time stocking up on ’80s band tees or hanging tie-dye Woodstock posters on their bedroom walls, but their pastimes are far different than those of teenagers actually living in these decades. In fact, aesthetic appreciation for past decades revolves largely around the internet and its contents, and legitimate teen pastimes of previous decades are on the brink of extinction. Ironically, as nostalgia runs rampant on the internet through aestheticized photos and styles, authentic establishments and concepts from past decades are not frequently patronized by teenagers.

In my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, once-thriving businesses minted in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are dying. Missouri, a sprawling Midwestern state, has left much of its rural field and farm space outside of the city technologically untouched, allowing, many authentic American teen and family pastimes to remain in operation. The Starlite Drive-In movie theater in Cadet, MO, opened in 1952. Dated technology led to a rapid decline of drive-in theaters in the ’70s, and there are now fewer than 400 of these relics still remaining in the US. Today’s movie-watchers prefer a reclining theater seat or a bed and an open Netflix tab. Businesses like the Starlite operate on nostalgia alone. But this nostalgia has proven insufficient to keep drive-ins like the Starlite economically viable. The theater closed its doors not once, but twice in just the past ten years. If not for dedicated and wealthy patrons that allowed the Starlite to update digitally, the business would not have been able to stay alive.

The internet, through its wealth of cultural content, allows for unbridled consumption of aestheticized images and ideals of the past. The children of the future can rummage the past as if it were a store.

Another cultural relic that has recently been forced to close is the St. Louis Outlet Mall, known to patrons as “The Mills.” Located in Hazelwood, M0., this mall’s grand opening was in 2003. Its inception was based on the thriving enterprise of shopping malls in the ’80s and ’90s, where a totalizing environment was created much like a casino or a village. Malls were known largely as a teen hangout—a space where many young people would spend days wandering the checkered linoleum rows of shops. The Mills is a testament to how rapidly the inception of the internet rendered shopping malls an unnecessary commodity—after just 15 years of business, the multi-million dollar project will join the ranks of three other St. Louis shopping malls that have closed in just the past decade. As of this moment, the Mills Mall serves as an eerie, post-apocalyptic ode to the past, with late ’90s vaporwave music bouncing from rows and rows of empty storefronts. It is natural, in this age of online shopping, that dated concepts like shopping malls would suffer. However, what is unnerving is the fact that there is a massive internet culture dedicated to the appreciation of the “aesthetics” of the shopping mall.

But, as authentic period establishments such as the Starlite and the Mills fade away, shiny new takes on these historical concepts are popping up in cities all across America, complete with updated technology and modernized executions. Countless restaurants, businesses, and entertainment companies thrive on the modernization of past aesthetics. The Peacock Diner, located on St. Louis’s restaurant strip the Delmar Loop, is a flourishing space, with all the makings of an authentic ’50s diner—but the Peacock’s sanitized, neon glow and modern touch-screen arcade games prevent it from feeling entirely authentic. And while the Peacock is packed on an average weekend, simpler, older diners in the St. Louis area are less often frequented by young people.

Crown Candy Kitchen, a long-standing soda fountain in St. Louis’s North City, has been operating since 1913. Despite Crown Candy’s authenticity and ability to transport patrons back to the simplistic days of milkshakes and cheap diner food, teenagers do not usually take the time to patronize the establishment. If teens are in the mood for a nostalgic experience, it is more likely that they could be found sipping milkshakes under flat screen TVs at The Peacock.

Likewise, all across St. Louis, fresh new takes on ’80s arcades are opening their doors. Take Start Bar, for example, a popular joint that boasts craft beer alongside modernized arcade machines and neon signs. Spaces like Start Bar prosper, but finding a successful arcade harboring bona fide entertainment is difficult. It is interesting to look at these places that create a technologically updated spin on old pastimes. Why do these modern establishments seem to thrive all across America when, more often than not, the authentic relics that thrived during the past decade in question slowly loses economic revenue and public interest? It is obvious that these authentic spaces have grown old as time passed. But it is not unthinkable to imagine that, with the current nostalgic obsession with the past, young people would want to focus more on allowing old authentic spaces to thrive, instead of leaving them to fade away in favor of shiny new versions of the same thing. Perhaps teens would prefer the genuine experience of Crown Candy Kitchen over a shiny new modern diner. However, it seems that technology-heavy spaces that incorporate modernized versions of past aesthetic pastimes are more palatable.

