Under 21s: off brand #2

This morning, a fire started burning up in the hills behind the Hollywood sign, and now, what’s left of the smoke streaks the sun-setting sky, dirty yellow clouds amongst the pink and orange. The moon, a few days from full, shines tiny and bright in the fading blue overhead.

Beneath it, a group of five fifteen-year-old white girls sit cross-legged on a lawn of fake green grass. They’re all wearing intentionally matching straight-legged Dickies work pants, tank tops, and hi-top Converse, and they’re all clear-skinned and beautiful, beautiful in a precarious, teenage way, a way that is entirely invisible to them.

They shiver against the approaching night, long hair covering bare shoulders. These are California girls, sure, but ones who have ditched the Abercrombie of the previous decade for a bricolage of items that gesture vaguely towards rebellion – 90s skate redux sponsored by Brandy Melville, the tween outfitter with a one size (small) policy that’s a pubescent fast track to dysmorphia. The girls’ outfits are inexpensive, although considering the fact that they’re currently sat inside the white picket fenced VIP pen of a glossily-produced festival, for which such access costs around $400, it’s not likely they’re broke. I wonder what homes they will go back to tonight, what cars will be waiting in the driveway when they turn 16.

Exiting a fleet of air-conditioned Ubers and climbing the hill to the stadium with the thousands-strong crowd earlier in the day, I watched the smoke rise and thought back to the giddy possibilities of your first festival, of taking that small step towards the spectre of Growing Up that winks at you from the horizon. You either feel free amongst the masses, I think, or you feel tiny, caught up in their swell. Adrift.

A boy, probably fifteen too but still soft around the edges, takes his chances with the girls and sits down. They’re not interested, and consider this their cue to leave, floating away into the crowd that has gathered to watch the next act. This musician – a rapper in the 2019 sense of the word – uploaded his first song to the internet while he was in highschool. At 19 he became famous, and now, at 20, he’s here. He bounds from one side of the stage to the other, a flashing display of video game images behind him as he sings about drugs, and alcohol, and girls who have broken his heart, the melodic misogyny of 00s emo underwritten by hip hop and haloed in fuzzy opioid numbness.

Less than a month later, he will be dead.

“I take prescriptions to make me feel a-ok, I know it’s all in my head,” he sings. The crowd of kids, mostly boys too young to drink like him, only mostly white, jump and shove and scream.

His autotuned angst means something to them, but whatever it is – plain old tortured bad boy rebellion or something heavier – I feel too far away to understand; the relatively few years between our ages stretching into a gulf. His words land strangely to me: this festival is so clean, so well produced, a kind of edgy teen Disneyland with carnival rides, branded pop-up shops, and well-considered Instagram opportunities. There is no queue for the bar here; everyone is underage or Cali sober. I watch the guy standing next to me Snapchat the screens at the side of the stage. He has a picture of Post Malone as his iPhone background.

Once the musician’s death – of a suspected overdose moments after stepping off a private jet – hits TMZ, his audience will grieve and eulogise him the way they know how: uploading shaky footage of the show onto YouTube, flooding the comments sections of his Instagram posts with broken heart emojis.

It’s a ritual they’ve had practice for.

Earlier in the day, somewhere between the Apple Pay activation booth giving out Aesop samples and the sneaker pop-up, I’d seen a girl no older than 18 with a tattoo of a face I recognised on her arm – a dark outline of a man with a pile of dreadlocks on top of his head and eyes that brimmed with rage, sadness, or both. By the time my brain had placed his face and I had opened the camera app on my iPhone, she was gone, another face in the thousands.

This man, another rapper, is dead too, murdered in a Miami car park at 20. In his set later that evening, the musician will sing a tribute to this fallen hero, who is accused of crimes I find it difficult to even read about. His face, the one the girl had tattooed, is frozen in a mugshot, and it flashes onto the screen with that of lost icons. The song is called “Legends”.

What's the 27 Club? We ain't making it past 21, he sings. The rest of his lyrics are just as self-aware, simultaneously fearful and resigned.

They tell me I’ma be a legend
I don’t want that title now
’Cause all the legends seem to die out

When he dies, I think about how losing your idols is another kind of rite of passage; one every generation imagines they experience for the first time.

To die young and slip immediately into a legend greater than any you could have hoped for by living, you have to have that ineffable, starry quality, but you have to have a darkness, too.

It’s the darkness that gets them. Maybe they believe that their success depends upon the extent to which they are damaged, their ability to put the pieces of themselves together into something beautiful. That’s bullshit, of course, but maybe that’s the devil’s bargain, the condition of their fame. After all, would we love them if they weren’t broken?

When he dies, I play his songs and try to understand. I think about how he looked like a man on those giant screens, but really, he was just a kid like his audience. I wonder if people – the adults (there must, I think, have been adults in this, somewhere) – feel guilty. And I think about how, as he was up on the stage, without anyone noticing, the light disappeared completely from the sky.