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What Gaga & Minaj's Alter-Egos Say About the Shape-Shifting Millennial Generation

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Jo Calderone's moment in the spotlight at the MTV Video Music Awards was more than just another iteration of Gaga's creativity. Likewise, Nicki Minaj's collection of alter-egos bears more significance than just sheer entertainment. And while rapper Kreayshawn's refusal to identify with just one particular race is often dismissed as attention-seeking, it actually may reflect something deeper. These artists exhibit an amplified version of something MTV is seeing emerge across the Millennial generation at large: the ongoing riffing and remixing of identity, the shape-shifting of self and the new status-quo of operating in a "version" of oneself... a phenomenon MTV has coined "Try-Dentity."

Emerging adults have always experimented with identity on a surface level via the clothes they wear, the cliques they choose, the music they listen to... it's all part of the grand artistic experiment called "Who am I?" But this generation has increasingly been experimenting with, or "trying on," deeper aspects to identity -- such as race, religion and sexuality -- and is more comfortable with operating in a fluid, impermanent state of self.

MTV sees an increasing number of youth as non-committal about their sexual preference, identifying with inherently transient labels like "questioning" or "bi-curious." Others might choose to reject census definitions of race, instead creating their own racial identity, such as "Mexipino." And many are engaging in "spiritual sampling" instead of committing to an organized religion -- according to a study by LifeWay Christian Resources, 72% of Millennials are "more spiritual than religious." To touch on a few of these themes...

  • Sexuality Pending: For many Millennials, discovering sexuality is viewed as more of a journey or evolution rather than a permanent destination. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one in six females 20-24 has had a same sex experience, and they've seen peers and celebrities fluctuate between same and opposite sex partners. Kreayshawn sometimes explains her sexuality with an open-ended "I like people who like me;" other times, she claims to be asexual. Like Kreayshawn, many young adults reject existing labels of gay or straight, identifying with a whole host of new options including "gender non-conforming," "androgynous" "pansexual" or "genderqueer."
  • "None of the above": According to Pew, about 2 in 5 Millennials consider themselves to be a race other than "non-Hispanic white," making this the most diverse generation in history. Not surprisingly, they've found that the census-type classifications fashioned by more homogeneous generations simply don't work. MTV hears consistently in research that many youth today are frustrated by monolithic descriptions of their race, noting they hate to be "classified" (they'll check off either multiple boxes on the Census or none at all.) The number of multiracial clubs, forums, and festivals has exploded on college campuses, as these organizations claim to provide a neutral & safe space for young people to explore various facets to their racial identity, without the pressure to "commit."
  • Spiritual Sampling: In the past, religion seemed a much more black and white state of affairs; you were "born and raised a____" (filling in the blank). Today, it's something Millennials can research online and discover what religion or elements of a religion suit them best. Some call it "Starbucks Spirituality" -- the ability to customize one's religion like a latte (e.g. Catholic with a shot of Buddhism). Religion isn't a drop-down menu on one's Facebook profile, but rather a box begging an open-ended response. It's not unusual to hear youth today describe themselves as Christian... but also sampling some Eastern religious practices.

So, naturally, the question arises: what is driving youth today to sample identities like never before? What's making this experimentation acceptable, expected and Facebook-able? There are two key factors at play: the way Millennials were raised, and the role technology has in their identify formation.

Many have deemed Millennials to be the most "special" generation in history. Boomer parents, Sesame Street and Barney have instilled the belief that "Everyone's different, special and unique." Tremendous emphasis has been placed on the right of the individual to choose her own path, to not conform to what's been done in the past and to "self-actualize." So naturally, Millennials don't feel like they have to conform to labels, and that experimenting to discover their true, authentic self is not only acceptable but expected.

It's also impossible to ignore the role technology has played in the process of identity formation. Navigating identity is done in the public sphere -- MTV calls it "Coming of Age on Stage" -- with social media enabling a fluid, "presentation versioning" of the self, as youth try on identities and revise them based on the continuous feedback loop offered by 865 of their closest "friends." Daniel, a 21-year-old from Pennsylvania in MTV's online panel, explains that identity "updates" can be made in essentially one click. He says, "We are free to express whatever we want to, really. If you update your religious, sexual or relationship status, all of your acquaintances are notified on their iPhones."

These underpinnings begin to shed light on why celebrities like Minaj or Gaga, who reflect try-dentity in a hyperbolic fashion, garner the esteem or at least awe of Millennials. Whether Gaga is stepping into the shoes of Jo Calderone, or Minaj is transforming into her "Black Barbie" alter-ego, it's clear to Millennials that these celebrities understand the concept of shape-shifting -- albeit a center stage version, But to a Millennial, who has their own stage of 865 Facebook friends, is that really so different?