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…