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Alex Kazemi
Alex KazemiArt by Emily Maric

Alex Kazemi’s book exposes the dark underbelly of Y2K nostalgia

Here, the author of New Millennium Boyz discusses his ‘absurdist commentary on the extreme teen genre’, finding a father figure in Bret Easton Ellis, and his ‘Machiavellian’ Pop Crave shoutout

There’s a content warning on the opening pages of Alex Kazemi’s new novel, New Millennium Boyz, warning readers of scenes they may find “disturbing or upsetting”, including depictions of self-harm, sexual abuse, drug consumption, offensive language and violence. At first, the author wanted to fight the disclaimer. “I thought it was absurd,” he tells Dazed, appearing via laptop screen from his apartment in Vancouver. Then, he calmed down. In the end, he says, he was convinced to let the publisher include it so that the book could be stocked in stores. Now, he thinks of it fondly, like a parental advisory sticker on an album, signalling the book’s subversive underbelly beyond the dreamlike opening chapters, set at a summer camp in the lead-up to Y2K.

Kazemi didn’t actually come of age at the turn of the millennium, like his narrator Brad Sela, or the two friends – Lusif, the Marilyn Manson-worshipping goth, and Shane, the depressed stoner – that lead him away from the comforts of his suburban family home, down an increasingly dark and destructive path. When Kazemi published 50 pages of an embryonic New Millennium Boyz in 2013, he would have been 19. In 2000, he would have been six. What comes across as a wave of nostalgia-tinged recollections is actually the product of years of intense research, taking the author down rabbit holes on, Tumblr, and the MTV archives, assembling a universe out of Aphex Twin t-shirts, Gregg Araki clips, and blink-182 tracks.

It helps that the book takes place at the dawn of widespread self-surveillance, the first time in history that so much of our daily lives and cultural touchstones were documented in real-time. (For better or worse: this was the era of self-made ‘celebrities’ finding their audience on Tumblr, but also of school shooter manifestos and snuff films, viewed by millions in the depths of the web.) Brad and his schoolfriends are no different: their descent into chaos is obsessively documented, every experience coloured by how it looks in their mirror-mode Handycam screens, and how it might affect the legacy they leave behind.

Over the last decade, Kazemi has built his own cult following, counting a number of celebrities in its ranks. In 2020, his book Pop Magick was published with a foreword by Rose McGowan and a stamp of approval from Madonna (both of whom appear, insulted and objectified by a host of horny teenagers, in New Millennium Boyz). Back in 2017, he had an ad campaign for Marilyn Manson pulled from Instagram, presided over a conversation between Selena Gomez and Petra Collins for Dazed, and made a controversial appearance in “shock-jock drag” on the podcast of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, following it up with an article, also for Dazed, in which he argued that people should be allowed to say whatever they want.

Freedom of speech is the gateway to being able to question consensus, and to challenge what is being presented as truth,” Kazemi wrote at the time, while stressing that people must also be prepared to accept the consequences of their words: “You can’t be a cult-leader of the alt-right [...] preaching Nazism or white supremacy and believe you are entitled to avoid being punched in the face.”

This concern with free expression (and its consequences) still underpins Kazemi’s work. In New Millennium Boyz, moments of brutal violence, underage sex, and slur-laden dialogue cut through the bleak boredom of teenage suburbia – and they don’t do unpunished. At the same time, he’s critical of the lazy antagonism that’s typical of his contemporaries, singling out the creatives and podcasters that have emerged from the “post-Red Scare cultural landscape. “People [talk] the way the New Millennium Boyz characters talk, on podcasts, and think it’s a way of being liberating or provocative,” he says. “It’s like, ‘No, you’re just talking how people spoke 20 years ago, and I don’t really think it’s that edgy.’”

