I am in a room in my parent’s house. For brevity purposes, I’ll call it my room but it is not really mine and it was imperative of my parents to remind me of this at opportune times. This room is my home and my prison; a safe space at one moment and hell in another. It is fall, school has been in session for a few weeks and it is a dry, humid night in Tallahassee, Florida. I am writing in a composition notebook furiously, illegibly and incoherently: it is all earnest, dramatic emotion and self-indulgence in the way only teenagers can be. The world was out to get me and my only weapon were my words and my only support was the loud, fast, aggressively emotional emocore music that I’d been obsessed with.
When you’re a kid all you want is escape. Everyone and everything around you is dismissive towards you and ultimately interested in teaching you how to comply and how to follow orders. I grew up in a town that alternated between too humid and raining, where hanging out in an empty parking lot with friends was a reasonably good Saturday night and where the only thing that will ever matter in this life is what was happening at that very moment as far as we were concerned. I listened to a lot of rap but for all of rap’s brutal honesty, nothing I was exposed to identified with my embarrassing, navel-gazing immature ideas of being heartbroken as a teenager. At least not yet, that would come later, but at first it was all white sensitive males making power pop and punk-lite records about nostalgia, past mistakes and Salinger.
Emo is full-stop white dude tunnel vision and self-aggrandizement. It is almost comically open about feeling every kind of feeling and treating them all like scripture. It is self-involved in a way that is irresistible to a teenager that cannot see outside of themselves and to an adult that wants to remind themselves of those self-involved days every so often. You never forget the records you first obsessed over. The CDs you wear out until they can’t be played anymore, the lyrics you memorized like it was bible study, the way they made you feel every time they came one. I feel no shame in being obsessed with any of it. It all served a purpose. I knew every cringeworthy word on those Taking Back Sunday songs, I had my mental dictionary updated for every new Dashboard Confessional song I heard and I gleefully jumped into The Cure wormhole and wrapped myself in its esoteric grandiose.
A popular theme in a lot of this music (and music in general) is death. The ultimate go-to for every pedestrian poet: death is a game in this context and an excuse to bloviate in hyperbolic terms the tragedy of one’s own existence. Not to say that everyone is doing it for that purpose: depression is rampant in art and death is a valid focus and is capable of being used for genuine introspection. It’s also so tried and true that every artist thinks they can make death sound revolutionary. The ultimate protest to an unjust, ugly world. Sunny Day Real Estate made it sound like such a seductive choice and Nirvana made it feel like a sweet relief.
The romanticization of death is a luxury and a privilege. It’s easy to fetishize and create a fantasy out of death when it’s not a real part of your life. In rap music, death is either expressed through hopelessness about the situation and life that you’ve been cursed with or it’s a tool used to shield the fear you walk with every day. What’s more gangster than convincing people you aren’t scared to die? It’s a lie of course, but you hold that front in the face of an unforgiving world. Death is at your front door and it can consume you or you can use it against others. The bands I obsessed over in that room didn’t know death in that way. Some of them were depressed and some knew what loss was, but by and large, death was foreign. It was foreign to me too: as a black kid in the suburbs, I got the sane luxury of finding the romance in death, using my depression not to search inward, but to make myself the hero of my own tragedy.
The past couple of years have been a hard one for this country and for Black people especially. There is news of black people being murdered by the state, by self-proclaimed vigilantes and by each other at a constant rate. A couple years ago, a gunmen unloaded at an elementary school and we as a country decided this was a price worth paying if it meant no regulation on our guns. A couple months back, 9 people lost their lives inside of a church; it was supposed to be their safe space and under the protection of God. There have been too many deaths to name and many more will probably come.
In the midst of this, one of the things making my skin crawl is the casualness with which we share videos of Black men, women and children being murdered on camera as though it’s the latest viral cat video. The news of murdered Americans is already becoming numbing to us and now we’re trying to make ourselves numb to the actual sight of their death. When this is not happening then the lives and bodies of these once alive, loved human beings are being used as mascots for the agendas of various people for both good and bad reasons. Whether it was intended, their death is now romanticized in service to something bigger. So it goes.
There is no romance in death: there is only the fact of it and the inevitability that we will all be there. As I’ve gotten older my thought process has grown but so has my depression. I look back and reflect on the boy in that room who couldn’t wait to escape from it all with fondness and I roll my eyes at his self-obsession and his fixation on death as being beautiful and poetic. He doesn’t know better; that’s usually how all the best romances happen.