In 2016, Suicide Squad was released. Opening to flaccid box office performance and general critical loathing, it may be the most cringeworthy example yet of mainstream money attempting entry into the youth misery market.
The plot: fundamentally broken misfit outsiders, betrayed by those in power, assert that their dysfunctional identities are valid. The writing: mental illness mascot Harley Quinn dropping lines like, “I need a victim, a mind to pry apart and spit in.” The purple-green-blue-pink sickly vaporwave colors. The soundtrack centerpiece “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots. The actual name of the movie. All of these point to Hollywood executives trying to understand what’s happening to young people, on the internet, in the privacy of our bedrooms.
It was a sad attempt, shoehorned into a painfully typical superhero-action tentpole, but it won’t be the last attempt, because there’s big money in mining the disillusioned emotional wasteland of contemporary youth. We live in an era when isolation and pain are typical topics of conversation in young in-group spaces online, and teens and young adults are historically the most fertile ground for the attention of marketers and culture-pushers.
The Atlantic recently published a thoroughly researched deep-dive into the effects of social media and screen time on young adults, and those effects, though not exactly shocking, are surprising in their breadth and severity. Increased screen-and-social-media time is correlated with lessened desire to hang out with friends in person, avoidance of life milestones like acquiring a driver’s license or moving out of the family home, less dating, less sex, and an increased tendency to experience loneliness.
“Enlightened The Secret capitalism has fomented a revolution in unhealth.”
Inside the bubble of youth culture, especially alternative culture, these trends are news to precisely nobody. Young online art spaces are saturated with memes about mental health, songs about xanax, sad-girl explorations of the liberating nature of femme emotional expression, and sad-boy assertions of toxic, myopic masculine angst.
Many of these online voices and textures simultaneously explore queerness, intentional fragility, sadness, asexuality, and unproductive behavior—in part because there’s so much pressure in contemporary capitalist culture to be simultaneously happy, hetero, horny, healthy, strong, and productive. Wellness culture and the go-get-’em, follow-your-dreams start up mentality have bred unintended social consequences: since every insistent cultural hegemony gets balanced by young rebellion, enlightened The Secret capitalism has fomented a revolution in unhealth.
“Social media is simultaneously making us depressed... and making money off the creative products of our depression.”
Largely this is because the native dreams of that capitalism are now impossible. This depression and isolation may have economic underpinnings. Many of us were sent to college dreaming of our own world-changing potential, and we emerged with grim job prospects and massive amounts of debt. This participation-trophy childhood is often laid at the feet of younger generations with blame, but nobody blaming us seems to have a very clear idea of what we should do about it.
So naturally, we did what young people do best: we rebelled against the expectations of the previous generation. Instead of “being somebody” and “going places,” we luxuriate aggressively in being nobody and going nowhere.
That go-nowhere ethos gets embedded in music and pop culture and fed back to us, larger than life. Chart-topping artists like The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, Lana Del Rey, and Drake tell despondent bedroom stories. Those stories are produced in broad, sweeping technicolor, and we experience them as mythologies to live by. Staying indoors, dropping out, self-anesthetization, and confessionals about listlessness and meaningless sex: the reality-pop texture of these stories makes them relatable, makes it seem like we’re hearing private details from lives like ours.
Meanwhile, ASMR YouTube channels deliver personal attention and affection to help us deal with our thirst for intimacy and connection, and to deaden the anxiety-inducing hype of the 24/7 news. An MIT student recently crowdsourced a map of the best places to cry on campus. The percocet textures of contemporary music slow down, mellow out, and soothe as an antidote the deepening emotional turmoil stoked by both our addictive devices and the media they carry. When someone drops an album titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, we experience that as a liberating mantra.
Last year the world lost Lil Peep, a prime avatar for the modern expression of misery, to an overdose of fentanyl and Xanax. He was a master at blending emo and hip-hop textures and aesthetics to get at what it feels like to be young today: if you watch one of his final performances, the love the crowd showers him with is almost physical. They chant those lyrics because feeling understood, in this new landscape of alienation, is vital and desperate currency. And Peep himself, Suicide Squad color scheme and all, made it clear that his engagement with depression was part-performance, part-real:
“Yeah, it’s serious. I suffer from depression and some days I wake up and I’m like, Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up... Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media. That’s the side of myself that I express through music. That’s my channel for letting all that shit out.”
The more genuine and fucked up the performance, and the more that performance leaks into the performer’s life, the more emotionally engaged the audience. These artists may play with suicide and depression to build brand credibility, but they also do it to underline the severity of our collective condition. It isn’t a game, and despite the performative nature of this work—the stakes are genuine. If you’re happy, these days, you don’t seem real.
