So I’ve been listening to a lot of masculine music lately, thinking how terrifying a rapture it is to witness the shape-shifting of something reliable happen right as you’re sitting there surfing youtube and reaching for the Pringles. Like haven’t rap and hip hop been loyal for a long time, thrilling us with danger and rage, and intoxicating proximity to the cocksure pheromones of the black alpha male? And then suddenly Kanye began singing about feelings, Drake started meditations on loneliness, and Frank Ocean went atmospheric and told us he was gay? And now, their white progeny, a mob of teen suburban bedroom-dwelling boys are making music about being just plain sad? Did we blink and something happened to the post-millenial penis?
I have a feeling that art and life do these kinds of transmogrification things when something new is emerging, and asking us to mirror-gaze at it and maybe call it something so we can put markers of evolution into our iCalendars. In this quest, I called my friend Dave Madden, a scholar of sound and a music producer who loves iCalendars too, so we could mirror-gaze together — since I don’t have a penis, and it’s more fun to mirror-gaze with others.
Here’s what we said about how hard rapping drug-lordism has morphed into tears.
There are a few guys, mostly in their teens, that have become pretty visible lately because of singing about being dumped, being hurt, being bored, being sad, thinking about suicide; guys like Yung Lean, Yung Gud, Yung Sherman, Thaiboy, Bladee, Spooky Black and Bones. They’re using the bad boy musical genre to send out their sad boy message. What do you think is going on?
Well, these guys are drawing from a ton of indie sources and lassoing the mainstream, what Kanye’s music, A$AP Rocky and Drake have done to musical sensibility — and putting their white suburban spin on it. The sad boy style is a global suburbia movement, popping up in strange white places like Middle America and Sweden, maybe with something embedded in the music around the paradox fears of being an emotional kid, of being masculine and crying, and around race. The challenging thing about this movement is the whiteness of it. These producers might be self-conscious about this and this might come through in the way the music is produced. Like Drake’s vocals are way out in front, he gives us proud in-your-face emo politics. In contrast, Spooky Black’s vocals are way in the background caked in reverb. You can hear the anxiety in the way it sounds, it’s softened up with layers of discords floating on the top. It feels like boredom as one of the vectors of dread, of privileged white culture. It’s suburban boredom.
How do you think suburban boredom, anxiety around race, and feelings of sadness come together in this movement?
It used to be that rap featured a political hero who had a street conscious message, early hip hop was similar. Now these forms are gravitating towards emotions that were taboo before. It’s complicated. You see things now like black artists who normally operate in an alpha male scene showing feelings that are at odds with this, and then you see people like Clams Casino, a white producer, working on A$AP Rocky’s sound. Kanye and Drake have tapped into a new form—they’ve crossed the line between hip hop and r&b soul music, which has hit a point that connects with white audiences. The emotive aspects of Drake and Kanye have mass appeal with white audiences. It’s interesting because you can almost break down My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and see every track of that [Kanye West] album in terms of a demographic. Kanye works with tons of different producers, it’s like he literally went out for that album and for every song said ‘I’m gonna work with this producer for my ghetto black audience, then this producer for my white indie kids audience’. It’s literally not all black or all white anymore—there’s much more crossover.
Technology and cyberspace have complicated the dynamics even more. They equalize things—presuming one has access—and they make everything more direct. You can sort of tell that some of Yung Lean’s tracks, for example, are made in an hour and put out there. I guess the thing is figuring out the degree to which this new stuff is merely stylistic or actually a larger political-cultural formation.
Aesthetically the way the music is sounding, its hidden vocals, the way the singers are disguising their looks, the way the videos are DIY with hints of irony — all this feels a bit timid. Like they’re afraid the hip-hop mimicry with emo-add-ons could end up sounding like Vanilla Ice.
Lil B does weird DIY videos while rapping about sex with bitches and wonton soup, and ecco2k, another black rapper but with pink hair, often teams up with the sad boys. There’s a mix up happening between aesthetics. Don’t you think that awkward self-consciousness is part of this new music’s appeal?
Yeah. If we think of rap, hip hop and trill being appropriated by young white boys and the white pathos emotional agenda being appropriated by young black boys; something interesting is going on. I know that’s a little reductionist but if this art form is a front lines voice, something that calls out what’s urgent, I guess we could say that boys are sad.
It’s cool to be sad, which means sadness is a currency, it’s a real and valued contemporary emotion.
In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), Sarah Ahmed talks about the mobility of emotions. I think there’s this thing happening where these musical forms are speaking to each other through aesthetic and emotional cues and then connecting through the mobility of feelings like sadness. Yung Lean in Stockholm connects to Spooky Black in Minnesota not just because they’re bedroom music producers but also because of the emo transfer they are sending along to each other. This is immediate and it doesn’t rely on place so much. The only place that could be vaguely named is a mythic suburban bedroom where dread and boredom happen while sitting alone in a small town you wish you weren’t from, and putting your spin on it. That’s kinda cool.
Being home alone is what everyone’s doing, being this other self online with less connection to IRL. There may be a painful sort of apathy washing over youth culture because of bedroom loneliness – which could be a psychological octave of some sort of cyberdisease.
