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Emma Zander, 25, has a lot to say about her generation. That's why she wrote a song dedicated to misconceptions about millennials, the generation that just can't do anything right.
"They say we're slaves to our screens," Zander sings in the opening lines of "My Generation." The song is meant to combat the royal "they" — we do like our screens, Zander says, but they're not the only thing we enjoy.
"We go so much deeper than what you see online. That's just such a sliver of our lives," Zander tells Refinery29. The video features a dreamy '90s-inspired slumber party where Zander and some friends — a group of girls played by Zander's real life friends — have some slightly muted fun. (No one smiles in the video, per Zander's directions.) The girls do their makeup, eat In-N-Out, and dance to the sounds of a blue boombox.
As part of the video rollout, Zander dressed four dolls as the women from the video, little recreations of the outfits and styling that appear onscreen. That, too, is part of the millennial generation: multi-hyphenates, we're all trying to make this work as creatively as we can. Ahead of the release of the "My Generation" video, Refinery29 spoke to Zander about her dolls, her musical theater background, and the meaning of In-N-Out.
Refinery29: You trained at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts for musical theater. How did you make your way to pop music?
Emma Zander: "I was super into musical theater but I still was always listening to pop. My whole life, really. That's where musical theater was going anyway. I kind of got away with being more of a pop singer in that world. But I really was just more interested in writing my own music than singing other people's words. Ultimately, that just got me into songwriting. I guess that I have a natural kind of pop sensibility. That's what I gravitate towards."
What made you want to write about your generation?
"It's funny because if you listen to the lyrics, they're actually pretty dark. Even though the song sounds kind of happy. I was just kind of playing with what it means to be young right now. Kind of the closeness between self-obsession, which is so fueled by Instagram and selfies, and we're just constantly looking at our phones with front-facing cameras. And self-awareness — being aware of that and admitting it and kind of loving it. There are just so many misconceptions about millennials. I really wanted to paint a picture of, 'Okay, yeah, we take selfies all day, but that's not exactly who we really are.'"
What's the biggest misconception the elder generations have about millennials?
"I think that with Instagram, it can look like — certainly, if you looked at my Instagram, it's all pictures of me. I think that that could paint a certain picture about who I am and what I value. I would say that the biggest misconception is that that's who we are. I think [Instagram is] a fun, small part of who we are. But I don't think it's an accurate representation of everything that's going on."
I find it funny that the song is about millennials, and it literally begins with a mix CD being put inside a boombox. That's so very early '00s.
"Yes! All the nostalgia was super intentional. It's funny because I was reading all these marketing reports, you know, 'How do we market towards millennials?' And all these statistics and research said that millennials are the most nostalgic generation. We're constantly doing throwbacks and buying records and buying Polaroid cameras. Nostalgia's just such a big part of our identity right now."
Why did you decide to place this video at a slumber party?
"I first had the idea of the mirrors. And the director and I — my friend from NYU directed it, Daniel Russell — we were talking about, okay, how do we imply selfies without anyone actually getting out their phone and being lame and too literal? So, we had the idea for the mirrors.
I was like, 'I just want the girls to be looking into their mirrors, super-bored.' I even gave them the direction not to smile the entire video. So I feel like the slumber party was perfect stage for the mirrors and that kind of fun, narcissistic play on the selfie and how we spend our time together right now."
What's the purpose of In-N-Out in the video?
"In-N-Out has randomly appeared in my last two videos. I don't even really like it that much. I just think it's such a powerful and yet cool symbol. I'm obsessed with the branding of it and what it means in pop culture."
Well, what does it mean in pop culture?
"It's just such a symbol of California. I just wanted to give [the video] that California feel."
How do you feel like musical theater has influenced your pop music?
"Musical theater is all about storytelling. And so much of the writing and the performances are really about the stories that people are conveying. And I really always want to lyrically challenge myself to tell a story and to make a statement. I think the musical theater also just taught me a lot of discipline. It was really intense. We had these twelve hour days in a conservatory setting. I don't think anything I've done has been as hard as that. I think musical theater taught me the discipline of music and the lyricism of work."
Why include a set of dolls alongside the video?
"I thought it would be fun to make barbies of all the girls in the video. I found this girl who designs tiny clothes. And so she made little replica Barbies of each girl in the video. They're not exactly Barbies — they're off-brand.
The dolls were really just feeding into the nostalgic, slumber party, pixie, Lisa Frank-inspired '90s nostalgia. And I really wanted a lot of the marketing and stuff to be centered around the girls. Because, ultimately, I didn't want the video to be about me. I wanted it to be about a productive group of women and representing more women than myself."
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch the video for "My Generation," below.