Let me start with a confession: I used to be emo. The embarrassment I used to feel reflecting on this factoid has, however, left me of late. Having felt so alone, I didn’t quite realise quite how many there were of us. But just when we all thought emo was dead and collectively danced on its grave, a new artist called Lil Peep decided to piss on our newfound happiness. Like the Pied Piper of Genenation-Z-Land, he’s dragging kids by their pastel hair into the abyss by marketing pubescent existentialism and puppy love as a reason for narcotics abuse and self harm. Opinions are divided on whether Peep is an innovator or a sociopath. Let’s have a look at how the emo trend developed, before considering what might be a good way to respond to its latest incarnation.
The term “emo” goes way back. Early acts like Rites of Spring—often seen as the OG emo(core) band—innovated punk and post-hardcore in the 80s and opened up those genres to confessional songwriting and complex guitar riffs. The label “emo” was detested from the start. You could say that the dislike of the moniker served as a gateway to the general tendency to practice self loathing and an overt alienation with the “normal” world. The first emo bands lasted only a couple of years, but the early nineties saw the revival of the style with bands like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate. They perfected what had started in the mid-to-late eighties and combined dramatic language with a punk sound. This time around dedicated fanbases started to develop into what is now well-known as the emo subculture. The mid nineties saw an explosion of emo acts in the underground scene, foreboding what was to come some five years later. The successes of bands like Jimmy Eat World meant that emo bled into the mainstream and bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore profited of this development, giving them lucrative careers for much of the noughts1. Emo became marketable, and nothing is easier to sell to young adults than emotional melodrama and parental disapproval. Acknowledging teen angst and creating the image of the “outsider” made it easy to appeal to kids hitting puberty all over the (western) world.
So it seems that our little friend Peep has it all figured out. This business is a goldmine. But rock isn’t cool anymore. Although there is a genuine emo revival taking place as we speak, no one knows nor does anyone care2. The most relevant genre at the moment is rap. In a time of political instability and racial tensions, it is hardly surprising that this is the genre currently reigning the charts. But although there has been a welcome shift within rap music allowing intimate, confessional writing to shine in the music of artists like Kid Cudi2, emo-style songwriting remains next-level schmaltz. It only seems logical to put two and two together. Peep grew up in the prime time of 00s emo, his adoration clearly visible in his Gerard Way-like aesthetic. Armed with Weltschmerz and GarageBand, Peep set out to create what is now his signature sound. I don’t want to dwell on the trap aspect of Peep’s sound too much as I feel it is mainly a ploy to make his music relevant in the current market, and it appears to be working. But trap is usually 90 percent bravado and showmanship, and I refuse to believe I’m the only one snickering at the idea of Offset cooking dope in a crockpot using an Uzi as his main utensil . Combined with emo, however, the end result is this toxic combination of gangsta speak and emotional alienation. Practically all of Peep’s songs feature lyrics like these from “Hellboy”:
Show after show, fuckin’ hoe after hoe
I swear it gets so lonely sometimes
Please just hold me one time
Fuck these hoes and fuck life
I’m by no means implying that Peep’s feelings aren’t “valid”. It has been documented that Peep struggles with depression and so it is understandable that although others might not think of his experiences as a reason for mortal despair, Peep does. I am not a fan of the whole “a girl doesn’t like me, time to numb the pain with a nice cocktail of pills” vibe, but this doesn’t mean that this is not Peep’s reality. It can be argued that the reasons emo artists are idolised are also the reasons they are bad examples, especially for young people. Unfortunately, there is little we can do about who others choose to idolise.
The end result is this toxic combination of gangsta speak and emotional alienation
The difference between the artist and the fan here is subtle but important. Emo artists usually already struggle with their mental health, with some self-medicating through numerous substances, or having a history of doing so. The music, in their case, is a kind of therapy (as it is for a lot of musicians, both in and outside the genre3). Although it appears that the artists romanticise depression and pain, this is mostly in the eye of the beholder. If anything, the music is a way to acknowledge feelings and externalise them, a progression towards healing. Fans, however, seem to seek out genres like emo to feel understood more than anything else. There is no inherent desire to work through feelings and overcome them. Especially with the popularisation of bands like My Chemical Romance, the “us against them” sentiment grew. Their 2006 album The Black Parade is a prime example of this, with songs like “Welcome to the Black Parade” and “Teenagers” which imply a sense of rebellious alliance. It resulted in fans calling themselves “soldiers of the MCRmy”.
When you allow someone to feel as if no one has ever felt the way they have, this perpetuates the issue of internalising negative emotions. Whereas initially the sense of alliance mentioned may make them feel stronger, when this alliance is based around the central idea that everyone in it is this—I hate to say it—special snowflake, this doesn’t exactly create bonds. If anything, being confronted with so much misery and in many cases people that are a lot worse off than you, just makes you feel more somber. I personally used to chat with countless people who dealt with self harm, substance abuse, and mental health issues like borderline personality disorders and depression, most of them under the age of 18. Rather than being alarmed, however, it made me feel inadequate and like less of an emo. I saw kids bragging online about how often they cut themselves at the impressionable age of fourteen. Need I say more?
It is not up to Peep to decide what young people listen to. Reading his lyrics and interviews I don’t believe he has bad intentions. The DYI music scene has empowered many artists to achieve success without the help of label executives. This means that whereas before the management was partly to blame for guiding emo bands into the direction of targeting teenagers, this is not really an option anymore. Peep isn’t signed and self-releases his music. It seems that even more so than before, the older generations have little to no say in what young people access online. Whether it’s graphic images or graphic language, there’s only so much you can do to protect people. I’m in no way suggesting we hide this part of life from teenagers and kids. I think it’s important that you learn what’s out there and how messed up and troubled people can be sometimes. I wouldn’t suggest sitting your kid down for some hardcore pornography, but it’s also ignorant to think that they won’t see it at some point in their early life.
The DYI music scene has empowered many artists to achieve success without the help of label executives
A much better solution is education without condescending young people’s reality. There is a reason people listen to emo music. You might think that teenagers are being dramatic over small things, but just try to remember what it was like to go through so many things all at once. It’s hard to cope with it all. Social bonds are more important than anything else and music plays a big part in how we see our self-identity as well as our group-identity4. I think that now that emo is back with a vengeance, we need to take it seriously. Talk about depression. Talk about addiction. Talk about art as an outlet for emotions and thoughts. Do you know someone who has a thing for “bad boys” like Peep? Talk to them about co-dependency and healthy relationships. About enabling and manipulation. About self-respect and boundaries. Basically, prepare people for the worst. Music is serious business and we attach a lot of value to what and whom we listen to at any point in our lives. Why take this for a joke?
1. Interested in what all these acts actually sound like, or just want to brush up your memory? Check out the playlist I curated for alongside this article especially.↩