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TikTok’s emo revival emerged from the creative chaos of quarantine

What happens when nostalgia, fashion, gossip, and trend-chasing collide

Abstract illustration inspired by EMO music in blacks, magentas and purples Illustration: Inkee Wang for Polygon

Everywhere you look right now, the sounds and fashions of 15 years ago, ones relegated to MySpace profiles and the Hot Topic next to a mall’s food court, are getting a huge amount of mainstream attention. It may seem counterintuitive that a mall-punk renaissance is happening at a moment when physical malls are largely inaccessible, but it starts to make sense when you realize that TikTok is doing for the current generation of internet users what MySpace did to the previous one.

Every day on the internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become old news five minutes later. In Polygon’s new series The Next Generation of Everything, we’re looking at what’s blowing up in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest shifts say about where Extremely Online life is going next.

The former rapper Machine Gun Kelly picked up a guitar last year and released a shockingly straightforward pop punk album called Tickets To My Down Fall, which went number one on the Billboard 200. Emo rappers like nothing,nowhere and KennyHoopla are making rock songs with Blink-182’s Travis Barker. Hyperpop artists like 100 Gecs are collaborating with Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy. And Rebecca Black remixed her viral hit “Friday” with a feature from the newly-reunited emo-adjacent rap group 3OH!3, who are, themselves, putting out songs with 100 Gecs. Meanwhile, a bevy of Gen Z rock solo acts are pumping out radio-friendly pop emo songs, including YUNGBLUD and TikTokers Chase Hudson and Jaden Hossler.

Sad bedroom music is breaking down genre boundaries, turning everything into laptop music to be shared on smartphones. It’s a music and fashion movement as jumbled and nonlinear as the internet, a mess of sounds and aesthetics resurrected from the dead by the combined forces of TikTok’s algorithm, 2000s nostalgia, and COVID lockdown boredom.

The current champion of this wave of “TikTokcore,” as you could call it, is Travis Barker. The Blink-182 drummer has long been connected to the hip-hop scene, but in the last few years, has become extremely active in working with both emo rappers and hugely popular TikTok influencers.

The album he produced with Machine Gun Kelly last year is the most popular album of Kelly’s career and its four singles have been watched a collective 138 million times on YouTube. It also spawned a rock opera of sorts, “Downfalls High,” which uses the album as the backing track to a 49-minute teen drama, starring TikToker Chase Hudson and Sydney Sweeney from HBO’s Euphoria.

“Downfalls High” also works as the Avengers: Endgame of Barker’s TikTok-pop-punk-emo-rap cinematic universe. It features appearances from artists like rapper turned one-man emo band Trippie Redd, emo rap breakout Blackbear, and frequent Machine Gun Kelly collaborator Mod Sun, who also helped write it.

Mod Sun told Polygon that TikTok has completely changed the way he and his collaborators think about music. “TikTok, bro, what a perfect example of the fans making the majority of the Top 40 now,” Mod Sun told Polygon. “The artist doesn’t even post the TikTok. It’s literally fans of music posting the TikTok that blows up the song and then it puts these kids in the lead.”

In many ways, the stereotypical image of a “scene kid” that anyone can conjure in their head — black T-shirt, white belt, skinny jeans, converse shoes, floppy dyed black hair — was an internet subculture first and musical movement second. So it makes sense that this would all come back around as a new generation starts using technology to express themselves musically. Mod Sun likens choosing a song to accompany a TikTok to picking a profile song for your MySpace page.

“Us scene kids invented the selfie. I will say that loud and clear,” the musician said. “But furthermore, you remember putting that profile song on your MySpace and you remember championing bands in your top 8.”

Mod Sun just released the aptly named album, Internet Killed The Rock Star. It features a collaboration with millennial mall punk icon Avril Lavigne — whose name he just got tattooed on his neck, leading to rumors the two may be dating. He’s also a walking scene music encyclopedia and comes with the bonafides to back it up: he was the drummer in two hugely influential post-hardcore bands in the mid-2000s, Four Letter Lie and Scary Kids, Scaring Kids.

He said one of the biggest factors leading to the explosion of this TikTok-optimized sound right now is the production flexibility of hip-hop. “There’s no denying that rap and hip-hop have totally meshed and bled into everything,” he said. “Completely down the line. Even country. Listen to country. They’re rapping.”

This sample-happy approach to rock music has dovetailed with younger rock musicians who are now a lot more comfortable working without a band.

“I mean maybe that’s what was making artists like Ariana Grande shit on the sales of bands like the Foo Fighters,” he said. “Because we can fall in love with Ariana. We’re in love with Dave Grohl. And, like, I’m in love with [Foo Fighters drummer] Taylor Hawkins, but to be totally honest — I, obviously, love everyone else in the Foo Fighters, and they’ve obviously had an influence on everything — but like, bro, I’m in love with Dave Grohl.”

This connection between influencer and rock star is not new, but TikTokers like Chase Hudson, who is now making his own pop punk songs under the name LILHUDDY, are inverting it. They’re using TikTok popularity to launch music careers. LILHUDDY’s first single, “21st Century Vampire,” has almost 6 million views on YouTube. And he just released a second single earlier this month called “The Eulogy of You and Me”. Both tracks were produced by Barker.

Another TikToker that Barker has taken under his wing is Jaden Hossler, who performs under the name jxdn. His song “So What!” from last summer has been viewed 17 million times on YouTube. It was jxdn’s songs that first caught the attention of Finn McKenty, a music writer who runs the Punk Rock MBA YouTube channel. He’s been talking about this new influencer-led wave of rock music longer than anyone else and takes it very seriously.