Well interfacing constantly with the Internet and feeling boredom and sadness are privileged community emotions. A lot of people are feeling that way. The techno circulation that’s going on from bedroom to bedroom via cyberspace, music and shared feelings creates an emotional momentum that is exasperated and amplified via sharing. It’s like emotions create their own communities. Look at the way Nazi skinheads in the UK circulate really emo-pathos shit to get a connection with Nazi skinheads in Florida. Other people feel just as alienated and sad as the sad boys do. It’s not talked about enough, how subcultures and political movements are built up through making emotional connections. When I’m listening to music at 10 years of age feeling sad and I’m feeling like a few of my friends are feeling sad too, that’s one thing. It’s a very different and much more reinforcing thing to know that millions of kids in the world are feeling sad. The bedroom music makers are the kids who are leading this movement.
No one’s done this before; guys singing to guys about loneliness and suicide.
It’s a twisting of the hetero form, I think. Nirvana was emo but also super fucking heavy with total Led Zeppelin drumming and this other weird thing happening where they were wanting to express deeper emotion but kind of kept it grunge and angry. Now it’s really deep emotional grade 10 poetry stuff getting fed through black music that is typically associated with alpha values. Maybe for the sad boys it’s important to disguise their vocals. Half the time you can’t figure out what they’re saying. Spooky is kind of a mumbler. These guys are talking about feelings, but at the same time, they’re reassuring us that they are still into girls.
Sad Boys music is not angry, that’s the distinctiveness of it. Punk, Grunge, Heavy Metal, there were always sad things hidden in these genres but their credibility was about staying angry.
Early in life, girls outperform boys in most things and we’re pretty explicit about knowing this but there’s still a pressure to perform for boys; the expectation that you’re the one that’s supposed to be performing because you’re the ‘guy’. Girls have their script and boys have theirs. You were saying before about the sad teen boys mixing toys and porn and feelings. Optimus Prime, Transformers, Japanese ninja movies—The Wu-Tang Clan did that, Yung Lean does it; it’s the age when boys are expected to perform maleness, which could be a macho thing that boys don’t relate to as much anymore. If you’re making music at that age, between say 14 and 18, which is what the bedroom boys are doing, what ends up happening is a performance of all these confusing feelings while still kind of going ‘Girls are bitches and I just want to fuck them and play with toys’.
Porn is a huge part of mainstream culture now. It’s a heady thing as a boy to feel you have to be this caliber of male stud, even if it’s not real but it’s still what sets the standard for real.
Guys get a lot of pressure to be public stars and Internet studs. It’s very competitive for boys and there are consequences for not conforming. So what does that mean for a generation of boys who have had such easy access to porn that previous generations never even came close to? How do they be public stars and Internet studs? I’m wondering what the implications are of being brought up on porn, as much porn as you want, whenever you want.
I’ve heard that it’s giving some teen boys erectile dysfunction.
Erectile dysfunctional in kids? Really? Is this because of performance anxiety? I think that’s what that movie Shame (2011) is getting at, the inability to have ‘normal’ sex with people—whatever that means—when all you know is porn and hos. Bedroom handheld-device-life gives free and easy access to solitary sexual desires that are cultivated in relation to computers. This might create an inability to go out and carry out ‘normal’ sexual desires with real people. Like ‘Oh you mean when I take someone’s clothes off they don’t always act like a porn star and ask me to hit them?’
Maybe the gap between porn-fuelled teen boy fantasy sex and the limitations and demands of real life, which include the expectation to perform the macho model of manhood to gain social status, is where boys are slipping into sadness? It’s confusing to be a boy who cries, or really wants and needs to cry, when the cornerstone of maleness is boys don’t cry.
Sad porn kids who feel like they have to perform and they can’t? Yeah, that’s super hard. It’s also hard to talk about emotions without hinging them to the hetero porn fantasy for fear of being called a ‘homo’ — it’s like you’re either macho or you’re gay and there’s no in-between. Without support from society to break out and cry, if you’re a guy, you either have to hold it in and possibly get really depressed or you have to make sadness a radical cultural movement. It’s cool that sad boys are using fashion to create a look that defines them. Spooky’s headscarf and grandma bling is dope. If they’re telling us that we’ve reached a point where guys just need to be allowed to be emotional in a more public way and for that to be okay, we should create more boys spaces where they can hang out and be honest, and talk about their feelings, and maybe make sad music as a critical bedroom mass. There’s a social code around hetero behaviour that goes really deep. That’s hopefully the taboo that the sad boys are breaking through, and the generative part of the movement that their millions of followers are spawning. It’s super cool.
Some sadboys songs:
Spooky Black, Ur Song
“all this pain
running through my fucking veins
pull the trigger
put it right into my brain
oh take me from this world”
Yung Lean, Lightsaber Saviour
“when the neon lightning strikes
i’m on the floor crying, crying
why do i gotta be alive?”
Bones, Waking Up Crying
“waking up crying
waking up crying for u
what else can i do
i’m soaking my pillows thru”
Listen to Dave Madden’s sounds here: https://soundcloud.com/ravedm
Stay tuned for regular contributions of life imitating art by our Pop Talks columnist Caia Hagel.