“I always wanna die,” repeats The 1975 frontman Matt Healy eight times during the final chorus of the band’s latest alt-pop ballad, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).” It’s a sentiment that’s become all too common in modern pop music.
As the final track of The 1975’s third LP, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is a powerful footnote on an already modernly introverted album. Taking stylistic cues from veteran Britpop bands like Oasis and Radiohead, the song achieves cinematic quality through its dramatic combination of ascending guitars, ambient sound effects and a stadium-sized snare. It evokes emotions from another era of alternative rock — one wherein its own level of melodrama might have worked for another band besides The 1975. The only obvious exception to this false nostalgia is its lyrics, which are so depressed and self-deprecating they could only have been penned by the caricature of a millennial.
On a surface level, suicide is an oddly macabre topic for a tween-targeting musician to mull over. Yet, for a band as effortlessly in-tune with post-Tumblr digital culture as The 1975, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is a perfect fit — tailor-made for success in the erratically emotional present-day. After all, such self-loathing attempts at deepness are commonplace in this year’s songbook. The most obvious come from an emo-leaning wave of melodic rappers led by Juice WRLD, Trippie Redd and Post Malone. However, a similar melancholy is present in work by emerging superstars Billie Eilish, Mitski, Jessie Reyez and more. Even bubbly pop acts like Alessia Cara (“Growing Pains”) and Ariana Grande (“breathin”) seem to reckon with mortality. In obvious ways, the landscape of pop music is changing. As twenty-two-year-old Jeremy Zucker concludes on his aptly-titled ambient singalong: “all the kids are depressed.” Welcome to youth in the digital age.
Now, to say that all kids are depressed is an obvious hyperbole. But pop music’s present state paints a worrying picture. A study published earlier this year by the University of California Irvine analyzed more than half of a million songs released from 1985 to 2015 and found that during this period, music experienced a significant increase in traits akin to sadness. Its findings supplement earlier research that illustrates similar themes. Amidst all this, societal mental health has mirrored these negative changes. Since 2008, the percentage of overall children’s hospital visits related to suicide attempts has more than doubled. Modern music may simply be coming to terms with this new reality.
Expressing despair in art is hardly new practice. Emo music first emerged in the eighties, profound for its merging of hardcore rock’s intensity with raw emotion. The style went mainstream in the aughts thanks to bands like Blink 182, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, but settled into a niche, indie adulthood by decade’s end. Like most other subgroups of rock, it became numerically irrelevant in the algorithm-ruled streaming economy, kept alive through live tours and unique cult followings. Yet despite this, today’s developing stars — many of whom came of age during emo’s mid-2000s peak — seem greatly indebted to their gothic predecessors. They may brag about prescription doses instead of scarred wrists and deem face tattoos the new black, but the overall ethos of their music is nothing new. All that’s changed is the kids at the microphone, still sad and unsure of themselves. They may now be connected through apps and messages, but they’re lonelier than ever.
Today’s emerging superstars are mostly digital natives who were raised on the internet, where depression and other self-diagnosed personality traits are routinely performed through GIFs, tweets and hashtags. More than half of the artists mentioned thus far are part of iGen — the generation after millennials, born from 1995 to 2012. These kids (myself included) barely remember life before the iPhone. Perhaps as a result, they are less likely to have a job, go on dates, have sex or gather with friends daily. Rather than leave home, they virtually socialize in isolation and absorb infinite streams of unfiltered information. And why wouldn’t they be depressed, when the world is ending and all the warnings are constantly at their fingertips? It’s unsurprising that teens who spend more time than average on screens are more likely to be unhappy. In particular, heavy social media users are 27% more susceptible to symptoms of depression. As The 1975’s laughing interlude “The Man Who Married A Robot” reminds, only a lonely person would deeply befriend the internet — Right?
