Can You Age Out of Pop Culture?

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Image: Emmanuel Hapsis

From time to time, I remember with surprise that I'm not 16. While I'm not concerned about getting older (see: Beatrix Ost), I do find the process full of nuance and surprise, and I want to pay attention. We age so slowly that we simply don't notice it's happening most of the time, only stopping to observe that friends, parents, and celebrities are all getting older, and so perhaps we are as well.

As a teenager, I swore I'd never be one of those terrible adults who believes it's their generation who wrote the best books and played the best music. How depressing (and boring)! At age 38, I've kept that oath going strong. Contemporary culture is full of awesomeness (Kelly Lee Owens! 2 Dope Queens! Twitter as a breaking news sourceThe black heart emoji! The Handmaid's Tale!) Still, I'm beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that it's definitely possible to age out of pop culture. And if it is, should we resist or simply depart gracefully?

Society relentlessly reinforces the notion that at a certain age we begin to find pop culture irrelevant (and pop culture feels the same way about us). So, when I must google "what does smh stand for?" or my 30-year-old friends can find gifs faster than me, or I still don't like Snapchat, I've taken to exclaiming, "I'm getting old!" And of course I am.

I'm definitely comforted by the fact that the very idea of pop culture has been a little hazy and fickle from the get-go.  Keith Anderson writes in The New York Times, "By and large, both entertainment and art appeal to niches, cultural tribes that range in size from tiny to smallish." The teenage years and early 20s are spent in actively seeking our niche, using what we're into and what we know in order to create and define a self that is still unformed, confusing and mysterious to us in many ways.


The culture that we love and consume reflects who we are and what we value. We amass a tapestry of interests and preferences in order to understand and explain ourselves. Looking back, though, I also wonder if we cling more tightly to those things when we are younger. Hence, the brilliant fanaticism of teen aesthetics.

Being young is wonderful and fun in countless ways. But it's also difficult and unmooring. I'm convinced that each era of our life holds an inexplicably different sort of texture within the experience. The books, movies, music, art, television, and technology that we're spending time with are an essential part of that texture.

Notions of youth and age, relevance and irrelevance, Generation X and our beloved (and rapidly aging) Millennials have always been about marketing anyway. It's important to separate ourselves from that type of cynicism and limitation, to find what we love and relish it.

Is the fear of aging actually a fear of losing our connection to the world? Rather than viewing age as something that inevitably renders us uncool, perhaps as we get older we can appreciate that a certain confidence, insight, and open-mindedness sets in, if we let it.

I like things now that I never would've liked in my teens or 20s. My tastes have softened, diversified, and deepened tremendously. My patience is infinitely more practiced. My critical thinking is definitely a tad sharper. I have a desire to understand context, challenge myself, and be eclectic. My curiosity is more informed, but no less present. I still want to hear the newest bands and cultivate my latest guilty pleasures. On top of all that, I have 38 years of looking, listening, and thinking that enriches my experience of it all.

Back in 2015, Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift's album, 1989. In this interesting piece discussing the two albums, Todd VanDerWerff notes, "If Swift's 1989 is the album of someone just about to turn 25, is it any surprise that Adams just entered his 40s?" I don't unequivocally adore Adams's covers or anything (cough cough), and there was never a time I got so into a Taylor Swift song I almost drove my friends off the road (ahem). I'm fascinated by how different the exact same words can be when sung from a different vantage point in life.

In M Train, Patti Smith, who writes gorgeously of how time passes and how we age, tells us:

"I believe I am still the same person; no amount of change in the world can change that...I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen."

I actually started working on the idea for this article two years ago. When I recently came back to my draft, I was an entirely different person. The entire article changed. I had two years worth of different things to say. The real beauty of a deep and lasting engagement with our culture and with ourselves is the evolution of all involved.