This blurring of the online media fictions we create with the reality of our lives is something digital natives are familiar with. We do it every day—we know the faces we present on the internet are not our whole selves, but they feel so real, so vital—and when “they” get cut, we bleed. Deep emotional labor goes into our online personas, and real connections and experiences come out of them.
Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and other online aggregators of experience know this. They’re aware of our sadness, and they count on it for revenue.
Real emotional investment fuels the network effects of social engagement and sucks us back in, which is why Facebook has ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ reacts and why these companies invest in sentiment analysis to track how we feel and what we devote our attention to. Our emotions are the gasoline on which the whole contraption runs, and the software makers want to keep that gas tank full. They sell the data they harvest; that’s their business model.
“Our emotions are the gasoline on which the whole contraption runs, and the software makers want to keep that gas tank full.”
This creates a strange situation for the Misery Artists of the world, and for us, their audience and fellow content creators. If you buy that Atlantic article, social media is simultaneously making us depressed... and making money off the creative products of our depression. And unlike the most successful Misery Artists, most of us aren’t getting paid.
When these performers and brands and content creators blur their own affective boundaries, they emphasize that these are real emotions. Real lives are getting monetized into the ground: our lives. Most of us don’t get back nearly the value that gets extracted from us by social media networks and search engines and all the rest. We create data, one of the most valuable resources in the modern world, and we’re compensated with a slick user experience and some moments of halfway-decent entertainment, often from watching content other people are creating for free. We create that data and that content with our feelings, our sweat, and our tears. And apparently, it’s making us miserable.
Lil Peep’s death was a public and visible tragedy, and it serves to underline that most mental health tragedies are invisible and outside the spotlight. Treatment is expensive and difficult to get, and the tech industry is only now beginning to recognize that they might bear some responsibility for what’s happening. Our digital culture, up until now, has been rigged to perpetuate and glamorize this trend towards unhealth in every dimension, not stop it.
It’s a strange cycle, and it’s unclear how—or if—we’ll ever escape. Sometimes it seems like the most rebellious and creative thing to do would be to leave these platforms, or make something that violates them, but it’s unclear what would motivate us to leave, or why those behind social media would be motivated to help us—Facebook’s initial solution to the problem was to encourage people to use Facebook more. Now Zuckerberg is finally admitting that corporate greed might be incompatible with human health, but the reaction of Facebook’s stockholders to that admission has been negative, paranoid, and has revealed the true bones of the beast. Even in spite of the mechanics of capitalism, many of us would find it hard to leave the online world behind. We have our performative feelings, siphoned into the algorithm, and the internet-free childhoods of the millennials grow dimmer and dimmer in the rearview glow of the screen. Gen Z, by contrast, was born online.
“There’s big money in mining the disillusioned emotional wasteland of contemporary youth.”
Emo, the previous wave of misery music that flourished near the beginning of this century, was all about catharsis. The (usually male) emotions were expressed loudly and were meant to rupture the bob-along cadence of Top 40 at the time, a melange of relationship-focused R&B and saccharine Max Martin confectionary pop. Emo seemed to be about a revolution in sadness. It seemed confident that it could overturn the established order. My Chemical Romance made sad loners feel like they could win; made them feel like admitting “I’m Not Okay” was a kind of victory. Maybe this difference was economic: back then, we thought we’d be able to grow up and get jobs after we were done being sad. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Modern inheritors of that tradition like Twenty One Pilots see no such light. The cathartic tantrum is dialed down and deadened by electronic textures and nihilistic menace. In the video for “Stressed Out,” the members pedal around their childhood neighborhood on big-wheel trikes. There’s melancholy in the atmosphere, but nostalgia too, like the musicians are clinging to this bleakness because it represents something real to them. As stifling as it could be hanging around our parents’ houses, at least it was singular and unique. At least it belonged only to us, and not to The Internet. The lyrics go:
“Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out”
And, perhaps even more tellingly:
“Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money!’”
We’re asleep, and we’re working for free.
But the vulnerable, low-energy, emotional component of this music is always accompanied by a certain kind of menace. In “Heathens,” the Twenty One Pilots track that undergirds the mall-goth neon closing credits of Suicide Squad, the words are both self-effacing and foreboding:
“We don’t deal with outsiders very well;
They say newcomers have a certain smell”
And, repeated over and over like a heartbeat under the slow-motion explosion of the song’s final crescendo:
Those two words are piped through a monstrously deep vocal filter, like they’re bubbling up from the culture’s subconscious, and they sound like someone cocking a gun. They act both as a warning to outsiders and a dog-whistle to other young people experiencing this pain: we’ve got a posse. We may have no way to escape, but you’re not welcome in our padded cell unless you’re just as fucked up as we are. There may be no effective way for us to resist, but that doesn’t mean we have to like you. You may be watching our feeds (and monetizing them), but maybe you should watch your back.