As creatives, The 1975 have always exhibited a natural understanding of the deep connection their audience feels toward digital culture. On A Brief Inquiry, these viral instincts inform erratic displays of excess, romantic expeditions and, as the grand finale, an extraordinary act of self-pity. “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” finds its protagonist on a train, too obsessed over life’s stagnancy to enjoy beautiful scenery that’s just outside the window, a quintessential tale of the digital age. Isolation quickly leads to self-evaluation, then to depression, evolving so naturally that even late efforts to disarm the narrative (“There’s no point in buying concrete shoes”) feel like half-hearted disclaimers. By then, the point is already made that Matt Healy — who’s recently sober from heroin — does not fear death (sometimes). It doesn’t matter that just a few song earlier, on “I Like America And America Likes Me,” he moans in auto-tuned fright, literally, “I’m scared of dying.” So goes the paradox of public persona in the digital age.
For a generation that’s been socialized to believe likes and retweets constitute personality itself, self-loathing has become an ultimate staple in the exhibition of faux deepness. The Atlantic published an article in 2013 titled “Social Media Is Redefining ‘Depression” which explores the ability of social networking sites (such as Tumblr) to foster communities around self-pity and enable even users who are not clinically diagnosed to “evoke negative emotions through art.” Throughout the article, experts acknowledge that public interest in mental health has spiked in recent decades, but worry that social media may encourage false self-diagnosis, especially among young people. Impressionable minds cannot help but desire uniqueness, and many strive to stand out online by depicting self-pity as beautiful. Naturally, the same rules apply to musicians. As Matt Healy confirmed in an interview with the New York Times in October: “[The 1975] are the Tumblr band, really, in every sense...Edgy but kind of beautiful.” In other words, romantically self-pitying, or depressed chic.
It’s true, The 1975 may be the Tumblr band, but there are plenty of other Tumblr musicians. In 2018, the eccentric qualities of emo rap evolved to totally take over mainstream music. Juice WRLD jumped from Soundcloud to superstardom in record speed with career-defining quips like, “I take prescriptions to make me feel okay”; Billie Eilish amassed more than two billion streams with her haunting near-whisper take on singing; and Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys, with its inescapable sad-boy party records, is up for album of the year at the upcoming GRAMMY awards. Some of this success was foreshadowed years ago by dreary pioneers Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd. Yet, there’s something undeniably more twisted about the current youth. The Weeknd wanted to fuck more than die; Lana is afraid of spiders (Billie Eillish keeps a pet tarantula and, in a viral stunt, let it crawl inside of her mouth). Perhaps mainstream music is simply experiencing another gothic moment. Or, perhaps, the digital youth is exhibiting its natural reckoning.
Of course, every subcultural-turned-pop-cultural movement needs a charismatic leader. Emo rap found one in Lil Peep, the late rapper/singer who died of an accidental Xanax overdose in 2017. His first full-length major label LP, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. II, was released post-mortem in October. Composed of records recovered by Peep’s mother from his personal Macbook, the project is both genuine and haunting, presenting his sound exactly as he would’ve intended. Its centerpiece is “Life Is Beautiful,” a grinning interpretation of the state of things on which Peep serenades those who “were not invited ‘cause [they’re] nothing like the usual.” On it, he playfully hopscotches across topics like police brutality, brain tumors and his own fear of dying, maintaining an ironically uplifting melody throughout. At times, life is beautiful; at others, it is “horrible” or “comical.” Much like Healy, Lil Peep always wanted to die (sometimes).
Peep performed best when orbiting this morbid territory, a mysterious knack that eventually led to his self-induced reckoning. In days after his passing, his older brother, Karl Åhr, urged the media to believe his death was accidental and his expressions of depression wholly artistic. Comparing hip-hop musicians to WWE wrestlers, Åhr concluded: “[Peep] gets paid to be sad. It’s what he made his name on.” Though an accurate conclusion, it helps confirm the chilling depression that’s currently haunting popular music. Peep, and countless others, develop personas and thrive through performance. Usually, these are extremist. Recently, they have tended to lean suicidal. “He was helping people,” Åhr went on.
Maybe “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is helping people too. If not, its grandiose self-pity still naturally reflects their current need for it. During a year in which digitally-raised depressives finally came of superstar age, The 1975 still managed to deliver one of the most impressive sad-boy anthems. Let’s just hope next year nobody ditches the sometimes.