The first time I saw Lil Peep, I laughed. He looked absurd, like nothing I had seen before, dancing in the snow with a pink sweater on and a freshly tattooed broken heart on his face. He was the perfect visual accompaniment to his music, his expression simultaneously joyful and hopeless, spiteful and forgiving, lovelorn but passionless at the same time.
Most of all, though, his music was like his clothes, his tattoos, and the bits of his personality he shared with his adoring fans in that it felt absolutely and unabashedly real. Lil Peep was Lil Peep in no uncertain terms, and it is in that uncompromising commitment to be himself that his legacy lies.
From a distance, to summarize Lil Peep’s too-short life and career seems like an easy task. Born Gustav Åhr, he took on the name Lil Peep when he began making music in his teenage years as a method of coping with severe depression, using a childhood nickname given to him by his mother (who Peep declared to be “his best friend” in numerous interviews).
He was a talented musician, the first who was able to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of mixing trashy rock and rap influences into something that was listenable and then taking things one step further and making music that was indisputably good. He struggled with mental illness and drug addiction, two aspects of his psyche that were integral to his public persona.
He confounded contemporary critics, even angered them, by forcing them to confront the fact that a scrawny kid from the suburbs with “Crybaby” tattooed on his forehead was bringing back the unhinged scrawl of “Good Charlotte” or “Taking Back Sunday” and not only were people were listening to it, they were loving it. His fan base was voracious and passionate, and when he died two weeks after his 21st birthday there was a tremendous outpouring of grief from all over the music industry.
This is the summary of his life that will go on his Wikipedia page, 21 years abridged into one paragraph explaining the where and the when and the how of Lil Peep. What it isn’t, however, is an explanation, an explanation of why he was, is, and will be so important to so many people.
I went to see Lil Peep on November 1, his 21st birthday, and never before have I seen a more passionate crowd. Every single human there knew all the words to every single one of his songs, and screamed along to them with unadulterated and absolute joy. This is despite the fact that Peep’s lyrics were often graphic depictions of his struggles with depression, public contemplations of suicide and recountings of the drugs he took to stave them off.
He spoke frankly, but with purpose. Pessimists could accuse his songs of being corny or indulgent or even dangerously close to glorification, and sometimes they could be, but to himself and to his fans it was of greater importance that they were authentic. In “star shopping,” one of the first songs he ever recorded, he confides in the listener, murmuring “this music’s the only thing keeping the peace when I’m falling to pieces.”
To both himself and to many of his listeners, his songs were tools of survival, music that acknowledged all the depravity and hollowness that can be found in this world but still refused to let that negativity bog him down. Its very existence is a testimony to Peep’s resilience, that he boldly stood fast in the face of ever-encroaching nihilism, battering back the notion that life is meaningless with raw tearing vocals and hammering, distorted bass.
Stylistically, there’s been a tendency to pigeonhole Lil Peep as the herald of a new form of music often dubbed something like “emo-trap.” Theoretically, this is true. He built a name for himself by throwing 808 drum beats over samples from bands like Brand New, and his vocals come across as equal parts Blink-182 and Gucci Mane. It’s an understandable way of looking at his music, but it does a disservice to Peep as an artist to look at his work in such a simplified manner.
Peep doesn’t signify a future in which the music industry is dominated by emo rap– he signifies a future in which the music industry is dominated by individuality. He is an example of everything an internet artist can be, someone who took advantage of this generation’s ever-expanding open minds to make the music he found beautiful in this world without any pressure to conform to genre lines.
I know nothing of how Gustav Åhr and Lil Peep compared to one another, and all I know of Lil Peep is what he chose to share with the public. However, I do know what I saw in that crowd of his fans as they sang along to his every word, crushed together in a desperate attempt to get closer to their idol.
I saw corny, authentic inspiration. With every song Peep released, with every melody and every word he wrote, he demonstrated that humans are capable of giving their lives their own meaning, that there is room in this world for every manifestation of humanity no matter how strange it may be. That he was claimed by addiction is tragic for an innumerable amount of reasons, but hopefully those who loved him can take at least some solace in the knowledge that this is his legacy, that despite all of the horrors in his head he was able to ultimately spread positivity.