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Gen Z Kids Still Wanna Fight [dun-dun] for Their Right [da-dun] to Paaaaaaartayyy

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Three young men sit close on a couch, gesturing wildly and shouting.
The Beastie Boys in their classic 1986 video, ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).’

This week, as we near the end of 2022, the writers and editors of KQED Arts & Culture are reflecting on One Beautiful Thing from the year. Here, among a year that saw our tactile relationship to music further deteriorating, writer Rae Alexandra finds joy in a chance encounter affirming that certain icons haven’t been forgotten.

In August, I was strolling the packed Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with a friend when a trio of teens suddenly caught my eye. Casually walking in the opposite direction, the boys, complete strangers to me, were instantly recognizable.

One kid wore a red baseball cap and red shirt with the word “Stuyvesant” on it. The second had scruffy black hair and (despite the very hot weather) sported a black leather jacket over a white T-shirt. The third kid had on blue double denim paired with a FILA logo shirt, a baseball cap, and a VW chain hanging around his neck. The words leapt out of my mouth before I’d had a chance to even think about them. “It’s the Beastie Boys!” I yelled across the boardwalk.

All three boys heard me and immediately erupted into the kind of undiluted glee that only comes when someone finally recognizes your brilliance for the first time. Once they’d calmed down a bit, I asked if I could take their photo for posterity. The trio happily obliged, then went on their way, excitedly chatting about what had just happened.

Three teenage boys huddle together, smiling broadly, while dressed like the Beastie Boys.
The super-rad teens who walked around Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk dressed like 1986 Beastie Boys for no reason. (Rae Alexandra)

I didn’t ask these goofy, incredibly cool kids their names. I didn’t ask them any questions. We simply shared a moment of mutual respect. I respected them for their musical knowledge and attention to detail; they respected that I recognized their point of reference. I suspect our brief exchange was far more important to me, however, than it was to them.

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I was 8 years old when the music video for “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” — the source of the Santa Cruz teenagers’ outfits — was released. The Beastie Boys went on to soundtrack most of my formative years. I spent the mid-’90s cultivating a wardrobe almost entirely based on the band’s “So What’cha Want” video. In 1996, when Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill starting dating the Beasties’ Ad Rock, it absolved me of the feminist guilt that had plagued me for still appreciating their earliest records. In college, I noticed that the Beastie Boys were the great leveler — the one thing the punk rock kids, the hip-hop kids, the skater kids and the stoner kids could all agree on.

Back then, truly loving a band was hard work. You had to own physical copies of their records (including imports) in order to listen to them. Sometimes you had to order these from the record store, or a mail-order catalog, and sometimes that took over a month. You had to keep a blank tape in the VCR at all times if you wanted to watch your favorite videos on demand later. In the pre-internet age, I remember that coming by Beastie Boys merch — let alone a copy of Grand Royal, the band’s own fanzine — required patience, persistence and a fair amount of postage. But there was joy in the hunt, and unbelievable satisfaction in finally getting your hands on what you’d wanted.

Truthfully, I’ve spent years now feeling bad for Gen Z and their relationship with music. When you have every song in the history of the world in your pocket, the joy of discovery is reduced. The tactile joys of the record store are absent. The price of concert tickets is now astronomically high in part because physical album sales figures are so low — which results in bands being way less physically accessible. Worst of all, with streaming services’ insistence on autoplay, songs are often listened to by algorithm, and not by complete album as the artist originally intended. When the hunt is gone, I’ve long worried, the rewards are fleeting.

So the teenaged Beastie Boys of Santa Cruz carried some important lessons for 44-year-old me. They taught me that, despite having all the musical options in the world, Gen Z kids still know a Really Great Anthem when they hear it. They let me know that young energy once spent on hunting for music and merch hasn’t disappeared; it’s merely transformed into new forms of dedication. (Like, I don’t know, spending Monday afternoon dressed up like a band most of your friends haven’t even heard of.)

My boardwalk Beasties encounter also taught me that the Beastie Boys are still a great leveler — and that the spirit of teen rebellion transcends generational barriers. More than anything, these teens let me know that, while they may not do music fandom exactly how we did it, the Gen Z kids are just fine.

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