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How Gen Z Is Bringing Golden Oldies Back to Life

by Izzi Sneider and Emma Fecko

Although covered ad nauseum, Gen Z’s penchant for nostalgia knows no bounds. It has permeated into the modern day streaming experience of music and TV. Whether it’s Kate Bush becoming the de facto breakout star of the latest season of Stranger Things or Fleetwood Mac receiving a renewed 15 seconds of fame across socials thanks to a viral cranberry juice drinker, Gen Zers are increasingly interacting with music conceived years before they were. According to a recent study, music from the ’90s is currently the most popular of any decade and investors are scooping up the catalogs of older musicians.

This rediscovery of Golden Oldies provides myriad opportunities, both for artists benefitting from a revived career (Bush received her first UK number one single—37 years after its initial release—because of the streaming bump) and brands gaining insight into the seemingly infallible nostalgiacore trend.

Golden Oldies Gain Traction

Soundtracks have long been responsible for introducing people to new music. While movies have helped make songs “iconic” by tying them to unforgettable scenes, music from past decades used in recent shows and movies specifically resonates with Gen Z. After Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” appeared in season four of Stranger Things, the song soared to the top of the charts; became one of the most streamed songs on Spotify and Apple Music; and went viral across social media platforms. How did a song released in 1985 become the song of the summer in 2022?

This success isn’t unique to Kate Bush—a wide array of Gen X and Boomer artists are getting a new glimpse of virality after appearing in movies and shows. After Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” was used in The Batman, the song rose on the Billboard charts and streams on Spotify increased by 734%. And let’s not forget how HBO’s Euphoria introduced its mostly Gen Z audience to formerly “uncool” artists like Steely Dan.

The intersection of the next gen’s insatiable thirst for nostalgia and the opportunity to hear older music in a new context—scoring their favorite show rather than their dad playing a CD in the car—has created a space where older music can enjoy a new life, even if that space consists of ABBA choreographed dance videos or Kate Bush drill remixes.

Visual Branding in the Streaming Space

Gone are the days when we had to go to a store to pick up physical copies of new releases. The convenience of streaming has, however, come at the expense of album design. Now cover art is relegated to a smattering of pixels on our phones. The experience of unwrapping a CD or vinyl, flipping through the booklet or poring over the backside, has largely been lost. Disappearing with it is the opportunity for world-building and discovery, which BTS photos, liner notes and album bios provide.

Spotify’s Canvas feature, and to a lesser extent Apple Music’s animated album covers, are helping listeners regain many of those missing pieces of a physical release by offering a richer digital experience. This feature gives visibility to designers and offers artists a way to world-build and contextualize songs visually, which the UX design of streaming platforms previously didn’t allow.

Canvases aren't just an effective way to reintroduce lost visual elements into the listening experience—these short, looped videos are a new addition to the music-listening experience with ample potential. While it’s going to take some time for artists and labels to learn how to fully utilize Canvases to their benefit, the feature is already hugely successful in expanding user engagement for artists. These visual spaces could be an effective tool in recontextualizing older artists for a new generation.

According to Spotify, songs with Canvases are 200% more likely to be shared on #client Instagram, stating that “by simply enabling fans to share your Canvas with their friends, you can reach vast new audiences on the strength of your visuals. Don’t forget, music is not just an auditory format anymore.” Plus, Canvases are a great way to flex your music taste on your Instagram stories.

The Increasingly Interactive Music Listening Experience

Once constituting a one-way relationship, the way we listen to music has become increasingly interactive. Social today is explicitly designed to allow users to remix and recontextualize sounds. It has created the opportunity for anyone with a smartphone to become a content creator, and today, music is at the forefront of that creation.

Users are giving music a completely new life in a context divorced from the song’s original intent. Often, it’s not even the chorus or most recognizable part of a song that goes viral. Users will clip a specific lyric or melody that best fits the purpose of the content or can be used as a punchline for their video. That section of song then gets reused over and over by other creators. The song’s popularity becomes less about the merit of the song, and more about how the song can be utilized to illustrate a joke or meme format. In 2021, “You’re the One” by Greta Van Fleet went viral online because of a trend where people mimicked the lead singer’s vocal performance. Despite the relentless mocking, streams for the song jumped 508%. When a video format using an edited version of “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond started trending online in 2020, 125 thousand videos were made using the sound. These trends effectively reintroduce Boomer musical icons in a context that resonates with the ultra-online Gen Zer.

While labels are likely funding extensive social campaigns, the discovery and promotion of new music is inherently in the hands of users and creators on the platform. No longer do people have to rely on iTunes or curated playlists to discover new music, often limiting themselves to artists similar to what they last heard. A funny meme format, a goofy remix or intricate dance choreography all effectively expedite the popularity of songs for both undiscovered and acclaimed artists.

In-app features have simplified song discovery, eliminating any work previously undertaken by audiences; long gone are the days of Shazam or trudging through the credits to identify a song from a soundtrack. With the ease in which social media makes music discovery, young people are getting introduced to music from previous generations that no longer appears in popular new music playlists on streaming platforms. The tinge of nostalgia that coats music from the past often resonates with Gen Z as well, making the opportunity to rediscover oldies extremely poignant.

Social media provides the perfect platform for a plethora of Gen Z-led music trends to coalesce. Today, songs migrate from shows and movies to “Get Ready with Mes” and “Storytimes” to the top of Billboard charts. And the desire for a more visual experience within digital listening is solved by user participation. In an age when nostalgiacore shows no signs of slowing down, the pipeline to chart-topping popularity has effectively evolved into an unprecedentedly predictable process.