Slouching Towards Soundcloud: What Lil Peep's Overdose Tells Us About Sad Boy Culture
My sixteen-year-old brother called me the other night from the west coast to tell me that Lil Peep died. “This is fucked,” he said. “I’m so sad.” Living in a suburb of Seattle, my brother has been to a slew of shows in the city: Shabazz Palaces, King Krule, Elvis Depressedly, the Front Bottoms, Yung Lean, Clipping., Fidlar, the Growlers, Modern Baseball, Wavves. He began young adulthood at a time when Soundcloud was blowing up with homegrown artists, people not much older than me and him, with some of them being taken more seriously. Rather than the party hits firmly engrained into the popular music scene, platforms like Soundcloud revealed an underbelly of music created by teenagers, for teenagers. Because Soundcloud has little barriers to entry and no expectation of broader success, no content is off the table; the platform provides a creative space to translate Garageband recordings into bedroom hits. Every once in awhile, an artist transcends lesser-known platforms and their tracks go somewhat mainstream. When I was a sophomore in high school, Yung Lean dropped his album “Unknown Death 2002.” My brother and I drove to school listening to “Lightsaber // Saviour,” in which Lean raps “I’m grinding, grinding / Sad boys they be shining, shining / Focus on whining, whining / When the neon lightning strikes and then I’m on the floor crying, crying.” The late 1990s and early 2000s kids have watched a changing music scene give birth to something unexpected: music that openly grapples with suicide, Xanax, and depression. The ‘sad boy,’ if you will. This is the age of the outcast; while in 2002, being “just a kid” meant “life is a nightmare,” in 2017 both the tangible and the existential grief of youth is a fostered identity.
I have my issues with the term sad boy. Before Lil Peep died of a suspected overdose at age 21, most of my reasons for disliking the term and its culture had to do with its glorification of suicide and commodification of depression. But talking with my brother last night reminded me of my dad’s reaction to David Bowie’s death. It reminded me of how my mom talks about the day John Lennon died, how she remembers it with perfect clarity. She was in high school. What makes my brother’s reaction to Lil Peep’s overdose any less legitimate? We can joke about sad boy culture, which is characterized on Urban Dictionary by teenage boys who listen to Soundcloud rap and vaporwave, wear black and white clothes, and are “generally depressed… however somewhat enjoy the fact that they are sad.”
But there is something more to this story, and more to why so many young people identify with the Lil Peeps of music, those who wear their heartbreak so openly. The archetype of the sad boy is powerful in its affirmation of the inner emotions of boys, which are so often stigmatized within gendered society. By embodying those emotions through clothes, music, and aesthetic, ‘sad boy’ culture thrusts issues of depression and heartbreak into the light. Music is a deeply evocative method for causing social change and drawing attention to issues that may be more subtle or underrepresented. It is a method that has been taken full advantage of by artists like Lil Peep, who talked openly about his struggle with depression and medication, and raps in his song “OMFG,” “I used to wanna kill myself / Came up, still wanna kill myself / My life is goin’ nowhere.” It bothers me that an entire culture within music is taken far less seriously than other significant genres and subsets, especially when the message being sent is simultaneously personal and indicative of a generation. Sure, Lil Peep was heralded by Pitchfork as “the future of emo.” But how many music and culture critics are eager to embrace a future in which emo is a valid representation of youth?
In his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu argues that our likes and dislikes in terms of culture and art are specifically related to class rank. “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded,” he writes. Having an “eye” for art, music, film, etc., implies certain levels of education and superiority. While the music of Yung Lean, Lil Peep, and the like certainly don’t appeal to a wide audience and clearly have not been celebrated in the same ways of significant musicians throughout history, doesn’t that just mean that they are demonstrative of an entire culture that exists on the fringe of popular music?
Musicians these days don’t need to sell out arenas in order to gauge their success; streaming exists primarily in the privacy of teenage bedrooms across the country. This underground form of music is historically played out, just look at Seattle’s underground punk scene. But the difference is that this subculture has been strengthened and defined within society as a more mainstream identity, which often neglects to expose the deeper meanings behind it. And if the music of these sad boy artists is demonstrative not just of individual style and background, but of an entire culture built on the very real thoughts youth have of suicide, depression, love, and drugs, is there not a new cultural competence that must be attained in order to appreciate the artistic products of this generation?
Our parents had their John Lennon and their David Bowie; as children of those raised by historic music, we did too. But Lil Peep’s death has the same amount of meaning to a smaller number of people; his influence has just occurred more privately, between youth who are consumed by overwhelming emotion, aesthetics, and desire for identity and place.
When I told my brother that I wanted to write about the meaning of Lil Peep’s overdose, he said I shouldn’t. “It has significance in the way Xanax is looked at. He was my favorite artist and I got so much shit for it; the people who are acting so sad are the ones who didn’t listen to him at all. Just write about how Xanax culture is fucked.” He’s completely right: Xanax culture is fucked, and I have no merit to speak on behalf of Lil Peep’s fanbase. There is a whole group of people who possess the cultural competence to see Lil Peep’s significance. Although this subculture is largely regarded as being based upon depression and thoughts of suicide, my brother’s recommendation to write about how messed up Xanax is says something profound about the culture: it does not actually want to die.
One of Lil Peep’s last Instagram posts will surely get a lot of attention in the coming weeks. It’s a photo of him performing onstage with the caption “When I die you’ll love me.” This is not a new message, and it’s not wholly inaccurate. As my brother said, so much of the outpour of appreciation for his influence on music and recognition of the unrecognized is coming from people who hardly know the context. But it’s another post from the three days ago that I find even more telling, captioned: “I just wana be everybody’s everything I want too much from people but then I don’t want anything from them at the same time u feel me I don’t let people help me but I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy? What is happy I always have happiness for like 10 seconds and then it’s gone. I’m getting so tired of this.” Lil Peep, Yung Lean, Elvis Depressedly, Fidlar, the Front Bottoms: they all provide a loud, verbal outcry for the anxieties and despair of a large group of youth.
The appropriation of sad boy culture does nothing but provide an aesthetic, meme'd interpretation of what lies at the root of this cultural phenomenon. Although the music may be seen as glorifying and idealizing mental health issues, for many of these kids the art and music that is generated from people thinking their same dark thoughts is a validating way of both recognizing and conveying an authentic state of being. Searching for happiness, authenticity, and creative expression amid pervasive doubt, what makes this so different from the ways the gripes and discomfort of youth have been played out historically?
I think about Joan Didion’s portrait of 1960s California in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In one essay, she writes about a young girl, “the girl who ‘feels’ things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young.” The pain of adolescence is something that is played out in nearly every art form; it has been written about, painted, filmed, and photographed. In the 1960s, San Francisco was where the “social hemorrhaging” was making itself known, according to Didion. In the 2010s, the hemorrhaging is occurring in bedrooms, small music venues, zines, online forums, and city parks. We may romanticize the 1960s in hindsight, but to live in those days of discontent was surely far from beautiful. We may love Lil Peep in the days after his death, but all that he stands for and all that his words and overdose represent is far from pretty; there is a hemorrhaging here that goes beyond teenage woe. The sad boy is slouching toward recognition, but on his own terms and through his own language.