Gen Z's gateway cultural education in Stranger Things

Gen Zs are discovering the delights of Kate Bush through coming-of-age sci-fi hit Stranger Things, and cultural gatekeepers are outraged. But they shouldn't get in such a tizzy. Classic art has always been recontextualised by contemporary pop culture

Feature by Lucy Fitzgerald | 06 Jun 2022
  • Stranger Things

“One of the great things about art is, no matter what the circumstances are … the art is always going to be there essentially unchanged, ready for you, waiting for you, to be ready to receive it” – Wesley Morris

In the week since season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things dropped, Kate Bush’s haunting 1985 masterpiece Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) has climbed the transatlantic charts. Topping iTunes and Spotify and now being reserviced for radio play, its triumphant mainstream renaissance is thanks to the popular sci-fi drama prominently featuring it in multiple episodes and a new generation of kids discovering its glory. But such enthusiasm from Gen Zs immediately sparked an intense online reaction, with older Twitter users disapproving of commercial titan Netflix, in 2022, being the entry point for so many into Bush’s illustrious and dynamic catalogue. But why stir up such a gatekeeping, pointlessly snobbish response? At the end of the day, does it really matter where these young people accessed the art from?

In fact, a lot of recent media directed at the teenage/young adult demographic is getting increasingly referential to iconic cultural figures and works, from the Gossip Girl reboot casually praising the magnum opus of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai to Riverdale imitating The Godfather and neo-noir classic Chinatown ("Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” becoming “Forget it, Jughead. It’s Riverdale”).

It is easy to dismiss this trend: it's screenwriters flexing their bank of cultural references without actually serving the plot; it sounds verbose and pretentious when it's coming out of a teenage character’s mouth; and ultimately it's asking to be mockingly memed. And it is even easier to dismiss the young viewers who then eagerly relay such new-found cultural references. But it is important to choose meaning over mockery, because really, Riverdale dropping Truman Capote quotes on the regular is actually useful. The literary references in the baby Fifty Shades movies, the After trilogy, and Netflix thriller YOU are productive beyond their momentary name drop. They don’t exist in a vacuum; young people majorly benefit from them. They act as gateway introductions, function as a wellspring of culture, giving points of access to art that predates the young viewers consuming it, and significantly, they are presented through a modern framework. Absorbed at a formative age, this is serious connective tissue for exploring and establishing identity through art. So why shun their fresh interest? After all, what is healthier than potentiating curiosity in young people?

The imperious reaction to Bush’s resurgence is a somewhat elitist one. Who cares if some kids had no clue who Kate Bush was until last week? They are interested now, and widened accessibility is never a bad thing. Surely, if you believe in the quality of something so passionately, you want it to live on, as posterity is owed its mastery too. 

This condescending attitude towards young people being excited about something is not only annoying but completely unfair. Today, there is no wholly prescriptive or organic way to consume culture. In the digital age, it will continue to be increasingly fragmented (shoutout to TikTok) so we should be grateful that Kate Bush’s soundtracking in this instance was so tastefully executed; integral to the plot, its poignant placement complemented the emotional stakes and, hardly an anachronistic imposition with Stranger Things being set in the 80s, the song’s full evocative shine remained intact.

Young people navigating culture today are totally overstimulated – the sensory overload and volume of content to consume is inordinate. So, if a couple of songs or films, no matter how famous and beloved, fall through the cracks, that is okay (remember when, in 2019, Billie Eilish, then 17, was shamed for not knowing who 70s rock group Van Halen were? Ridiculous). The obvious impossibility of knowing everything must be acknowledged – everyone has to do some culture catch-up at some point. To indulge the logic of the contrarians in question, we will always meet inconsistency. For example, I doubt anyone who levels this attack has recognised every sample in every song they’ve ever heard. Art has always involved recontextualising and reimagining what came before.

Furthermore, I believe it does not matter how cheesy or “lamestream” the context of a first experience of a respected piece of art is. As a Zoomer consumer myself, it was Harry Styles who properly introduced me to Fleetwood Mac, after integrating his cover of The Chain into his regular setlist. It was The 1975 who made me aware of Frederico Fellini with imagery in one of their music videos. An extremely mediocre Netflix teen dance movie (Work It) with a cast of C-list, former Disney stars introduced me to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the seminal text of German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche. Disney Pixar’s Cars presented me with a spectrum of country legends, from James Taylor to – stay with me on this – Rascal Flatts. Another personal launch pad, dare I say pedagogy at its peak, was Glee covers, baby. The show’s obnoxious oeuvre genuinely gave me an expansive education on the modern American songbook. Not the most sophisticated examples, I know, but through cringe comes clarity. May we all swim through a cultural estuary, where the lowbrow tide meets the highbrow stream.

Indeed, there can be tremendous value in retrospective learning through pop culture. For example, while not knowing anything about The Good Friday Agreement is a stinging reflection on the deliberate gaps in the British school curriculum, learning of its detail via Channel 4’s Derry Girls is pretty damn productive.

Ultimately, of course, it is natural to wonder how someone might have missed such a ubiquitous product of the zeitgeist, but it does not warrant condemnation. The redundancy of the negative online reaction to Gen Z discovering classic cultural texts through modern media is clear: it is a vain attack. After all, isn’t a stamp of approval from the youth a good thing? It means your tastes are still relevant and cool! You are not yet obsolete! I for one know that if in 37 years from now the kids are just discovering the merit of Doja Cat, I will champion their curiosity, nourish their interest, and share in their joy.

Stranger Things Season 4 is currently streaming on Netflix