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TikTok asks: Is Nirvana considered an 'oldie'? Experts say it's all about the radio.

Commenters went ballistic after a TikTok user called Nirvana's 1991 song "Something in the Way" an "oldie."
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Some millennials and members of Generation X on TikTok are feeling angst after a debate about whether Nirvana is classified as an "oldie" broke out on the app.

That question has launched TikTok into a tizzy over how the genre of oldies is defined by Generation Z.

The debate began after user Ari Elkins, 21, posted a TikTok on April 4 as part of a series he titled "Oldies You Should Know." In the first installment, which has been viewed more than 2.8 million times, Elkins chose the song "Something in the Way," off the band's landmark 1991 album, "Nevermind."

"I totally understand why a Gen Z TikToker would classify Nirvana as an oldie because that person doesn’t have a real sense of what that term used to mean," said Jack Hamilton, associate professor of media studies and American studies at the University of Virginia.

Although experts understood why Elkins might think of Nirvana as an oldie, the commenters went ballistic.

"bro, this ain't an oldie bro," one person wrote.

"Oldies?????" another posted.

"oldies bro. really. it came out in 1991," someone else commented.

Many noted that the song has had a resurgence in popularity because of its use in the movie "The Batman" and claimed Elkins only knew the song because of the film.

"I personally have no negative connotation to when a track came out — a good song is a good song — period," Elkins said in an Instagram message to NBC News. "I’m 21 and think others my age should know more Nirvana songs other than just 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'"

The debate over what is and isn't an oldie can be attributed to one major factor, experts said: the radio.

"The word 'oldies' is part of a radio format that emerged out of the classic rock format," said Drew Nobile, associate professor of music theory at the University of Oregon. "In the 1990s, oldies radio started as kind of an answer to classic rock radio."

Hamilton's and Nobile's examples of which artists appeared on oldies radio included Chuck Berry, The Shirelles and The Ronettes. The radio term "oldies" refers to this time in music history and isn't a sliding term to be applied to a certain era gone by, Nobile explained.

"It's not like in the 1960s, music from the 1930s was considered classic and music from the 1910s was considered oldies," Nobile said.

How to define an oldie

Although bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam — two of the most famous bands from the grunge era in the 1990s — have made their way to classic rock radio stations, experts argued that an oldie is typically defined by the time period of the late 1950s through the 1960s.

"A lot of us older people grew up with a very clear definition of oldie ... because it was a clearly defined era that was covered by those stations," Hamilton said.

A group like Nirvana, though it may be considered "old" to Zoomers, "doesn’t jibe with people’s memories of that specific radio format," he added.

Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music also play a role in how some young people define what is and isn't an oldie.

“Younger people don’t listen to the radio as much anymore. There’s less of a sort of feeling of importance of how radio is organized,” Hamilton said. “In the age of Spotify and streaming, a lot of these genre distinctions have become kind of muddied.”

Hamilton said when young people listen to music on streaming services, they don’t have the context of what radio stations often classified as oldies and, therefore, have begun to create their own definition of the term. Nobile said while that may be true, young people at this point in history have access to nearly every catalogue of music and still listen to music from the genres well before their time; they just don't distinguish them the same way their predecessors did.

“They’re probably going to use ‘oldies’ in a much more loose way because they don’t listen to oldies radio,” Nobile said, adding that they “know their history in a way that teenagers in the 1970s didn't.”

Gen Z continues to antagonize millennials

This is far from the first time a debate between millennials and Gen Z has broken out over music. Millennials frequently rail against any insinuation that pop culture from their youth is considered "old," and Gen Zers have been known to capitalize on this sensitivity.

Some Zoomers on TikTok have posted content in which they intentionally act obtuse, saying they don't know songs from the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to "rage bait" older users into engaging with their content.

This style of posting has helped some garner millions of views and thousands of clicks, propelling an account's popularity even if the engagement with the account mostly skews negative.

However, Elkins said he was simply trying to spread love and good music — not rage bait for millennials.

“People thinking that something being called an ‘oldie’ is a bad thing is probably the bigger issue, but I digress,” Elkins said.

Nobile argued that the debate over Nirvana's status as an oldie isn't just about millennials fearing the reaper as they grow older; it's also about the place the band has assumed in music history.

"I think it's this idea that there is an erasure of history if you call Nirvana an 'oldie,' because there's nothing older than an oldie," Nobile said. "So we're like, 'No, there's actually this whole 30-plus years of history before that. If you think about the whole history of rock, Nirvana's not that old.'"

Still, Hamilton warned that if millennials want to seem hip, they should avoid chastising the younger generation over the way they classify music.

"It's kind of funny because scolding a young person for not being appropriately reverent of the past is like the quintessential old person activity," he said.