Rap Is In Its Never-Ending ‘Decline Of Western Civilization’ On Social Media
It’s been five years since Kanye West proclaimed rap is the new rock and roll.
The former has officially surpassed the latter as America’s most popular genre of music. Coincidentally, rap has celebrated the shift by appropriating rock: the hedonistic lifestyles, the fashion, the sounds. Even contemporary rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and Travis Scott are calling themselves rock stars.
Through social media, fans of these and other rappers get to see them live out their lives in real time. What we’re witnessing is a 24/7 Decline of Western Civilization.
A documentary directed by Penelope Spheeris, The Decline of Western Civilization offered a candid look into the lives of rock artists. Beginning with the Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Spheeris went on to create two more Decline documentaries, with the second and third exploring L.A.’s heavy metal scene and the city’s gutter punk scene, respectively.
Decline is just as much a commentary on people’s fascination with entertainers and their private and public lives as it is the culture associated with a music genre. Through Spheeris, viewers are offered a transparency and context that unpacks the sociological complexities of these genres and the cultures they birthed.
Behind the fights that break out between concertgoers as well as band members and concertgoers, there are scenes that contextualize that angst. From Decline showing then-Black Flag lead singer Ron Reyes living in a defunct church closet for $16 a month to Decline III highlighting police harassment of punks, Spheeris shows that abuse of power, poverty, and other societal problems serve as catalysts for the anger and energy associated with punk rock.
But the most popular of the trilogy is Decline II, which highlights the poignant humanity of glorified heavy metal artists. This commentary is best captured in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, with W.A.S.P. lead guitarist Chris Holmes.
In the scene, Holmes is laying on an inflatable chair in a pool and downing a bottle of vodka as he calls himself “a full-blown alcoholic” and “a piece of crap” — all in the presence of his mother. Years after the movie’s release Spheeris revealed that the scene was partially fabricated — the bottle of vodka Holmes was drinking from was half-full with pool water. Still, the allure of Decline were these exposed moments — that fans were witnessing something they shouldn’t be. Holmes’ self-neglect is concerning but there’s that curiosity of wanting to see what else he’ll do while the camera rolls.
The camera is always rolling on social media. Rappers offer a constant stream of content for their fans to consume, sharing everything from extravagant purchases to Instagram Live feuds with other rappers. Through social media, rappers are able to have autonomy: they can police what they share and directly engage with fans.
But the line between public and private blurs through engagement as rappers sometimes share posts that cause concern for their well-being. Prior to Lil Peep‘s death late last year the rapper uploaded several posts on Instagram.
Peep’s posts foreshadowed his tragic death.
“I just wanna be everybody’s everything I want too much from people but then I don’t want anything from them at the same time you feel me I don’t let people help me but I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy?” Peep wrote for the caption of a video post. “What is happy I always have happiness for like 10 seconds and then it’s gone. I’m getting so tired of this.”
That the caption contrasts the video — Peep smiling alongside someone, smoking a cigarette — conveys the same troubling duality Holmes shows in his pool. One moment he’s laughing and calling himself a happy camper; the next he’s claiming he doesn’t like himself. Both reflect a sobering reality about the perils of fame and rock stardom. Unfortunately, impressionable teens may not see it that way.
“So a lot of people ask me, ‘How do you feel about that being on TV?’ or whatever. The only thing I don’t like is where some kid will come up to me and go, ‘Man, that’s the coolest! I wanna live like that,'” Holmes said during a 2014 interview with Metallväktarna. “And, to me, personally, that’s, like, me going down the tubes. And why would somebody wanna live like that?”
In an age of oversharing, rappers’ self-destructive tendencies are documented themselves. This becomes even more complicated when a rapper creates an identity based on those tendencies.
Boonk Gang, a viral social media star, and rapper, is the manifestation of that. Originally gaining prominence on social media for his Jackass-esque pranks and stunts in 2017 — throwing himself into souvenir stands; stealing burgers, donuts, pizzas, phones, and shoes — Boonk has since embarked on a rap career, releasing his debut album, Dat Boonk Gang Shit, back in March. Still, Boonk is most popular on social media; he had over five million followers on Instagram before his account was suspended in July.
Boonk’s account was shut down after he posted graphic sexual videos. Since then, he hasn’t been able to make another account and now uses Snapchat and Twitter to reach his followers. But just as alarming as Boonk’s sex videos were, was a string of videos that came after, beginning with a video of Boonk passed out on a street. The video, presumably taken by friends of Boonk, shows him lying on the ground and unresponsive. The friends seem unconcerned as they zoom in on the Gucci shirt and shoes he’s wearing. Even as they tell him to get up there’s no assistance from any of them, with the video ending with Boonk’s pants down, revealing his underwear.
Following that was a viral interview with Adam Grandmaison, AKA Adam22, the founder of the No Jumper podcast. Throughout the interview, Boonk is visibly impaired, responding to Grandmaison’s questions with incomprehensible answers. Once the interview is done, Boonk gets up to leave and hits his head against a wall, resulting in two people helping him leave while Grandmaison looks on surprised.
This is arguably contemporary rap’s Holmes moment. A moment that, initially, seems harmless and amusing, until Boonk begins to break down more and more until he’s literally carried out of the interview. Boonk’s recent viral moments came to a head in late July when he recorded himself after getting shot. In the graphic video, blood can be seen seeping through his jeans as he reveals he was shot twice. Following the video, he uploaded a photo of himself recovering at a hospital.
Tekashi 6ix9ine, a rapper and, at this point, social media star — functions in a similar manner to Boonk. They’re both self-destructive but in different ways, with 6ix9ine bringing harm to himself by constantly instigating feuds with other rappers as well as gang members. Since gaining attention for his song “Gummo,” the rapper’s career has been littered with feuds: Trippie Redd, YG, Vic Mensa, Chief Keef, and many others. These feuds are sometimes pushed to extremes on social media, with 6ix9ine antagonizing rappers to the point of even daring them to kill him.
In contemporary rap, fans and non-fans alike are able to see so much of a rapper’s life on a daily basis. The good, bad, and ugly Spheeris captured in her trilogies is a reflection of what people see on the social media accounts of rappers nowadays. However, unlike Decline, these rappers are the directors of their own narrative — for better or worse.