“This kind of celebrity culture matters to young kids,” McKenty told Polygon. “Like Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau and shit like that. What those people do. That’s what matters.”

McKenty said it’s not an accident that Mod Sun is on the forefront of this new wave of TikTok-optimized pop punk. He’s been romantically linked to famous YouTuber and Jake Paul’s former fake wife Tana Mongeau, as well as Bella Thorne, an actress who is constantly involved in internet drama. McKenty compared it to Pete Wentz’s dick pic being leaked and going viral on MySpace while tabloids breathlessly followed his every move.

“Another example of this is [LILHUDDY], who is Charli D’Amelio’s boyfriend. So the fact that Charli D’Amelio’s boyfriend — you know, she’s the coolest zoomer girl on the planet right now — and the fact that her boyfriend makes what might as well be a Good Charlotte song is very interesting.”

Because this is all happening on TikTok means it’s not just a music trend or a fashion trend or a jumble of internet gossip — it’s the convergence of all of it at once. At the center of the app is the For You Page, which is endlessly recommending content personalized for every user. Videos that go viral on TikTok have to be remixable. What this boils down to is music that has to sound good, but it also has to have moments that you can make videos with. It’s a full multimedia experience, even if we’re just talking about boys with floppy hair singing about heartbreak over 808s and power chords.

“I would put it into two camps,” McKenty said. “One camp is the ‘born in le wrong generation’-type kids that really are geeking out about Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and all that kind of stuff because it’s like retro for them in the same way as 10 years ago when those ‘born in le wrong generation’ kids were geeking out about Nirvana.”

The other camp, McKenty said, is the E-boys and E-girls, which he compares to the scene kids of the MySpace era. “They were there just to party and if you were playing Hollywood Undead in the background that’s cool, but like, their goal was to be popular and party a lot,” he said. (The mega-popular Twitch streamer and true crime YouTuber Corpse Husband released a song called “E-GIRLS ARE RUINING MY LIFE!” last September that has 33 million views on YouTube.)

McKenty said the thing that will really decide whether all of this is just a weird phase Gen Z went through during COVID lockdown or not is if it can produce a bonafide rock star. He said the rapper Lil Peep could have been that person.

In fact, every person interviewed for this piece brought up Lil Peep. The rapper was right on the cusp of a major breakthrough when he died after an accidental overdose on fentanyl and Xanax in his tour bus in 2017. Lil Peep was far from the first rapper to try merging rock and rap, but his use of songs from indie, emo, and pop punk bands like UnderOATH, Brand New, The Postal Service, and Owen shifted the way many younger artists thought about rock music. Simply put, he proved pop punk power chords and emo twiddling can mix with synths and drum machines.

Marianne Eloise, a British music writer who focuses heavily on emo, said that Lil Peep was one of the main artists that invented the sound that’s currently all over TikTok. “He died before TikTok was popular. It just so happened that after a few years of emo coming back, along came this platform that is so music-centric,” she said.

Eloise has also noticed the influencer inversion of the rock star. She pointed to YUNGBLUD, a British artist who sort of sounds like a Top 40-safe Gen Z version of Bert McCracken from The Used, as a good example. He’s a frequent guest on Machine Gun Kelly’s songs.

“I think that’s where YUNGBLUD might come in even though he’s not a TikTok artist — he’s someone whose fans and image came before any thought was given to the music,” she said. “I hate it! I sound so old, but I want musicians who care about their music and playing shows first and foremost. I hate seeing rock stars be semi-manufactured. It feels so cynical and depressing to force music out of someone just because they’re famous online.”

Jeris Johnson, a 24-year-old TikToker with over a million followers on the app, told Polygon that he was actually making music first and then decided to use TikTok to promote it.

“When TikTok came around I was like, ‘Well, this is the biggest stage in the world right now — or it’s about to be — so I better figure out how to use it and use it well or else I’m just going to drown’,” he said.

He said he’s very aware of the emo and pop punk revival that people like Machine Gun Kelly and LILHUDDY are leading right now, but was quick to say that it’s probably already on its way out. “OK, what comes after emo?” he asked.

Johnson digs through old radio rock songs, looking for sounds he likes, remixes them, and then sings his own material over it. His videos get hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok and his online popularity has led to him recording a music video with Papa Roach, reimagining their 2000 nu metal anthem “Last Resort” as a TikTok rock song. He said his white whale right now is remixing a Nickelback song into a TikTok hit.

Johnson said that the short-form video app is rewiring the way his brain thinks about music. “I hear a lot of songs now and I think of TikTok when I hear them. Like if some artist shows me a song that they’re working on and it’s unreleased or something, there’s something about it. There will be moments where I’m like ‘oh yeah that’s a TikTok thing,’” he said.

As for the future, Johnson thinks the emo and pop punk revival happening right now will break down further. Emo sounds, rock sounds, hip-hop sounds will all blur further and further together. He’s particularly excited by hyperpop, a newer genre of EDM led by artists like 100 Gecs, the late producer SOPHIE, and most recently, Rebecca Black. It blends emo-tinged autotuned vocals with Dance Dance Revolution trance beats, the distortion and screams of post-hardcore, and a visual aesthetic that could best be described as “Windows Movie Maker AMV.”

“Honestly, I think quarantine for the past year has put all of these kids, these teenagers and young 20s, locked up in our fucking rooms, with nothing better to do than just go crazy on Ableton or FL Studio or something,” he said. “So you’re just getting this wild shit where kids have had nothing better to do than just sit in their fucking room and make crazy shit. Music to me is just going through a renaissance time period right now. A lot of shit is being thrown at the wall right now because of the way the world is and because of technology advancing so much.”

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