When you love someone’s music—wholly, deeply, and very vocally love it—people associate you with them.
This is something I learned when Prince died unexpectedly last year and my mam sent me messages of love and concern with a rapidity she typically reserves for live texting scenes from Blue Planet. It’s something I became more familiar with as I checked in on various friends and family members after George Michael, Gregg Allman, Tom Petty. But it’s not something I understood properly until yesterday when, from the moment I woke up to long past midnight, my phone lit up with the same message over and over again: “I’m so sorry to hear about Lil Peep.”
Born Gustav Åhr, Lil Peep (a nickname given to him by his mother) was one of the most unique, inventive and promising artists of the last few years. He was part of Gothboiclique—a larger collective of musicians who blended alternative music and trap in various different styles, and was the last member they welcomed into their fold before deciding to lock the doors. They had everyone they needed. Lil Peep was picked up by music press towards the end of 2016, partially because he was so visually distinctive (having “Crybaby” tattooed on your forehead will do that) but primarily because there was something so compelling about his presence in general. With such a long future ahead of him, with so much left undone, he died suddenly on November 15 from a suspected drug overdose. He was 21 years old.
Lil Peep has left a body of work behind him that’s impressively cohesive and definitive for such a new artist, especially one so young. His identity was embossed so boldly onto everything he did that his music felt less like something he created and more like an extension of himself. As a result, Lil Peep was an artist with an intense cult fandom full of kids who felt deeply connected to him. His Instagram page is crammed with fan art; illustrations, anime, a doll someone painstakingly altered to mirror his likeness—tattoos and all. The vast majority of the shows he played were sold out, if not all of them. Every venue crammed wall to wall with teens, mostly, chanting his name, howling every single word and wielding flowers to throw on the stage. That appreciation wasn’t something Lil Peep took for granted, and he gave it back just as passionately. The last thing he posted to Instagram, just a few hours before his death, was a picture of three girls in GBC shirts. The caption says, “Look at my beautiful fans awwwww.”
His inability to be anything but his whole self, and the natural charisma with which he would express it, was nothing short of captivating. It’s a way of existing that’s so honest and rare it catches you off guard. His lyrics display the same vulnerability, candidly revealing in no uncertain terms his struggles with depression, drug use, and life in general. This is why so many people, myself included, became obsessed with his music—it communicates a feeling of helpless oblivion common to those of us who don’t feel rooted to anything, and though it hardly has the answers (for the most part, it actively avoids asking questions that could garner any) it’s certainly a comforting presence. It’s also fun as hell to shout at the top of your voice in a sweaty, swarming room of a few hundred other people who feel equally fucking lost. As his close friend, Gothboiclique producer Nedarb, says, “his music is therapy to many people”.
Now, social media is awash with grief. A cursory search on Twitter—not that I would recommend it—will yield hundreds of eulogies from fans expressing their heartbreak and appreciation for the way Lil Peep’s music helped them through a hard time. The latter of which stings a bit when you consider the degree to which drug use was a part of Lil Peep’s appeal in the first place. The last time I saw him, in late September, the song that popped off most was “U Said” from his last release, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part 1). From the balcony, I looked down on a crowd of 700 kids crushing one another to a chorus of: “Sometimes life gets fucked up / That’s why we get fucked up.”
It’s not a new form of expression, and he’s hardly alone in it today. Between “Mask Off,” “MotorSport,” and literally countless others, 2017 has thrown up its fair share of chart hits couched exclusively in a repetitive list of amphetamines and benzos. Now is not the time to have a conversation about Xanax. Now is not the time to harangue recreational drug users, or start any sort of “see, drugs are bad” dialogue. What we can do is admit why so many of us related to Lil Peep on such an emotional level, which is, to put it simply: we saw something of ourselves in him.
Like most kids his age, Lil Peep lived his life very much online. There’s no use in drudging up specific photographs or captions, suffice to say there was no point over the last year in which anyone was under any illusions that he was living healthily and happily. As is often the case with fame, the fact that someone has hundreds and thousands of adoring fans at their fingertips does not make them any less alone. We’ve all found ourselves scrolling through news feeds in the early hours of the morning, finding comfort in the glow of a phone screen and ‘liking’ things while feeling terrible. We’ve all said “yeah, fine” to a friend only to log on to Twitter ten minutes later and literally scream for help. Famous people are no different.
There have already been comparisons drawn between the impact of Kurt Cobain’s death on young people in 1994 and the impact of Lil Peep’s death on young people now, and I’m sure there will be more to come. It is a disservice to both individuals to compare them in any way, shape, or form. But there is some truth in the fundamental tragedy of things in that they are both figures who represent the troubles befalling young people of their generation. In Lil Peep’s case, he is every kid sat on Reddit alone at 3 AM listening to a Soundcloud playlist and reading up on where to buy ketamine on the deep web. Like every charismatic posterboy before him, Lil Peep felt like every cool and silly thing about his cultural environment rolled into a persona and amplified. He was stick n’ pokes, pink camo and La Croix. He was thrusting his tongue out in photos, calling people “daddy,” and talking about his sexuality on Twitter. He was also a human being. His life—and death—lends itself to romanticisms because in many ways he felt almost beyond human, too. And his passing is heartbreaking not only because it came far too soon, but because we now have to reckon with the fact that his otherworldliness did not make him as invincible as we may have wanted to perceive him to be.
Since his fanbase is so young, Peep’s death will likely be the first time many of them will have to deal with the loss of an artist they love. For culture at large, it’s the first time we will have to deal with the loss of someone who was known the way he was. The last few years have been cruel in terms of how many icons we’ve lost both within music and beyond, but I can’t think of anyone who was as young as Peep, as famous as Peep, and as accessible as Peep. I listened to his music constantly, but I also read his thoughts several times a day. I saw his face more times than I saw my own, and I heard his voice more frequently than I heard the voices of some of my closest friends. I witnessed him in love, and I witnessed him going through a breakup. I watched him wander around his London home on Instagram live, blazed and watching The Hobbit, talking at thousands of strangers, thousands of miles away, who loved him for reasons he genuinely did not understand. That loss is very real, and very new. It’s hard to know where to place it. It feels deeply personal, and in some ways it is.
The human brain is very strange, and grief often finds a way of transposing itself. We can move with calm and composure through the death of a grandparent and fall to pieces when a sock goes missing. The way society operates now encourages us to process things in accordance with a 24 hour news cycle—every day, a fresh weight of information and trauma dumped upon our shoulders. Answers to complicated questions to be unpacked and articulated without so much as the breathing space to experience the emotions they enkindle. I think we owe it to this poor kid not to rush through remembering him. To give his friends and family the space to deal with their grief, even when the nature of social media compels you to close those spaces. To check in on your own friends and family. To keep asking how they’re doing, even when they’re not reaching out—especially when they’re not reaching out.
Lil Peep appeared in our lives seemingly out of nowhere and departed just as fast, like a comet burning up on the edge of the atmosphereblink and you might miss him. I met Lil Peep for an interview in July, and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to be in his company. He was kind, funny, and generous with his time and thoughts. When we got onto the subject of older critics scrambling to understand him, he was unfazed—comfortable in where he was already and confident that he would get to the top. “They don’t [get it] yet, but they will soon,” he said, “It’s gonna take a while, it might even take a couple of years, but soon enough everyone’s gonna get it.”
Lil Peep felt like the future of something not yet fully formed. It’s a great loss that we won’t get to see what that could have looked like under his influence. His time here was tragically brief but what he did with it will live on forever. I just wish there could have been more.