“We all want a teenage fantasy / Want it when we can't have it / When we got it we don't seem to want it” —Jorja Smith, “Teenage Fantasy”
Pressing play on Jorja Smith’s sultry and languid debut, Lost & Found, we encounter the pining and unrequited love that so colored our collective teen years, but I’ll be damned if anyone actually wants to go through the petty storm of young love for a second or third time.
The attraction to Smith’s music goes beyond these placid memories. Existing outside of this album, we are pining after the catharsis that comes from relationships unfinished and the wistful yearning that comes from scrolling possibility, but I would wager no one actually misses the two-stepping that came with finding love so young. The teenage fantasy is a pompous and messy thing, and by virtue, then, the adult fantasy is being able to experience that mess from afar, to absolve ourselves of the lows of our memories and experience the forbidden fruit that is angst without the repercussions.
That is to say, everyone would rather be a guest than a host. There is nothing to clean up when the party ends. When the song putters out, we are left with ourselves and the impetus to organize our emotions into tidy categories because at a certain point, some way or another, we’ve been assured that we just cannot keep feeling this fraught—it’s juvenile at best. These external limits are toxic and ineffective, and thus we overcorrect.
Enter: fast-rising Chicago artist Juice WRLD and his insanely popular “Lucid Dreams,” which for all intents and purposes is a pop punk ballad spun on the heels of hip-hop’s most recent melodic turn. The single is a distillation of a targeted angst, of an unrefined emotion that exists when we aren’t given the proper vocabulary or space to work through our feelings and collapse into a brooding mess. It’s equal parts fun and circumstantial, and toxic and irresponsible. But I would be lying if I denied the rush that comes with idealizing self-destruction.
Despite their vast sonic difference, “Lucid Dreams” and Jorja Smith's “Teenage Fantasy” are companion pieces. When Smith bemoans the neither-here-nor-there quality of teenage emotion, the fickle quality of desire, she’s speaking to the emotional distance into which we’ve comfortably sunken. Juice WRLD simultaneously interfaces with love and hate and blame, and the vexed swirl of his themes reminds us that we’ve been encultured to find disjointed emotion sultry and seductive. Somewhere along the way, the need for wholeness was supplanted by a passion for the incomplete—that’s the overcorrection.
Last week, “Lucid Dreams” jumped 35-15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and at present, the single has over 50 million plays on Spotify alone. Its success is due in large part to being allotted the room to be messy at a time where “Get it together!” is a resounding discourse. The single embodies the teenage fantasy and that fantasy knows no bounds. Broadly: this is another flavor of let-your-hair-down music.
“Lucid Dreams” is less finalistic and dire than the music of a Lil Peep—a major influence on the WRLD's career—and thus more accessible. His angst, too, becomes more accessible. We peer over the mile-high fences of our gilded lives into a harried world we’ve been otherwise instructed to leave behind upon exiting our teens. Yet, to label songs of this nature guilty pleasures would be dismissive and a disservice to our collective understanding of emotional depth.
“I still see your shadows in my room / Can't take back the love that I gave you / It's to the point where I love and I hate you / And I cannot change you, so I must replace you, oh / Easier said than done, I thought you were the one / Listenin' to my heart instead of my head” —Juice WRLD, “Lucid Dreams”
Writing off Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” as the sonic equivalent of an order of fries for the table circumvents the obvious, that is, we gravitate to this music because we are seeking out something fundamentally missing or otherwise denied. As a culture, there’s an emphasis on deprivation as a badge of honor. Be it a deprivation of sleep or social life. Consider how we discuss dieting and exercise, or the way young men are socialized to feel as little as possible. There is a searing focus on existing without, and from that focus comes our attraction to angst.
Deprivation leads to the emotional voyeurism that ensures “Lucid Dreams” becomes the second most streamed hip-hop song on Spotify. Or, more simply, everything we consume is really a cry for help—some are just louder than others. As a response to the hustle mentality that plagues millennial culture, we are all clamoring to feel something in those same shadows Juice WRLD warbles about for four minutes.
While we have one ear to angst and another to the flighty teenage sentiments of Jorja Smith, there’s a fresh dissonance that rises up and eats at us, making this musical experience somewhat cyclical and self-informing. The moral here is to give ourselves space, to be gentle with ourselves and belt these lyrics without worry, and escape this constant state of emotional denial. If you want to feel angsty, feel it fully and in earnest. You’re never too anything to scream until the tension settles. Catharsis is not age-gated, no matter how on-trend it appears to be unfeeling.
With the word "angst" comes the conception that the music itself is unrefined, but neither Juice WRLD or Jorja Smith are weak artists. If anything, they’re stronger than the masses who malign their work but are too scared to be vulnerable on their own. Their music—in particular, Interscope signee WRLD—occupies a necessary space when young Black men are forced to grow up immediately, where the death of Black boyhood is rampant both metaphorically and tangibly. Their music is necessary when every day it becomes all the more apparent that every person at every level is engaged in a daily battle with themselves.
With that, these songs are invaluable in their messaging: go ahead and feel shitty and revel in your angst, it will never make you less than.