WILLOW makes generational angst look so damn good

An ode to a young royal's career of punk, time travel, and social justice.

FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival/Getty
ByMary Retta

It’s perhaps no surprise that Willow Smith, who dropped her last name in 2020 and now goes by WILLOW, is regarded by many as a Gen Z icon. She has made a name for herself by taking up causes important to her generation, such as climate justice, racial justice, and finding oneself in a scary, unfamiliar world. While 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo was praised earlier this year for making quintessential teen music about drivers licenses and high school breakups, the themes WILLOW captures in her songs — such as socio-political frustration and nostalgia for a simpler time — are arguably a more accurate representation of how young people feel today.

WILLOW has been steadily releasing music since she launched her career at 10 years old with the 2010 hit “Whip My Hair.” On October 31, the singer turns 21. By entering adulthood still immersed in ideas typically associated with young people, she’s making the mindset of Gen Z legible for older audiences. Through her art, WILLOW both embodies Gen Z aesthetics and transcends generational boundaries, using her music to make the dreams and anxieties of young people feel universal and timeless.

On her most recent album, lately I feel EVERYTHING, WILLOW uses punk and rock as a vehicle to express generational angst. Rock and punk have been used as outlets to express frustration about social and political issues for decades, with artists such as Jimi Hendrix spearheading this tradition in the 1970s. A climate activist and proponent of Black Lives Matter, WILLOW uses her music to disrupt the social order, with a unique artistic twist. Though crashing percussion and wailing electric guitar are abound in nearly every song on the album, WILLOW’s lyricism gives her music a softer, yearning feel. This style is perhaps best shown on “G R O W” featuring Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker, which includes an eclectic mix of fast-paced guitars and spiritual, introspective lyrics; it’s a combination not many artists could pull off, but for WILLOW, it feels effortless.

It seems a growing number of Gen Z occupy a cross-section of mindfulness and angst. Not only is pop-punk having a revival for the younger generation, but more and more young people are also identifying as spiritual. This is why “G R O W” resonated so much with Arianna Adeseye, a senior at New York University. “I love that this song is such a good representation of how many Gen Z are so open and honest about our struggles with mental health and desire to become healthier and happier versions of ourselves,” she told Mic. “The song is definitely a message of hope and strength that we harbor.”

Much of WILLOW’s music showcases the headspace of young people today through nostalgia for an old world order that they’re watching crumble before their eyes. In her 2019 hit “Time Machine,” WILLOWS longingly reminisces about a time before social media and the crippling loneliness brought on by late-stage capitalism. Though she rarely explicitly mentions politics in her lyricism, her music is clearly a response to our current socio-political disaster.

On the melancholy “naïve,” from her latest album, WILLOW questions whether she’ll ever be able to enjoy the simple things in life, such as “listening to the rainfall,” without being distracted by reminders of our gross political reality, like “running from the cops,” or her friends getting shot by rubber bullets. When WILLOW screams “I need you to tell me if I’m being naïve,” her pain and desire are palpable in equal measure. Is it naïve to think that racist violence won’t persevere?

Lena Habtu, a high schooler in New York City, says WILLOW’s songs of political and emotional dread resonated with her. “I think we’re all experiencing a collective angst and frustration right now,” she told Mic. “On songs likenaïve and “Gaslight,” it feels like WILLOW is giving everyone, and Black girls especially, a chance to indulge in our more messy feelings, which we often aren’t given space to do.” Giving her listeners space to feel deeply seems to be is a key goal of WILLOW’s art. In her 2019 track “Overthinking IT,” WILLOW proclaims that we must stop overanalyzing our mundane, day-to-day tasks and focus instead on core, universal truths: “We’ve got so much work to do, we’ve got so much love to give.”

By encouraging her listeners to enjoy the simpler things in life, WILLOW’s music plays with the very nature of time itself. Her 2015 track “Wait A Minute” toyed with the idea of time travel. (“I think I left my consciousness in the sixth dimension,” she wails on the chorus.) On “4ever” from her latest album, she waxes poetic on ephemera — be it systems, feelings, or relationships, the listener is left to decide. “I know, you know, we know, this can’t last forever,” she proclaims. In these songs, time doesn’t glide like sands through the hourglass, but in starts and stops: a jump, a pause, a catapult into an altogether new continuum. Through her music, WILLOW boldly posits that perhaps time is not a mechanical, linear thing that can define a generation or a lifetime, but a growing, elastic body that we all live inside together.

Many anxieties for young people revolve around time. Amid climate change and growing political austerity, there is a constant underlying feeling that time is running out and that we won’t have time to accomplish the things we want to in this life. In her music, WILLOW approaches fear about time, not only in her capacity as a young person but in a way that addresses more universal anxieties. “I think that there are a lot of things happening socially and politically, and I think that people just want to scream and growl and express themselves because this time in life and in America and on Earth is not easy, and it's very, very chaotic and sus,” WILLOW told Nylon shortly after the release of her latest album. “I think that people just want to live and have fun and not feel like impending doom is always around the corner.”

Through her thoughtful meditations on nostalgia and political strife, WILLOW has certainly established herself as a voice for the younger generation. As she enters adulthood, her music also serves as a reminder that the needs and anxieties of Gen Z have implications for everyone. In this way, lately I feel EVERYTHING is at once a Gen Z manifesto and a universal script. It’s an acknowledgment of a ticking clock and a promise to turn away from it. Whatever time we have on Earth, we will spend in community, in feeling, and in joy.