Reading about Brad’s explicit daydreams or mutilation-murder of local wildlife, Kazemi’s denouncement of Dimes Square edgelords might strike you as hypocritical. The difference, perhaps, lies in the intent. What’s a straight podcast bro trying to do when he uses the word “f****t”? What’s Kazemi trying to do, when he puts the same word in the mouth of Brad Sela, an (ostensibly) straight male living at the turn of the millennium? According to Kazemi, it’s about plumbing the depths of the late 90s and early 2000s as experienced by a certain subsculture of boys on the precipice of adulthood: to represent, true-to-life, all the cruelty, insecurity, and occasional beauty that entails. He isn’t just trying to upset or offend, he suggests, but to offer a counterpoint to the heady nostalgia of the era’s renaissance, with its rose-tinted focus on idealised girlhood – all Petra Collins photographs, and screencaps of a young Kirsten Dunst, and Heaven baby tees.

Even so, you’re not necessarily supposed to like it. And New Millennium Boyz will, undoubtedly, upset and offend some of its readers. Ahead of its release, the book has already been labelled “the most dangerous book of the year” and – according to Pop Crave – sparked a walkout with corporate sales reps. The scandal has echoes of the controversies that literary enfant terrible (turned grouchy, vaguely-racist uncle) Bret Easton Ellis experienced with books like Less Than Zero or American Psycho. In fact, despite catching his own ruthless critique in the book, Ellis himself has been guiding Kazemi through the highs and lows of the rollout. “He’s like a father figure,” says Kazemi. “We talk every day.”

On the cover of New Millennium Boyz, Ellis’ name is also attached to a quote calling Kazemi his “favourite millennial provocateur”, alongside endorsements from Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Laura Albert (AKA JT Leroy), and Columbine survivor Brooks Brown. A cynic might suggest that Kazemi has surrounded himself with these figures for maximum shock value – if you liked watching Patrick Bateman chop young women into tiny pieces, and enjoyed trawling internet message boards for school shooting stories, then you’ll love this! – and he himself admits that his persona is carefully manufactured, a work of “performance art” designed to sell his book, but also to hide the most vulnerable parts of himself from the public eye.

Whether you buy into Kazemi’s self-mythologising or not is up to you – either way, it seems to have worked. After all, you’re reading this. His novel is on Pop Crave’s Twitter feed. His name is in your head. For better or worse, you’re thinking about New Millennium Boyz, whether it’s inspired you to “question consensus” or just to punch Kazemi in the face.

New Millennium Boyz opens with a content warning, which seems like the kind of thing its characters would hate.

Alex Kazemi: I was pretty shocked about the content warning, because I was under the understanding that we’re in like a post-Bret Easton Ellis society, post-Dennis Cooper, post-Chuck Palahniuk. I thought that would give me much more freedom, because all these people paved the way for books like this. But I guess there is still a level of cultural fear around art.

So it wasn’t your choice?

Alex Kazemi: It wasn’t my choice. They kind of nagged me... there were some fights about it. What was crazy was that the sales rep said they were afraid that teenagers would re-enact the behaviour in the book, which is insane, because I do not glamorise anything. I’m trying to make people remember the reality of the freedoms people had back then, that you probably don’t want to go back to 1999, because [of] the amount of gay bashing and normalised violence. It’s ironic to me that Gen Z has this fetish for that generation, when it’s so against their cultural values, and rightfully so. So I felt really misread, but I was like, cool, it’s a rite of passage.

You first published a version of New Millennium Boyz a decade ago. How did the book change in the intervening years?

Alex Kazemi: The book was so different [in 2013]. It was more about my authentic teenage feelings, and it was a whale call, a ‘find the others’ kind of thing. And it did. I got messages all the time: ‘This is how I feel. Thank you.’ Then, I got a book deal with MTV when I was 19. I was like, ‘You know what? I need a lot of time to grow up. I’m not ready.’

There were a lot of fights with my editor, who worked on it for ten years with me, about the style. From the beginning, I wanted it to be vignettes, just dialogue and imagery, and he was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to write a plot.’ I’m really happy that I stayed true to my original vision. I was inspired by Laguna Beach and The Hills and the fast cuts of early reality TV. Also, being a teenager is so fucking boring. You just go to parties and drink Slurpees and do nothing. I was trying to capture that malignant, suburban claustrophobia, by showing the nothingness of everything.

