It’s 9:07am on November 19th, and my third alarm is going off. My phone, cold and wet from the humid rainy weather vibrates against my sticky face as I try to ignore it and the many responsibilities the day would bring. But it keeps vibrating longer than I should, and I realize it’s my groupchat blowing up my phone instead of my alarm. The most recent text reads:
“Lil Peep is dead bro. I feel like a piece of shit”
Wednesday night, ahead of a Tucson, Arizona, concert, Soundcloud rapper Lil Peep was found unresponsive in his tour van, presumably having overdosed from some cocktail of benzos and opiates. A friend of artists spanning from Diplo to iLoveMakonnen, Lil Peep was creating a name for himself with music that revived 2000s emo by mixing it with contemporary trap music.
If you weren’t aware of Lil Peep’s music, however, you might have been aware of the internet meme he had become. In fact, that’s what that group chat was — myself and three friends meme-ifying and re-meme-ifying photos of Lil Peep with Xans over his eyes and bumps of cocaine in front of his cross-eyed face. He was the ultimate internet sad boy, a style that combines references to mental illness, drug use, menages of high and low street fashion and all sorts of cigarette-accented angsty poses in the darkest corners of the internet. Championed by artists like Young Lean of Sad Boy Entertainment just years before, it has become a major trend not only in trap music, but also in the online aesthetics of thousands of my most artistic peers. At its most mainstream one might imagine Jaden Smith in his pseudo-deep Twitter phase or, at its most discreet, that strange 17-year-old that pops up in your Facebook feed every so often with clip-art laden “random” profile pictures. In all honesty, I had hardly even given his music a shot—to me he was another character using his drug use for social media clout, another dumb white boy trying to make rap music, or another tongue in cheek style icon. My friends and I probably deserve to feel like pieces of shit.
However the more I read about the case, the more I realized how close this was to home. Lil Peep was a mere 21 years old. He dated my high school buddy’s ex girlfriend. And the “hilarious” behavior he exhibited was exactly what I see in so many of my friends — a public display of sadness and subsequent drug use on social media that somehow gets morbidly tied to significant social media attention. The detail nobody wants to acknowledge is that his self-destructiveness didn’t play alongside his music. It was an integral part in his art and his popularity. Hell, his social media persona is the only reason I ever went to Soundcloud and searched him.
The problem is, it’s not just the Soundcloud famous that behave like this. It’s thousands of my peers across the country. Whereas with famous individuals the reality of a situation may be a little more obscure, with our friends we often have a clue as to how much they’re really struggling — we know whether the drugs on their Snapchat story are for show, or that their emotional tweets may actually be a small sample of some underlying pain. At best we praise them for it — at worst, we make fun, blame them for what we take as irresponsible recklessness, and further isolate them until these social media outlets are the only places they can address their problems outside their own heads.
In the last week, online discussion has revolved around this incident as a wake-up call for how we treat drug addiction (if it’s not degrading/blaming him for this disease). But this isn’t just drug use, this is mental health. And even better, it’s a very specific context in which thousands of followers and fans watched him struggle with all of this. It’s not new — we were all made aware of Amy Winehouse’s downward spiral with every lyric—but it may be unique in its transparent exhibition on social media.
For some reason, social media behavior appears to be thought of as separate from real life. Those posts about crying and taking pills to deal with your problems aren’t “IRL,” they’re just in some imaginary cyberspace — as if the user isn’t screaming, ‘I have a problem, help me,’ to thousands of people. We see upsetting posts on someone’s fake-Instagram page and comment, “Hey, I’m here if you need to talk,” but act like nothing ever happened when we see them in person. But social media is the real world, with real people with real-life problems using it. It’s time to stop separating the two.
Lil Peep’s passing is not the time for us to start guessing at what specific factors lead him to his fate. Rather, this is a time for us to take a pause for the mental illness and drug use we see in our own lives. What can be learned is a lesson in the way we treat our friends, family, and strangers who build up these references to mental health and drug use online to the point where those broad-reaching internet platforms may be the only place they feel heard. Because the reality is, Lil Peep told us exactly what he was going through. But instead of listening, we just perpetuated it in jest.
Written by Veronica Irwin