Sad Boys All Around Me
Masculinity is in a weird place in the modern realm. In some cases, you have large commercial giants like Gilette putting out ads like We Believe: The Best Men Can Be, and in other cases, we find the incel movement. Men are trying to find themselves and their identities in a world that is becoming increasingly divisive among generations that are incredibly different in traditions, values, morals, priorities, and political views. The growing focus on gender politics and feminism only muddies the water for masculinity. What makes a man? What is masculinity? Is masculinity ingrained in men or can women be masculine as well? These are a few of the grey questions that are starting to crop up, and among this, we find a new subset of men, sad boys.
Origins through Rap
The term sad boy appears self-explanatory, but there are a few layers to it. Obviously, men that are sad are about as old as animals having emotions, (the earliest multicellular organisms probably lost a girlfriend at one point) but an emotional awakening of sorts has been coming to fruition among many men. This is a symptom of the times as well, where many people are making the argument that just because you’re not happy doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you, and in an era with a new self-help guru around every corner.
The mainstream appeal of sad boys started with music in the mid-2010s. “Musicians, it’s safe to presume, have made sad music since it was possible to make music,” writes Fact Magazine. The article in part describes the growth of music as an introspective artform beginning with techno, then indie, and what really popularized it, hip-hop.
“It was Kanye West’s introspective and downplayed 808s & Heartbreak that we can blame for the shift, and when it landed in late 2008 it felt like a gate had been thrown open for good. ‘Love Lockdown’ was the first single, and was a marked shift from the grandiose theatrics of the rapper’s previous album Graduation, replacing the soulful samples and thick, dusty breaks with autotuned crooning and sparse electronic rhythms,” writes Fact Magazine.
One of the most marked lines on the album comes in the song Welcome to Heartbreak saying, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs,” and this album as a whole aimed to peel back the taboo about talking about emotions in rap music.
Kid Cudi, an artist seen on West’s Welcome to Heartbreak, also broke into the more emotional music around the same time. Cudi’s own track Day ’N’ Nite boasted the line, “Within his dreams, he sees the life he made, made/The pain is deep you won’t hear a peep, peep,” highlighting a fight with loneliness and the feeling among it.
The early progenitors of sad boy rap like Kanye, Cudi, Drake, and the Weeknd opened the gateway for a newer generation of rapper to highlight a more emotional, more personal form of rap differing from the tones of mainstream rap. This “emo rap” centered on mental illness, drug abuse, nihilism, and personal experience through life, and as the Wall Street Journal says, “gives their elders the finger.”
The popularity of this form of rap reached an eclipse in the 2010s with rappers like Yung Lean, Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Lil Uzi Vert, and so on. Even the controversial YouTube celebrity George Miller, otherwise known as Filthy Frank, found his way into sad boy music with his stage name, Joji, exploring ideas like suicide, loneliness, and growth.
Ayn Rand and Life Imitating Art
The rise of the sad boys through music and pop culture has been growing a new subset of masculinity. Traditionally, in western society, the masculine figure was staunch, unfeeling, and irrepressible, in contrast, the sad boy is soft, feeling, gentle, emotional, and introspective.
The world responds to the masculine figure, the sad boy responds to the world.
The masculine figure I describe however is not entirely healthy or normal, he is a Randian hero based on the heroes primarily derived from the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The heroes are in Rand’s words, “the ideal man.”
Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek lays out the idea of the Randian hero as the “standard masculine narrative,” and argues that the Randian hero is unrelentingly individualistic, as his will is all his own as opposed to the masses following a crowd. Žižek argues that a Randian hero is a “being of pure drive and that he is liberated from the hysteria of the general subjects.
In contrast, Author Stephen Newman compares the Randian hero to the concept of the Übermensch created by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, saying that “the Randian hero is really Nietzsche’s Superman in the guise of the entrepreneur.”
In many ways, the goal of the western man for the past few hundred years and in most cultures even much further beyond that was to become a copy of a Randian hero, to become strong, unflinching, and most importantly to many, catnip for the women.
The sad boy, in turn, is an emotional individual. The sad boy is defined by his experience instead of the experiences that he creates. The sad boy isn’t always stoic, but can always look inside for understanding and is not beyond asking for help.