“Being a teenager is so fucking boring. You just go to parties and drink Slurpees and do nothing. I was trying to capture that malignant, suburban claustrophobia” – Alex Kazemi

What made you want to focus on this darker, nihilistic side of millennial culture?

Alex Kazemi: I was just very exhausted by the gauzy, femme, Petra Collins gaze that really blew up in the post-Tumblr era. There’s always girl culture, girl culture, girl culture. I find that we don’t ever slow down and examine how diabolical it is to be a teenage boy.

Especially back then... the image of a teenage boy was so disenfranchised. He listens to Eminem, he says the N-word with his friends, he’s either cutting himself at a Marilyn Manson concert or he’s a school shooter. There were so many archetypes that were constantly in my subconscious as I came of age. And the book became this outlet for me to explore all the things I was upset about. It became this place that, through ten years of writing, I would go to. I made the book into a hypersigil that I charged my life force into.

And why did now feel like the right time to present it to the world?

Alex Kazemi: During the pandemic, I really slowed down and was able to access more artistic impulses. I’d just collected so many fucking notes, notes, notes, the world stopping helped to actually sit down and put it together.

Luckily, Y2K Nostalgia is also at its peak right now. Gen Z, most of them don’t really have any historical understanding of what was normal back then. They’re very jarred and shocked by things, versus when Millennials read it. Also, the cultural conversation around masculinity, with incels, and Jordan Peterson, and ‘masculinity in crisis’... it was divine timing.

It also coincides with a renewed Satanic Panic, with people like Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, and Balenciaga tapping into those kinds of images.

Alex Kazemi: That’s true. I think the way those artists try to use that Satanic, Y2K vibe in this era – but also QAnon, people actually believing in these demonic entities around pop culture – goes back to the source, 1999. That was a time where subversive, shocking imagery, rock and roll, and the macabre, was very corporate and pop. It’s kind of corny to look back at that stuff, that maybe we were afraid of as children.

Is it more difficult to shock people now?

Alex Kazemi: Absolutely, and I think the book [is] very self-aware about that. I was trying to make a mockery, or an absurdist commentary on the extreme teen genre: the Sam Levinsons, the Larry Clarks, the Harmony Korines. But I was also perplexed about why we’re so interested in this teens-ploitation genre.

I think the reason things seemed more shocking or jarring [in the past] is because we were more sensitised. [Now] we’re so inundated with violence, pornography, shock, gore, all of this shit. There’s crazy stuff people see on TikTok rabbit holes, horrible things.

Those boundary-pushing artists – do you think they served a purpose at the time? What did they contribute?

Alex Kazemi: Maybe just pushing people to look deeper at our cultural unconsciousness, for more analysis, for more freedom in art. I feel like American Psycho must be so tame to Gen Z, versus Gen Xers. There were taboos that had to be broken. Someone like Bret or Madonna had more things to provoke people about. Was this stuff even inherently shocking, or was it because we were more sanitised?

Do you think similarly challenging art is being produced, or consumed, today?

Alex Kazemi: The people who seek out this type of art will always find it. The people who are repulsed by it will always be repulsed by it.

It’s interesting, because I thought of New Millennium Boyz as a pop product, and a lot of the reactions were like, ‘This is very dangerous, terroristic, high-risk literature, and it won’t find an audience.’ I don’t think people really understand the pop masses right now, and what they’re craving. Like, did you watch The Idol? That show really failed on committing to a vision, but it revealed a level of numbness, and revealed that the audience don’t fall for these tricks anymore. Like New Millennium Boyz, it gets so ridiculous and so violent and so absurd that it looks tryhard.

Writing New Millennium Boyz, were you conscious of a limit on what’s acceptable, in terms of the images and ideas?

