Lil Peep, the Most Public of Deaths and What It All Means for Pop Culture

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/ Getty Images

On November 15, 2017, at the age of 21, one of the most exciting and charismatic young artists in the country died of an as-yet unspecified drug overdose in the back of his tour bus.

In life, Lil Peep stood out precisely because of how few places he fit in. He was a vulnerable badass. His music was an emo-infused take on hip hop -- a new and oxymoronic combination that actually made sense in his hands. Here was a young man with a naturally beautiful face that was marked up by heavy tattoos, the largest of which was a scrawl over his right eyebrow that read "Cry Baby" (the title of one of his 2016 mixtapes). Here was a young man who could look positively feral one moment and wow crowds at Paris Fashion Week the next.

While, on the surface, his death seems typical -- ultra-creative, troubled young musician overwhelmed, too soon, by substance abuse -- like Lil Peep himself, this particular tragic death is actually something the world has never seen before.

It is not new for media vultures to circle after a famous person dies. The National Enquirer has been at the forefront of this for decades. The publication put a photo of Elvis in his casket on its front page in 1977. In 1993, it paid $5000 for a photo of River Phoenix that had been acquired by a photographer who had broken into a funeral home. In 2012, the paper splashed an obviously-surreptitiously-taken picture of Whitney Houston in her casket across the cover. The paper re-used that photo once again in 2015, juxtaposed with a photo of Whitney's dying daughter, Bobbi Kristina, lying in her hospital bed. Other, more respected publications aren't above such actions -- ET Online was the first to publish a photo of paramedics trying to save a dying Michael Jackson in 2009.

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Within hours of Lil Peep's death, a disturbing video started circulating online of him, obviously unconscious, sitting upright but limp, head slung backwards, mouth wide open. He died shortly after it was taken. The video was captured by Peep's close friend, Bexey, and originally shared on Snapchat. Bexey, under fire from fans who were horrified by the clip, has since stated that Peep "just fell asleep" and was "snoring." (Lil Peep appears to be making no sound in the video.)

In the aftermath of his death, other videos and images also flooded Twitter and elsewhere, showing Peep taking pills or slurringly admitting to having just done so. He acquired hundreds of thousands more followers on Instagram after he died, as people rushed to view the evidence.

The thing that's new about all this is that these videos and photos were not taken in secret. They were not taken by paparazzi, or paid for by tabloids, or acquired because of a hack. This was not grainy footage taken from a distance in a public place. These videos and images were taken and shared by Lil Peep himself, and his friends, on their own volition. While the world is conscious that Peep's generation is the first to truly live online, no one really expects them to die there as well.

Before now, images that have emerged of dying and deceased celebrities have prompted a specific kind of public hand-wringing; one that asks how we as a nation can get a hold of a morally corrupt tabloid media that is invasive and money-grubbing. But who can we blame or point the finger at now that the images are offered up willingly by the people in them?

The nature of Lil Peep's demise and death, and its documentation, points to a new development in the nation's collective consciousness. Peep was, during his short time in the spotlight, repeatedly crying out for help in an extraordinarily public manner. And most of us just scrolled right on past.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bbf3UbgFm-E/?hl=en&taken-by=lilpeep

It's difficult to know exactly why no one took Lil Peep's predicament more seriously. Maybe it's because he was willingly offering the information up about himself, rather than having an addiction exposed by a third party in a more scandalous manner. Maybe it's because it seemed like part of his image -- his songs dealt with the same issues, so perhaps, many of us thought, he was just playing a part. Maybe our unfiltered access to information in the age of the internet has simply dulled our senses.

Another possibility is that the medium from which we were getting this information affected how we absorbed and dealt with it. On Instagram, if something makes us uncomfortable, that discomfort only has to last as long as it takes for us to swipe onto the next thing. Maybe Lil Peep was able to pop pills uninterrupted and very publicly because the world was too busy keeping the screen rolling to give the matter much thought. Life absorbed through an electronic device is all too easy to treat like fiction.

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If there is to be a silver lining in any of this, it's that this type of over-exposure -- this world in which a great many of us just saw a semi-famous young man dying through our cell phones -- might mean a shift in the decades-old idea that death makes celebrities more interesting. It's impossible to mythologize and glamorize the kind of senseless, undignified death we just bore witness to with Lil Peep, but this moment should be a jolt to an online culture that is increasingly voyeuristic and perhaps dangerously apathetic.

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