It’s a Good Thing Billie Eilish Had No Clue Who Van Halen Is

Our endless access to information makes it easy to forget — she wasn’t there

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Intergenerational mockery has become something of a pastime — this past Thanksgiving weekend brought more.

The latest example came after late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel tried to test 17-year-old singer Billie Eilish on her pop culture knowledge from his generation. Focusing on 1984, the year he turned 17, Kimmel asks Eilish, “Can you name a Van Halen?”

Her response: “Who?”

Thousands of Twitter takes and a full news cycle later, the general opinion seems to be that it’s okay for Eilish to have been unaware of Van Halen — especially when, as many pointed out, Eddie Van Halen himself barely listens to any music at all.

But coming on the heels of “OK Boomer,” the flippant and dismissive Generation Z retort to adults who openly condescend to them, Eilish’s ignorance felt like another salvo in an intergenerational war. It might be bad enough that the kids dismiss adults, but for older generations to mock their cultural reference points? That’s not just rude, it feels nearly impossible.

In the past, a youthful unfamiliarity with cultural touchstones of previous generations was unremarkable. It’s what has led elders to pass down wisdom for centuries, or inspired countless stories that began with the phrase, “when I was your age.” But with the maze of infinite streaming services, endless film and TV reboots and remakes, and the sheer vastness of online informational pathways, cultural content spans generations. Nothing ever really feels out-of-date. In fact, thanks to technology, it’s not media that’s considered “before your time,” but the medium.

Case in point: Back in January (and again in May) another video circulated widely in which two teenage boys are given four minutes to place a phone call using a rotary phone. In the video, the two boys ask questions aloud like “how do I restart?” and struggle to figure out how far around to turn the dial for each digit.

Unlike with Eilish’s question on Van Halen, the video didn’t spark an uproar. Instead, it garnered a kind of gleeful nostalgia: amusement at the fact that something as mundane and tedious as a rotary phone could become, thanks to the hyperspeed of technological development, as wondrous as an artifact pulled from a Pharaoh’s tomb in the space of just two decades.

For young people in particular, it creates an expectation of infinite consciousness, total awareness, or constant presence — to always be there.

Technology does weird things to our sense of time. In the middle of one night in early November, mobile phone users in the U.S. suddenly received texts that had been sent, but never received, on Valentine’s Day. Some reported getting texts from ex-partners. One woman told the New York Times she’d received a message from her husband, currently stationed at sea with the Navy, that he was on his way home — he wasn’t. As it turned out, a server owned by Syniverse, which “connects operators and devices behind the scenes” failed on February 14. When it reactivated, the messages it had stored were sent.

The Valentine’s Day text episode felt unique, but the same distortion of time occurs each time we open our social media apps and find what the algorithms have determined might be relevant to us. Frequently, the posts we see are a day or two old — basically archeological. Each tweak of the background coding sparks fresh unrest from users incapable of deciphering not just where they are in their timeline, but when.

If social media has already created context collapse, a term academics apply to our ability to reach multiple audiences at once through technology, as opposed to the tailored groups we are able to reach face-to-face, then our access to an endless expanse of knowledge create a different kind of contextual collapse — a chronological one.

Gone are the days that you just had to be there. Now, you can stream Friends, Seinfeld, or Full House at any time, or listen to the major records of every decade. Ironically, this limitlessness can be immobilizing. For young people in particular, it creates an expectation of infinite consciousness, total awareness, or constant presence — to always be there. Binging knowledge from a computer is like binging anything online: totally overwhelming, not to mention time-bending. It’s much easier and more pleasant to just have someone older tell you stuff.

So, we should note Billie Eilish’s simple “who?” not just for its ignorance, but because it deftly refutes this bizarre time collapse. It reasserts time’s boundaries and in so doing provides a kind of release from the uninterrupted stream of information. It’s a simple reminder that she wasn’t there.


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