In our previous post, we introduced the Generational Music Cycle, which shows how music tastes change predictably when a new generation becomes the primary consumer or creator of popular music. For almost two decades, millennials have been the generation picking the hits. They made Hip Hop fun in the 00s. They made EDM DJs stars in the 10s.
But the reign of the millennials is almost over.
Sometimes called “Gen Z”, “iGen”, “post-millennial”, or most recently during the COVID-19 crisis “Generation C,” the Homeland Generation (a term coined by the father of generational research Neil Howe) is the generation after the Millennials, with a birth year starting around 2005.
Kids who can faintly recall a time before President Obama or the 2008 financial meltdown are the last of the Millennials. Kids who can’t are the first Homelanders.
THEY’RE NOT MILLENNIALS
While every person is unquestionably unique, the over-arching tone of the millennial generation is confidence and optimism. They grew up with the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000s. They are primarily the children of Boomer parents, whose helicopter parenting style made them feel special and important. They’re team oriented. They’re excited by progress.
They were the babies when “Baby On Board” stickers were a thing.
In contrast, Homelanders are growing up amid financial uncertainly, political divisiveness, climate fears, and now a deadly pandemic. That environment is making them cautious and insecure. Their Generation X parents, all too aware of life’s dangers, are as over-protective of their Homelander kids as their parents were under-protective of them in the latch key kid 1970s. They’re not merely helicopter parents; they’re stealth fighter parents.
In public life, Homelander kids are rule-oriented and pragmatic, now as a matter of survival. Privately, they’re quietly seeking their own identity as they connect with their friends on Discord. They’re sensitive. They value kindness and don’t want anyone to feel left out. They’re looking inward in a way Millennials look outward.
They’re the Minecraft generation.
With 2005’s babies now high school freshmen, we’re on the cusp of experiencing how their worldview will soon alter popular music.
ENTER BILLIE EILISH
Eilish isn’t a Homelander. Born in 2001, she’s among the last wave of Millennials. However, her life has details familiar to Homelanders, from the parental protection of home-schooling to the introspective self-exploration of her work.
More importantly, Eilish is the first new artist that Homelander teens have helped make a star.
- Her music is intimate—her microphone technique, especially when her fans use their earbuds, makes her feel as if she’s right next to your ear, leaving middle age dads of her teenage fans asking, “Why is she whispering?”
- Her music is sensitive—she’s willing to share her own struggles with depression and anxiety in songs like “Xanny” in a way that eschews the sexualized glamour typical of female pop stars.
- Her music is inclusive—musically, she defies genres by mixing many different elements. Lyrically, “Wish You Were Gay” treats sexual orientation diversity as a given, not a novelty.
These traits may well be definitive of the songs that become hits as Homelanders increasingly determine popular tastes—because these traits define the generation.
No wonder her music sounds strange to listeners over 25.
HAVE WE SEEN THIS PATTERN BEFORE?
According to Strauss–Howe generational theory, The Homelanders fit the same generational archetype as the Silent Generation, who came between the G.I. (Greatest) Generation and the Boomers. They were too young to fight in World War II, but too old for the Sixties. As kids in the 30s and 40s, their job was to stay out of the way.
In school, they followed the rules.
In the 50s, they were the men in the grey flannel suits.
By the 70s, however, they invented the midlife crisis, trading in their Oldsmobiles for Porsches and creating a divorce epidemic that turned their Gen X children into latch key kids.
But first, they made popular music more intimate and then they made it more inclusive.
In the mid-40s, the Silent Generation evolved popular music tastes away from the Big Bands of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey to the more intimate sounds of small jazz combos and crooning vocalists. The G.I. Generation was still making the music, but unlike the ballroom-filling dance sounds they loved, the Silent Generation preferred a more personal style of music that took full advantage of microphone technology to feel like the singer was singing just to you.
Their Bobby Soxer teenagers made Frank Sinatra a star.
By the early 1950s, their music sounded awfully sappy. Novelty songs were rife. Meanwhile in Memphis, a country bumpkin was playing “race” records for cutting edge teens on the Red Hot ‘n’ Blue show on WHBQ. Soon came a late night radio show on WJW Cleveland that later spread to WINS New York, exposing kids beyond the South to this music.
Suddenly in the summer of ‘55, this music went mainstream when a Rhythm & Blues styled song by a white artist hit #1 thanks to the movie The Blackboard Jungle: Bill Haley & The Comet’s Rock Around The Clock marked the beginning of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. The Silent Generation was now creating their own music by mixing mainstream pop with R&B and Country.
Their inclusive mix of musical styles made Elvis Presley an icon.
TRENDS TO EXPECT
First, we are not predicting Billie Eilish is destined to be the next Sinatra or Elvis. Predicting the future precisely is a losing gamble. World events, technological advancements, economics and even legal battles have shaped what styles of music become popular. As we noted, COVID-19 could suddenly change which songs resonate with listeners.
Broadly speaking, here’s what Generational Music Theory suggests awaits us:
- Millennial Doldrums: Right now, the sound of most hits won’t change much. As the early ‘20s progress, expect grumblings that music was better in the 2010s, while new releases from the biggest artists of the 10s seem increasingly dull. (Who? ME!)? Meanwhile, start looking for the “weird kids” to be into some strange sounding songs, likely on media platforms older adults seldom use. They’ll point you to what’s about to change.
- Homelander Evolution: Around the mid ‘20s, music will develop a more intimate tone. It could be musically more intimate, as in the close-mic’ed “whispering” style of Billie Eilish that annoys her fans’ Gen X dads. It could be lyrically more intimate, reflected in personal openness and emotional vulnerability, such as Eilish sharing her struggles with depression and anxiety. Regardless of how music evolves, the DJ-driven party feeling of the ‘10s biggest hits will be a passé memory. A new Evolutionary cycle, as we outlined in our previous post, has begun.
- Homelander/Millennial Extremes: By the 2030s, this intimate style that seemed refreshing in 2026 will be stale, as people will once again complain that new music sucks these days. There might be a rash of novelty songs, as well as the last splash for aging millennial stars. Imagine a 40-year-old Justin Bieber or a 47-year-old Drake with a song that sounds strangely mature compared to their hits today. Meanwhile, out of view of the mainstream, culturally cutting edge teens will be embracing a radically different style of music, one that may include elements from people or cultures historically excluded from American pop music.
- The Homelander Revolution: Around 2035, that once underground music will suddenly burst onto the mainstream with a brand new style that would sound as weird today as Nirvana would have sounded in 1975. Middle-aged millennial parents will hate it. Today’s infants will find it liberating. It’s now the Homelanders’ turn to start a music revolution, with influences currently unimaginable in pop music.
PROGRAMMING IN 2020
Whether you’re sold on our predictions or not, your goal today is to program to the tastes that are most relevant today. While you should always be looking around the next curve, your music should not be ahead of the curve if your radio station is designed for mainstream appeal.
Keep using your callout research, streaming data, and spin observations to know what your audience wants today.
However, it’s also wise to spend time talking with today’s teenagers, as they will determine tomorrow’s music trends. Find out what they’re listening to, especially artists that aren’t yet popular among adults. Talk about their hopes and fears, so you can understand why certain songs resonate with them. Then, when strange new sounds begin to garner mass appeal, you’ll be among the few that understand why and be ready to pivot your programming accordingly.
One final prediction: Today’s kids will come up with a much better name than Homelanders.