Last month at Coachella, the Zoomers won.
After a baffling, chaotic performance by millennial icon Frank Ocean, the reclusive superstar pulled out of the festival's second weekend to be replaced as Sunday night headliner by Blink-182. The soft, sensitive alt-R&B of the previous generation was replaced by a legacy act somehow adored by Gen Z.
Much has been made over Zoomers' affinity for 20-year-old guitar music, from pop-punk to nu-metal — and as the success of Olivia Rodrigo shows, they're also making it themselves. Even more internet ink has been spilled over hyperpop, a term possibly invented by Spotify to compress everything from PC Music to Skrillex to Caroline Polachek into one highly marketable genre — or perhaps to ghettoize the not-ready-for-primetime players of the pop landscape — that has already been declared dead.
Ocean's bizarre letdown of a comeback show felt like a watershed moment. To fans and fellow artists, he represented that rare thing: someone capable of weathering the music industry without compromising his artistry. He was the guy who found a way to snub the record companies, wait years between albums, never tour, and still be successful and universally beloved.
And now all that mystique has gone away, drowned out by the sweet strains of "Family Reunion."
So what is the contemporary answer to Frank Ocean? What uncompromising artist can emerge in a world where compromise is all one can do, where follow counts are life and integrity is death?
There are 100 answers, and they're all gecs.
In a few years, we may come to find the impact of 100 gecs' 2019 album, 1000 gecs, to be similar to that of Nevermind. Upon release, the album by Laura Les and Dylan Brady was truly like nothing else out there, "a stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks, you-have-to-pay-attention moment," industry veteran Craig Kallman, who signed the band to Atlantic Records, told the New York Times earlier this year. The limitless energy, the catchy, so-dumb-they're-brilliant lyrics like "Stupid horse/I just fell out of the Porsche," the trashy, ska-sampling production, all of it cohered into what I indeed considered the best album of the year. A record so bold and different that Nine Inch Nails brought them on tour, and Spotify started a dumbass playlist to capitalize on it.
Les and Brady, clearly acclimated to the everything-is-over-in-five-minutes culture of TikTok microtrends and milliseconds-long attention spans, are smart enough to know you can't do the same thing twice. There are not-so-subtle differences between the two records. The vocals are not pitched up as much. There is a pronounced emphasis on the guitars, from blistering opener "Dumbest Girl Alive" to single "Doritos & Fritos," which is so alt-rock it feels like it was plucked straight out of the FLCL soundtrack. And yet it still feels authentically geccy. The absurd, corny-bordering-on-novelty lyrics are still there. The energy is still there. It's all right there in the title: you're getting 9,000 more gecs than the last time.
However, what lends to the album's success is that it's just good in a way that goes beyond generational distinctions. I am 28 years old. I have no business trying to gaze into the crystal ball of marketing clairvoyance to determine why people five to ten years younger than me find guitars and crunchy digital distortion so thrilling. I don't even engage with my generation's music; I'm too busy surfing Discogs for vintage jungle and '70s Brazilian disco-pop. I feel ridiculous trying to engage with something so profoundly defined as "Zoomer music," but that's countered by the fact that I feel even more ridiculous about feeling ridiculous about it because it's damn good. It's good on its own terms and doesn't require validation by the fact that kids like it.
I laughed out loud when the record-scratching entered on nu-metal pastiche "Billy Knows Jamie" and at the TikTok text-to-speech refrain of "One Million Dollars." I also felt legitimately impressed by their use of the sleng teng riddim, an iconic signature of Jamaican dancehall, on "The Most Wanted Person in the United States," because it felt like an Easter egg for a music nerd like myself to find — as if the duo wrote it purposely for me. I felt even more gratified when they repeated the "Pick it up!" ska sample from "Stupid Horse" on that song's unofficial sequel, "I Got My Tooth Removed." Even on a major-label debut, the duo feels as though it's operating in its own dimension with its own rules, a bit beyond the VRChat chaos of their last album but not quite approaching the Fortnite sheen of its hyperpop compatriots. It feels like 100 gecs are building something utterly unique, still like they're playing the game by their own rules, despite literally selling out.
Which brings us back to Frank.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter that he seems to have unceremoniously ended his — and his generation's — time in the sun of cultural relevance. It doesn't matter that 100 gecs, Blink-182, and Olivia Rodrigo are rulers of the roost. Their time will come eventually as well. To paraphrase a great film, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, we will all be equal a hundred years from now, and the music will remain if it's truly great.
Jai Paul is forever, though.
100 gecs. With Machine Girl. 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $59 via ticketmaster.com.