The sad trap revolution of the past few years, spearheaded by the late Lil Peep and others such as Lil Xan, Lil Tracy, Yung Lean, and $uicideBoy$, infuses early 2000s emo rock with modern mainstream trap music to birth a new genre which has been making its way quickly onto the top charts.
Sad trap is stuffed to the brim with lyrics and images of gore, drugs, death and heartbreak, and its insane popularity brings up a few questions: what are the components of this strange hybrid genre and its corresponding “aesthetic,” and what makes it so appealing to the modern generation?
Punk and goth subcultures have been a staple in American society since the nineties and earlier, and over the years has morphed into a much bigger and multifaceted undercurrent of pop culture. With the explosion of sad trap, this counterculture has poured into the conventional. More and more people are embracing the moody, angry music style, which absorbs the listener into a very particular aesthetic stemming from white punk rock but also combining Japanese and African American cultural influences in a strange mix of dark, provocative, depressive glamour.
The key notes of this music are trap beats of modern rap music, but with slightly less “flexing” (rapping about cars, girls, money) and a whole lot more about undying love and suicide—exemplified by Lil Peep’s lines “I got a feelin’ that I’m not gonna be here for next year” in “The Way I See Things;” “even if I try hard, I ain’t gonna make it,” in “Better off (Dying);” and “I will scream your name with my last breath,” in “Awful Things.”
These dramatic lyrics and trap beats are often accompanied by the emo-rock staple electric guitar, a solid amount of reverb, and a video featuring grim undersaturated pastels, flashing, spinning Japanese characters, weapons, violence and misuse of prescription drugs. Sad trap’s gloomy, angry sound and dark lyrics can also be condemned for capitalizing on teenage depression, encouraging self-destructive behavior, and being all around extremely explicit.
The sad trap aesthetic is what I would call a “depression aesthetic”—an aesthetic built off an idea that depression and other mental health problems are glamorous, and though not explicitly advertised as sought after, issues like depression and anxiety are framed in a way that makes them seem like edgy personality traits.
Historically aesthetics like these have catered to a largely female audience—like the “Tumblr girl” or “grunge” aesthetic, epitomized by images of bony white girls in flower crowns smoking cigarettes overlaid with Arctic Monkeys lyrics. The Tumblr girl aesthetic is accused of encouraging eating disorders and glamorizing things such as self harm and abusive relationships.
A key difference between the Tumblr girl aesthetic and the sad trap aesthetic is that nearly every sad trap artist is male, and so the aesthetic embraces male vulnerability and sensitivity—something American society has always minimized.
Many sad trap artists also present themselves as slightly androgynous, and this may be because of the genre’s roots in emotional sensitivity, a trait largely seen as feminine. In our culture obsessed with physical appearance, many celebrities are expected to wear skimpy clothing and show off their body.
Sad trap artists often pose shirtless, but don’t sport rock solid abs like mainstream male singers often do—instead, they are often pale and thin, covered head to toe in tattoos, and have dyed their hair a shade of girlish pastel. Lil Peep exemplifies the sad trap look by wearing eyeliner in his music videos and not shying away from outfits of full pink. Lil Peep also took many by surprise by announcing himself publicly as bisexual in 2017.
There are shockingly few examples of publicly LGBTQ+ rap artists, in this time where many people in the entertainment industries are coming out as part of that community. It’s clear there’s still a very strong bias against homosexuality in the rap industry, as can be proven through many rap lyrics and interviews with artists. Lil Peep’s open bisexuality was a rarity in the rap genre and cemented his place as a true deviant from the industry norm. It also says something about Peep’s genre of choice—with its star act someone who was member of the LGBTQ+ community and integrated femininity strongly into his persona, it supports the idea that the genre accepts and celebrates outsiders.
Perhaps this is the reason for the genre’s surge in popularity and the innovation and progression of the genre itself. The energy of the past decade and a half has been intensely progressive, with young people speaking out on their desires to change views on a plethora of social issues, and one which stands out is mental health. Resources on the internet about mental illnesses are unlimited, and the message that’s becoming more and more widespread is that issues like depression and anxiety should be talked about and validated.
I cannot help but link this surge of awareness with the emergence of the sad trap genre, an amalgam of popular rap music and alternative rock, that puts traditionally outcast groups of people into the spotlight. The introduction of the sad trap genre is the epitome popular culture evolving and reinventing pieces of itself to fit the youth’s changing perspectives, and though it still promotes questionable ideals common in rap music, sad trap’s emergence into the mainstream is a strong signal that ideas on masculinity and emotional health are changing.
We are moving out of old traditions, tearing down barriers, and as counterculture meshes more and more into the popular, maybe the concept of the “outcast” will begin to fade altogether.