Alex Kazemi: I think for this story, it was pushed to the cap of where I wanted to take it [...] to create a portrait of these privileged, powerful dudes, and the culture that’s indoctrinating them while they’re young and impressionable. There were worse things that didn’t make the edit. I do think that it’s a fetish of certain readers, who want things to go further and further. It’s almost an addiction, like pornography: you have to get a higher escalation to get dopamine.

“The people who seek out this type of art will always find it. The people who are repulsed by it will always be repulsed by it” – Alex Kazemi

Amid the violence, the book really explores the dawn of self-surveillance, where our perceptions of celebrity and privacy were shifting.

Alex Kazemi: I think that’s why America was so scandalised [by] the Pam and Tommy sex tape scandal in the 90s. It was like, ‘Oh my God, celebrities are not just losing their privacy, we’re all about to lose our privacy.’ Then, if you look at how that escalated in the early 2000s, until Paris and that violation, which was around the time of MySpace and social networks becoming more popular, we were walking right into the pressures of the public and private self. People were starting to deal with the anxieties of mega-superstars in their regular lives. It’s a huge part of the book.

At the same time, Brad, Shane, and Lu still model their lives on celebrities, from Marilyn Manson to Fiona Apple. How do you think that dynamic has changed in the last couple of decades?

Alex Kazemi: Now, there’s no real cultural commitment to certain touchstones that were really big for Gen X. Any girl can see a screenshot from Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ on her Explore page, have no cultural understanding of what she represents, and be like ‘my aesthetic’ and post it, then on to the next. For early millennials, it’s about, ‘What’s in it for me? How can I turn this into currency? How can I monetize this?’ Their expression is like cosplay, like dressing up [as] Sailor Moon or something. It’s so fabricated, and so synthetic, it doesn’t really have any cultural cachet at all.

The way that I try to explain it, is... say Britney Spears is going out on Total Request Live, and there’s all these fans with magazines to sign. Those people behind the gate are now the influencers and the stars, because they have access. There’s no real curation. It’s all mutated, it’s all disordered, it’s all chaotic and confusing. Olivia Rodrigo is a very good example of that. She represents that archetype of the Gen Z girl who grew up looking up to Tumblr popstars, and lives in this post-pastiche society, and she’s taking all these different references. But the references never really change on the internet, everyone’s scribing from the same source.

“I’ve built a very unlikable public image, very calculatingly... I’m trying to be a mirror of the grossest narcissism and Machiavellianism that I see a lot in the entertainment industry” – Alex Kazemi

You’ve carefully sculpted your own image as well, even concocting a Pop Crave shoutout.

Alex Kazemi: Totally. That’s my way of putting myself in the arena, of trying to get people who are looking at something more popular to see more transgressive work. I’ve built a very unlikable public image, very calculatingly, consciously. Like how [Marilyn] Manson tried to embody the worst and darkest impulses of his time, I’m trying to be a mirror of the grossest narcissism and Machiavellianism that I see a lot in the entertainment industry, behind the scenes, but with a lot of transparency, to take the mystification out of it.

Mythologising myself... I think of myself as a performance artist when it comes to that stuff. If you’re in the media, you have to protect real parts of yourself. I would rather people view me as a fictional [persona] with a very bad reputation, than know the real me, because it feels really scary to be vulnerable like that.

In the name of demystifying the entertainment industry: how did you get that Pop Crave shoutout?

Alex Kazemi: I’ve built a very good business relationship, through my publicist team and... all the ways you think. All the ways you think.

It feels very appropriate, too, given the themes of the book. Are Pop Crave the ones brainwashing young people, now MTV is gone?

Alex Kazemi: For sure. Pop Crave is MTV. You have to understand that. Pop Crave is how you brainwash people, it’s how you psy-op people. Of course, I want New Millennium Boyz to come after a tweet about the Eras tour, you know what I mean? I have to come up with ways to be seen. What pop star do you think I learned that from?

Alex Kazemi’s New Millennium Boyz is out now via Permuted Press. It is also on sale at Heaven by Marc Jacobs stores on London’s Brewer Street and Los Angeles’ Fairfax Avenue.