Young people may laud past decades as “better” or “simpler.” But if today’s youth are so nostalgically attached to the aesthetics and lifestyles of decades past, why are outlet malls and roller rinks, diners and drive in movie theaters financially suffering rather than blossoming? Why do we frequent adapted, modernized versions of these structures, while letting the real authentic original die out?

 

A Hybrid Nostalgia

Over the past 20 years, the internet rapidly infiltrated households and lives. An almost unimaginable innovation once limited to researchers alone gradually, then suddenly, became accessible to the multitudes, simultaneously making billions as a tool of commerce. Young people may remember that shift, seemingly overnight, when their family’s clunky grey block computer monitor was replaced with a sleek silver square the size of a plasma television set. Similar to the invention of the automobile or the phone, the internet became a tool that penetrated our lives as a necessary and constant presence that we could not function without. While older generations spent most of their lives in an internet-free era, most first-world youth can hardly recall a time without it. What sets the internet apart from massive technological innovations of the past is its endless wealth of information, a constant stream that has allowed romanticization of the past to become more intense than ever before. The web’s amount of cultural stimulus provides access to a virtual museum of music, fashion, and lifestyles of the past. Decades ago, teens had to physically sift through piles of tapes and records at Tower Records searching for music. Today, applications like Spotify and YouTube allow us to search for artists or albums within seconds. We can only imagine a style of cultural consumption where a desired search is not readily available with a single click. As of 2019, over 500 million websites on the internet are recognized as “blogs.” Search “hippie” or “’90s aesthetic,” and millions of photos of high-waisted jeans and colorful jackets and neon signs will appear, images of smiling girls in flower crowns dancing to rock music, kids with chunky sneakers and boom boxes on late afternoon streets. The velocity of nostalgia has hit warped speed.

Technology in the past served as the lens that allowed people to feel nostalgia towards the past. Shows like The Wonder Years (1988-1993) made viewers long for the golden age of ‘60s suburbia or Happy Days (1974-1984) made 1950s white lower middle class culture in the Midwest sweet. Television, film, and radio music was the way that people of the past expressed and distributed their nostalgia. Today, the internet allows for this nostalgia to be felt, but on a much larger scale. It provides access to a time capsule of past decades, but through the internet, we are able, better than ever before, to pick and choose which aspects of past decades that we admire, and which we are able to ignore. When a teenager is asked “what decade do you wish you lived in?” their answer will most likely be solely based on the aestheticized idea that the internet has presented about this decade. If they say “the fifties,” they are most likely choosing this decade because of photos they have seen of stylish pink kitchens, long poodle skirts, and jukeboxes—not considering the severe social constraints on women, rampant racism, rising juvenile crime, the dislocation of urban renewal, and other social issues common to that era.

Today, the internet allows for this nostalgia to be felt, but on a much larger scale. It provides access to a time capsule of past decades, but through the internet, we are able, better than ever before, to pick and choose which aspects of past decades that we admire, and which we are able to ignore.

It is easy to ignore these problems when only presented with the pretty or polished versions of these decades. It is not entirely a young person’s fault for being unaware of the social history of past decades—rather, we are all operating based on the image and aesthetic that the internet provides for us. And still, old relics of past culture die out while newly updated technological versions which are similar to the authentic experience thrive among younger crowds. This too, is by fault of the rose-colored glasses that the internet places over our eyes. Because of the way that the internet has aestheticized and atomized the past, we find ourselves longing for it, while simultaneously remaining dependent on technology to entertain and engage us. Objects and spaces of entertainment must be sleek and new in order to garner attention. We often are not interested in engaging with actual cultural structures of the past, rather we prefer to engage with updated and sanitized versions of these eras. The internet has made the past seem like a series of pleasant abstract paintings on a wall.

