Full disclosure: I only heard of Lil Peep for the first time on November 16, 2017, the day of his untimely death. I had no idea that emo had any sort of relevance in this day and age, let alone that someone was crossbreeding the genre with rap. This is partly because I’m old enough to remember the last time emo had any clout on the airwaves, long before Peep even hit puberty.
Although I run the risk of being accused of speaking ill of the dead, I have to admit that I don’t find his music very good. But of course I’d say that: I’m on the cusp of 30 and probably twice the age of many of his fans. I don’t get it, can’t get it, and actively don’t want to get it. There’s a lot to be said for growing old gracefully. But although I will never count myself a fan of Lil Peep or mourn him in any way, I do find him intriguing, because he’s so antithetical to the rampant irony of our age.
The defining characteristic of our current pop cultural epoch is aloofness and insincerity. The selling point of Peep’s music (which has been described in the music press as everything from “new emo” to “emo trap”) and the quality that earned him such adoration was his willingness to pick away at his emotional scabs and document the ensuing rush of blood and pus for the rest of the world to see (or hear, rather). I’ve begun to think that Lil’ Peep’s meteoric success might be a sign that the pendulum has begun to swing away from irony and towards more genuine emotion.
It’s easy to see why this has such a magnetic appeal when people are paying $800 for sneakers that look like thrift store finds, and Demna Gvasalia has become one of the world’s most celebrated fashion designers by creating clothes with the explicit intention of repulsing people.
The hipster has replaced subculture, which has taught an entire generation to define themselves through self-aware gags rather than ideological conviction. It’s often pithy and intellectually wry, but also emotionally hollow. Humans are social creatures that crave connection. As we saw in the mass outpouring of grief that followed the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael in 2016, the world’s biggest pop star’s owe their stature not only to their superhuman talents, but to their ability to touch people on a visceral level that can be difficult to articulate.
This is in direct conflict with our ironic culture, which suffocates genuine emotional expression – which kind of misses the original point of irony: in the aftermath of World War II, black satirists employed irony to find some sort of humor and solace in a world that had just emerged from the greatest horror that it had ever seen. Their sardonic laughter was the only comedy appropriate to such a climate.
Now, ironic distance creates a barrier between artist and audience. Ironic art can be appreciated but not adored because we can’t be sure whether its creator was being sincere or not. The ironic moment will not create a new Bowie because it only speaks to the mind rather than the heart and because no one is going to risk crying over something that could just be a very meta joke.
It’s well known that culture moves in cycles, so it should come as little surprise that we’ve been here before. The rampant irony of our age is nothing new and the 1990s were just as ironic as the 2010s, if not more so. Inevitably, all that irony eventually inspired a backlash of sincerity.
In 1993, the American author David Foster Wallace penned a 21,000-word essay titled E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction where he railed against the choking irony of his era and called for a more sincere approach to literature. In it, Foster Wallace wrote: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”
The essay is now regarded as a call to arms because he and other great authors of his generation – namely Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith – were credited with rejuvenating a literary scene that had frozen over through cool detachment. They were described as the “New Sincerity” movement, which took the name of a loose collective of Austin-based alternative rock bands that were active in the latter half of the 1980s.
Spearheaded by the likes of The Reivers, True Believers and Daniel Johnston, these bands rejected the ironic posturing that was so widespread in the punk and new wave scenes at the time. As we can see from historical precedent, there is always a tipping point, and even if it hasn’t occurred yet, it’s inevitable that a new new sincerity will follow in the wake of our ironic age.
Lil Peep isn’t the only rapper out there showing some vulnerability. Lil Uzi Vert has tread upon similar ground, dropping albums with titles like Luv Is Rage that contain candid lines like “Turn around baby girl let me serve you / You had to that you wet like Squirtle… And you think you in love / don’t wanna hurt you.” “XO Tour Llif3” is shorn of the braggadocio that is typically such a central component of hip-hop and raps about crying instead.
Out in the mainstream, Future has been praised for the tender sadness in his music. Drake, one of the defining voices of this musical era, is so unflinching in his sincerity that it’s almost like he’s untainted by cynicism and irony. Despite being repeatedly mocked for it, heartbreak is the dominant theme in his music. If David Foster Wallace were alive to take up a rap career, he would probably sound a lot like Drake. The new New Sincerity appears to be in full swing.
Or maybe it isn’t. There is another way to look Lil Peep’s success: his fan base is overwhelmingly teenagers, an instinctively candid demographic who often suffer from feelings of alienation and gravitate to the emotion that musicians pour into their work. Their youthful naivety hasn’t been battered by the betrayals and disappointments of adulthood, which eventually drives most of us to take refuge behind a grizzled, defensive layer of cynicism as we age. Peep was too obscure of a musician to affect the wider culture and his sincerity resonated with a slither of the population that are particularly receptive to it. There’s nothing to say that it would’ve been well received by the masses.
It’s also arguable that Peep’s music doesn’t necessarily contradict current pop cultural values. Although irony is pervasive, putting your neuroses on the display for the world to see is common to the point of cliche. Lena Dunham has made herself unimaginably successful and wealthy by completely doing away with stoicism and acting as undignified as possible, vocaliszng things that are usually reserved for the psychiatrist’s chair.
Social media rewards us for oversharing. Scrolling through Twitter often feels like sitting in on a group therapy session. Everyone talks about their anxieties and depression and awkward body hair to the point of vulgarity. Some would argue that we already have too much sincerity, not too little.
If you haven’t already, revisit our editorial and interview with Lil Peep conducted shortly before his passing here.