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Introducing… The E-Boy

"Emo... but do it on TikTok" is the new definitive Gen Z subculture.

by Ryan Bassil; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
26 July 2019, 10:44am

Illustration: Esme Blegvad

For all our technological advances, humans continue to be simple creatures who group together based on shared tastes in clothes, music and opinions. The latest of these clans? Just as man went from homo erectus to homo sapiens, the emo has evolved from scene kid to "e-boy".

If this is all new to you, here's an e-boy primer, starting with how they look: their hair is styled like Leonardo DiCaprio's as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo, via Michael Pitt in The Dreamers. They smoke cigarettes, sometimes, for the aesthetic, but they're as sober as an AA counsellor. They've been raised on Mac Demarco, The 1975 and lo-fi terrorcore-era Tyler, the Creator, but also Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Their vibe is the climax of all those faintly related spheres, filtered through Brockhampton's brightly-coloured, post-One Direction world.

Clothes-wise: loads of chains. Bicycle chains, jean chains, wallet chains, coke can ring chains. They put padlocks around their necks. You could describe them as classic Camden Lock goth, were it not for the fact they seem like remarkably well-kept, happy – if a little performatively sad – young men, many of them seemingly being readied for a future in which their college tuition will be paid in full.

E-boys are this ghost rap song. Equally, they are Joji. Or Rex Orange County. Or Clairo. Or floaty Studio Ghibli-adjacent instrumental music by a guy who has called himself nvthvn, despite the fact replacing As with Vs lost its cultural momentum around the time A$AP Rocky became a model – or, if not then, then definitely at the point when SpaceGhostPurrp started chatting about incels and hawking $10 beats.

For all their love of musicians you'd probably think of as tolerant and progressive, I wouldn't put it past some of these guys to absolutely devour the words of Jordan Peterson (via Insta story soundbites, not his books). Really, they spend so much time in front of their phones, absorbing so much information and so many slogans, that they may well latch on to this kind of stuff without really interrogating it.

Too young to have rode the Xanax wave, and scared off drugs by the death of Lil Peep (who died in 2017 after an accidental overdose of fentanyl and Xanax), you're not likely to find them smoking Thai stick in the park. These are not the Fuelled By Ramen children of 2006. Instead, they are perma-online, fine-tuning their TikTok videos – a platform on which the e-boy hashtag currently has over 500 million views.

Really, the best way to understand them is to look at their content. Primarily, that exists in three different forms:

1) Trying to be as jarring as possible on TikTok, by playing heavy music and sneering.

2) Jumping from one look to another on TikTok, while some rap music plays in the background.

3) Doing that rolling yours eyes into the back of your head thing that the Undertaker invented exactly 30 years ago on WWF, and that every single Soundcloud rapper now does constantly.

That's another trait of the e-boy: being generally gross. It's something they've cribbed from Billie Eilish, queen of the e-boys (and their female counterparts, e-girls, who i-D wrote about here). But alongside that grossness, they also rival 2007 Myspace kids in the pouting stakes. It's a fine line, really: a load of posturing to show everyone how beautiful they are, with just enough purposefully manky stuff to remind their audience they really don't care about looks.

Sort of related: the surprising amount of references made to BDSM sex (dom, sub, switch, etc). Which makes sense, because really the arrival of the e-boy is the culmination of an online culture maintained by grown adults who refer to everything from pop stars to pens as "daddy".

The sexual undertones of the e-boy / girl culture have already gone mainstream. In Billie Eilish's video for "bad guy", the 17-year-old sings: "So you're a tough guy / like it really rough guy" while pouring milk into a guy's throat. This is art, of course, and there's a power attached to Eilish's work and her reversal of traditional gender roles – but it's slightly harder to make a case for a teenage boy on TikTok pretending to choke, and then kiss, his iPhone.

If history has taught us anything, it's that most of these guys are just a haircut and bin-full of jewellery away from being normie nine-to-fivers – in the same way that every single former Hawthorne Heights fan now works in a strip-lit office, their droopy ear lobes the only giveaway of the life they once led.

But, for now: long live the e-boy.

@ryanbassil / @esmerelduh