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Elliot Smith on Breakfast Time (1995)
Elliot Smith on Breakfast Time (1995)

How Elliott Smith mesmerised a new generation of sad boys and girls

Hey Siri play ‘Between the Bars’

There’s a 1995 interview on the FX Morning Show where a newly famous Elliott Smith sheepishly acknowledges the camera as a peppy host makes digs at the then-25-year-old singer-songwriter in front of a live audience. Commenting on the “anger” behind Smith’s track “Clementine”, host Tom Bergeron asks him to describe his music. “It’s really quiet,” Smith replies shyly. Bergeron makes a joke about Smith’s anger control to which Smith tries to respond – “I mean, [my music is] not particularly angry” – but he’s cut off by Bergeron, who steers the topic to the album artwork, which depicts two people jumping off a building. The audience burst into laughter.

An artist deeply at odds with his surroundings, the video clip – which went viral on Reddit earlier this year – is but one example depicting Smith’s uncomfortable rise to fame. Coming up at a time when indie-rock was at its height, his lo-fi, bedroom-produced melodies were an unlikely hit. With songs about addiction, abuse and suicide, Smith’s vulnerability is laid bare, made all the more soul-crushing by the artist’s fragile delivery: hair falling over his face, singing tracks so quietly they almost die before reaching listeners’ ears.

Nearly 30 years on, most of Smith’s original material has faded into time: tapes have scratched and archival videos are overexposed. Yet his reputation as the ultimate weirdo-outsider is entrancing a new generation of sad boys and girls on social media who are discovering his songs on TikTok, through memes and subreddits – even Phoebe Bridgers is a fan, declaring Smith “my favourite hand’s down”. They share memes about depression and exchange heartfelt comments about how much he means to them, post compilations of old shows and dance along to “Ballad of Big Nothing” while complaining about going to school the next day. “He means so much to me, every night I stay awake crying,” reads the caption to one video. “Elliot Smith is the only person who truly understands me,” a user writes in the comments below.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smith, one of contemporary music’s most tragic and cherished figures, would come to encapsulate the teen angst of a younger generation. Fan tributes to the artist have been going strong since his suicide in 2003, with YouTube accounts such as I Remember Elliott and early blogs like Sweet Adeline and Smiling at Confusion typical of early web fandom. But for the social media generation, the Gen Z kids brought up on a terminally online diet of digitally-mediated communication, Smith’s pained melodies tap into a wider cultural zeitgeist of nonconformity – or what Shumon Basar refers to as WeWeird: “the latest incarnation of conformity is collective, wild eccentricity. Highly lucrative and therefore marketable.”

@teardrop_estates About halfway through making our coming up roses video Elliott really wanted to dye his hair purple and we even went up and bought the dye. This is from around the same time and I got to say purple looks good on him. #e#elliottsmith ♬ original sound - Teardrop Estates

If Smith was the misfit’s misfit, nowadays we are all misfits. There’s no longer a cultural mainstream, instead every genre and trend is happening simultaneously and stretched out across the vast spectrum of internet culture. We’re zoomer-doomers, the embodiment of depressed Wojak (AKA Feels Man). His perpetual smile-grimace feels akin to XO’s pretend happy melodies, which Smith pairs with too-real lyrics such as Waltz1’s “no one deserves pain” – also v relatable. I could draw parallels between Smith’s pain-ridden music and the painful conditions forced onto us by late capitalism (I won’t), but it’s easy to see the connection between today’s widespread angst and Smith’s own very-public alienation.

More than simply Y2K nostalgia, for many young people, Smith’s music captures our collective angst. Just today, I came across a headline that says young people are turning to chatbots for friendship, while another reports that Gen Z are spending thousands to make friends at membership-only social clubs and gym classes. One can only only imagine what Smith would’ve thought about the internet generation and the strange breed of hyper-individualism that we’re all forced to inhabit. Let alone the Elliott Smith-coded 90s grunge aesthetic making the rounds on TikTok. But let’s face it: we all need a soundtrack to fight our demons, and if that means listening to “Between the Bars”, then so be it.

Shooting Star: The Definitive Story of Elliott Smith by Paul Rees is out now