This is why places like the Loop’s Peacock Diner thrive. These businesses create a rosy, technologically satisfying version of a decade’s culture. With high-tech games, overlit neon signs, and TV screens on every wall, it is an encapsulation of the idea of 80’s culture executed in the most technologically updated way possible. Stepping into Peacock Diner does not feel like stepping out of a time machine, rather its glossy and expensive stainless steel are reminiscent of a strange, futuristic space out of an old sci-fi film. Places like these thrive because the aesthetic concept seems to be more desirable than the actual reality of the past. My generation does not need to create anything new, because the internet already encapsulates concepts from the past that we can easily recycle and reuse, leading us to believe we are creating some new and exciting form of culture.

Because we experience nostalgia almost exclusively through the internet, the role it plays in our longing for the past becomes a portal into the mental and emotional state of our young modern generation.

The internet itself is the technological innovation that defines our generation. With blogs, memes, and social media all being integral parts of young people’s cultural expression, the internet is intertwined with teen culture. And, just as adults in the ’60’s despised rock n’ roll records and teenage obsession with music and free love, 21st Century adults lament the influence of technology on teens, dubbing teens “screenagers” and claiming that our ability to think creatively is disappearing. But the influence of technology on teens is unique. It has created a wall that holds young people back from reimagining culture in new ways outside of the internet realm.

The weight of the internet’s presence among young people can create deep stress. The pressure to portray invented lives on social media, the ever-present internet access within our pockets that forces a constant awareness of the state of the world, the burden of being always reachable- our lives are entirely encapsulated within tablets, and it is often exhausting. This desire to break free of this unnatural technological reliance is deeply rooted. But reliance on the internet is now ingrained so intensely in our lives that, barring a mass technological exodus, it is impossible to successfully navigate the modern world without technology. Despite lingering desires to detach, young people’s lives are so intertwined with technology that we are unable to properly function without it.

Perhaps, deep down, my generation is rejecting the lifestyle of technology that was forced upon us. This would explain the uniquely strange hybridized nostalgia that our generation has created. Pining for the past serves as an escape, one that allows us to long for a past without technology or less technology, but through the lens of technology we are comfortable with. We will not let go of our technological crutches, but listening to the Grateful Dead while scrolling through Woodstock photos on Tumblr creates the illusion that we are somehow escaping this technology-filled world, without actually having to detach. And even if this version of the past that we long for is ultimately a falsified, aestheticized version of reality, the internet allows teens to use past decades as an escape from the constant stimulus of the modern world. Like a fish never out of water, we long to escape to a world which we cannot even fully understand.

Teenagers’ longing for the past connects us to generations of old, who also attempted to escape the rapidly changing world by escaping into nostalgia. But with the intense grip that technology has on the modern world, the constant repurposing of the past is stronger than ever, so strong that it has nearly become a replacement for actual cultural innovation. Will future generations sink even deeper into recycled versions of past lifestyles? Perhaps, the dystopian portrayals of the future in novels like The Hunger Games or Divergent, in which extremely technologically advanced societies revert almost entirely back into the 18th century lifestyle, are not so far off.

We will not let go of our technological crutches, but listening to the Grateful Dead while scrolling through Woodstock photos on Tumblr creates the illusion that we are somehow escaping this technology-filled world, without actually having to detach. And even if this version of the past that we long for is ultimately a falsified, aestheticized version of reality, the internet allows teens to use past decades as an escape from the constant stimulus of the modern world. Like a fish never out of water, we long to escape to a world which we cannot even fully understand.

The Gen Z teenager, with her affinity for styles and cultural icons of decades past, is glued to her laptop and cell phone. Although she longs for the simplicity of days long ago, she is never more than an arm’s length away from technology. Has she, and her generation of young people, been robbed of their own identity through the constant presence of technology in their lives?

Perhaps the next generation of teens will find that the technological excess infiltrating our society is too intense to handle and create content that is removed from the confines of the internet. It is also possible that the internet is already too massive, and there is truly no new cultural innovation that has not already been produced and reproduced somewhere within its recesses.

So, will young people ever find a way to innovate beyond the internet’s confines? Or will culture continue to cycle back upon itself until all new content is simply an extracted version of something already in existence? Until the scale tips in either direction, our society will remain in a strange state of stasis—stuck in a dreamlike world lived entirely within technology, while simultaneously longing for the past without it.

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