People have long considered music to be a potentially subversive force. In the 1800s, perceptions of hypnotic or mesmerising music were associated with a loss of sexual control. Charles Darwin even claimed that music evolved as a way to attract lovers.
As hypnotism as a medical practice became more mainstream, so too did the idea that music could lead to a lack of sexual control, that listeners could become bewitched by beats
Although serious theories that assume our sexualities and selves are on a literal highway to hell as a direct result of music have fallen by the wayside, they haven’t quite disappeared. Rather, they’ve changed shape.
In the 50s and 60s, the practice of backmasking — recording messages that only become audible when the track is played backwards — drew suspicion and condemnation. People said these backmasked tracks, such as the Beatles’ single ‘Rain’, contained subliminal brainwashing tactics.
During the 80s and 90s, these fears heightened among certain segments of society who advocated for the removal of supposed satanic messages in rock music.
The furore was enough that in 1985, Ozzy Osbourne faced legal action over the Black Sabbath song ‘Suicide Solution.’ The parents of a 19-year-old who attempted suicide said their teen was brainwashed and driven to this action as a direct result of the music.
That same year, the parents of two teens who committed suicide blamed the rock band Judas Priest. They claimed in court that “satanic incantations are revealed when the music is played backwards”. The case was not a success, but by this point the idea of subliminal messages hidden in popular music was firmly entrenched.
Enter mumble rap, the latest anxiety-deposit scheme for concerned parents.
Critics are divided when it comes to mumble rap. Some say it represents a new sound and is novel and exciting, others say it lacks substance — it certainly contains a lot of substance abuse, though.
Popularised in the 2010s, the genre is characterised by droning, sometimes unintelligible lyrics, a lackadaisical delivery, and a stripped-back lo-fi sound.
Lyrically, the predominant themes include drugs, misogyny, and money. So far so hip-hop. But where other styles of rap hold a light to Hennessey, Dom Perignon, and weed, mumble rap prioritizes Xanax, Percocet, and other prescription downers.
As a result, more than a few parents and critics have called the genre a bad influence. Although the idea of musical brainwashing has lasted, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because there’s scant evidence that people can be influenced, unless they were already open to the idea.
No cultural production is born in a vacuum and mumble rappers are merely engaging with society as they see it. Music has always been a gauge against which the concerns or ideals of a nation can be measured. Look back at the music of any decade, the tracks carry a distinctive outlook that’s heavily informed by the contemporary context.
The Xanax-laced ennui of mumble rappers mirrors a nation plagued by an affliction: opioid abuse, misuse, and deaths. The United States, where mumble rap originated, was then in the grip of an opioid epidemic, the situation was bad enough that life expectancy declined for the first time in over 100 years. Xanax was responsible for around a third of all prescription drug overdoses in 2018. In a way, it makes sense that mumble rap is so fixated on Xanax.
The obsession spills over into the lyrics, the rappers’ social media outputs, and even their names, there’s Xan Frank (presumably named for the tattoo of Anne Frank on his face) and Lil Xan, the latter released an album called Total Xanarchy. One rapper celebrated a million Instagram followers by cutting into a cake shaped like a Xanax tablet, and many are vocal about their benzo habits.
The ‘Lil’ in many of these rappers’ names is interesting. Besides Lil Xan, there’s Lil Peep, Lil Uzy Vert, Lil Yachty and Lil Pump. Rather than individualising themselves, they chose to adopt a mumble-rap honorific of sorts, perhaps to signify in-group membership.
Mumble rap is sometimes called SoundCloud rap after the grass-roots platform that propelled the genre to fame. Like the platform, the sound offers an amalgam of styles, genres, and registers. So it’s no surprise that mumble rap pulls visual signifiers from across the spectrum.
Fast cars, near-naked women, and casually displayed fans of cash, which are more often associated with rap and hip-hop, are interspersed with signs that seem more at ease with the height of punk: pink dyed hair, anarchistic attitudes and a two-fingered salute to society. There’s a splash of teen emo angst thrown in for good measure, too.
Lil Xan’s Twitter bio includes a link to his Xanarchy Gang website. The site’s vibe is decidedly less xanarchist, though. Pixelated broken-heart emojis cascade slowly down the screen and the colours are more reminiscent of a pop song than they are of despairing, nihilistic rap.
Pastel blue and pink menu headings mingle with the hearts, giving the site a decidedly feminine feel. Indeed, the target customer seems to be young women. Announcing the arrival of his new merchandise on Twitter, Xan writes: “Link is in my bio baby gurllll.” Lil Xan wants to say fuck you to the system, but he also wants people to buy his hoodies.
Love it or hate it, mumble rap is having a moment, as is Xanax. But as Vice put it: “if it wasn’t rap, it would be another genre. And if it wasn’t Xanax, it would be some other drug.” Mumble rap may have started as a reflection of society, or as an outlet for Gen Z nihilism, but it is swiftly doing some influencing of its own, which can be seen in fashions including the growing number of young people with face tattoos. Xanxiety inducing for some commentators, but it’s certainly a cultural movement that cannot be ignored.