If millennial ennui had to be described with a single word, it might be Lil Yachty crooning “saaaaaad” in auto-tune on Kodie Shane’s 2016 single of the same name. It’s an anthem for the anxiety generation — one that yearns to overshare and connect with others in as many ways as possible. “Sad” is the kind of song you might hear on hip-hop station Hot 97 and at mall punk emporium Hot Topic, along with music by other emo rappers like Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and Lil Uzi Vert — whose merch, not coincidentally, is also available at Hot Topic. Thanks to them, it’s never been cooler to wear your feelings on your sleeve.
While sensitive rap may be at the forefront of the current emo movement, all of culture feels moody right now. On television, shows ranging from Rick and Morty to Riverdale touch upon depression and teen hormones. (Merch for both is also available at Hot Topic). In Neo Yokio, Jaden Smith’s character says things like, “My existential dread is acting up today.” On Instagram, meme accounts like Goth Shakira are going viral for their lengthy captions on mental health, identity, and dating woes. And in fashion, Vetements has produced wildly-popular hoodies that read “May the bridges I burn light the way” and showcase German metal band, Rammstein.
Finally, earlier this October, everything came together when the cool downtown store VFiles premiered a music video for “Hot Topic,” in which young wannabe-emo rapper Lil Aaron performs over a Panic at the Disco! sample. “My bitch sad and boujee,” he mumbles.
With emo feelings swirling in culture again, Hot Topic is arguably in the eye of the storm. It’s been quietly catering to black nail polish–loving customers ever since 1988, but as evidenced by a visit to the Queens Center mall in New York on Saturday, the store is just as popular as ever. The Cut decided to take a field trip back to the emo establishment to see what was up, and to make sure the kids are alright.
Emilia Petrarca: So, here’s the scene: We walk up to Hot Topic in the Queens Center mall, and there’s a sign in the window that says: “Every Day Is Halloween.”
Allison Davis: I honestly can’t believe how excited I was to see that sign. Like, truly, truly excited.
EP: Everything just made sense.
AD: I think we should establish our history with Hot Topic. I used to spend a lot of time there in high school; it was like my Friday night hang spot.
EP: Tell me more! What did you buy? What did you do? Who did you see?
AD: I bought a lot of T-shirts; a lot of Happy Bunny stickers and patches for my jean jacket.
EP: Which T-shirts?
AD: They were all “provocative” sayings like, “Idaho? No, Udaho.” I actually did a fair bit of wardrobe shopping there. I had three pairs of pleather pants: black, black with flames up the side, and maroon. And then I had this one T-shirt that I wore all the time that had gold flames and laced up the side. That was my party shirt.
EP: So you exclusively wore flames.
AD: Yes. I would also hit on the cashier who worked there, CJ.
EP: What did CJ look like?
AD: He was a white guy with a really small head; always in a black top; super pale; had sort of like a “cool guy” bowl cut. He loved Marilyn Manson and always played it in the store. He went to the bad boy private school in Baltimore.
EP: Did you ever ask him out?
AD: We invited him to a party at my friend Kelly’s house once but he didn’t show up and we were devastated. Oh! But I just remembered that he showed us porn once.
EP: What! Like on his phone?
AD: On the store computer. It was people doing it doggy-style. I think he was a little older than us; in retrospect that was weird.
EP: Damn. I wonder where CJ is now.
AD: Dude, I know. Probably in prison. But yeah, everything happened for me at Hot Topic: First time seeing porn, crushes, late night hangs, hormones … What was your experience growing up with Hot Topic?
EP: I didn’t really have one.
AD: Oof! Okay.
EP: I’m a city kid, so I didn’t really go to malls, and there wasn’t a Hot Topic anywhere nearby. I also had a dress code in high school and was a huge square.
AD: So, what was your first impression of Hot Topic?
EP: Hot Topic has the range! It had everything I never knew I wanted, and more. I also appreciated the aggressive to-the-point-ness of it all, like the beanie that said: “I’m done with you.” It was committed. Like, we walked in and were greeted by this woman in a full skeleton look. She had black lipstick and eyeliner, too. Plus an “I love cats” pin.
AD: Was there anything at Hot Topic that surprised you?
EP: I think I misjudged it for being this niche thing that I could never be a part of. But it was actually a very approachable store. I could definitely incorporate some Hot Topic pieces into my every day wardrobe.
AD: I will say, I don’t remember it being quite so cramped. I don’t know if this is because I’m an adult coming back to a teen store, or the state of malls…
EP: The skeleton woman did say Halloween was the busiest time of year for them, and she’s worked there for a year. But remember: It’s Halloween every damn day at Hot Topic, and I think it’s Halloween every day in culture, too. Like, we walked in and immediately saw Stranger Things merch.
AD: A lot of Suicide Squad merch, too. And Riverdale! That show makes emo look so fucking sexy.
EP: The T-shirt wall with all that merch was really the essence of Hot Topic.
AD: The essence of humanity, frankly. I was surprised at how diverse the T-shirts were. There were like three different Selena T-shirts; half a wall of anime; and one Lil Uzi Vert option, which I’m upset about. I thought there would be more emo rap.
EP: Well, that’s why I wanted to go to Hot Topic in the first place; I was in the market for some Lil Uzi merch. There were also some K-Pop shirts, which makes sense because K-Pop makes vulnerability look cute. There were a lot of other bands tees, too.
AD: A lot of bands that I didn’t know still existed, like Less Than Jake and Panic! At the Disco.
EP: They still exist at Hot Topic! Nostalgia is emo.
AD: That’s poetic.
EP: I also saw at least four teens with green hair.
AD: I saw two of them making out; like full-on making out and butt-grabbing. When I was in line to pay, they were making out so close to me that his hand was touching her butt, while touching my butt. I don’t know if he meant it, but I kinda had a threesome with some teens in Hot Topic.
EP: That’s the dream.
AD: It’s what CJ would have wanted.
EP: Why do you think emo is having a moment again in culture? Has it always been around, and we’re just noticing it now?
AD: I think hip-hop makes everything seem significantly cooler — so now that there’s an emo wave in hip-hop, it’s like, Oh yeah, emo is pretty dope. But I think as long as there are teens with unpredictable hormonal fluxes, literally every day is Halloween.
EP: Totally. Emo is also having a moment right now because everyone is just so down in the dumps, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think people are sharing their feelings more, and it’s no longer taboo to share your feelings, especially about mental health and self care. Hot Topic is for the long Instagram caption generation.
AD: Or 280-character tweets.
EP: So emo. Okay, what was your Hot Topic haul?
AD: I surprised myself a little bit with my $43 bill. I got a XXL men’s skeleton long-sleeve T-shirt to wear on Halloween. And a faux acid-wash Lil Uzi Vert shirt to wear wherever I want. And then I had a little checkout mania and bought some Razzles because my blood sugar was low. I also got an iPhone easel that says, “Ugh” on it.
EP: Do you think you’ll wear the skeleton shirt after Halloween?
AD: I don’t know, I’m not sure if I would wear that to the office. We’ll see how I feel. What was your haul?
EP: I got a No Doubt T-shirt with flames on it because I’m making up for lost time. And then a T-shirt that says, “Eat, Sleep, K-Pop, Repeat.” I regret not getting the Panic at the Disco! nameplate necklace, but I have a coupon for next time.
AD: I got a coupon too! Now we have to go back.
EP: We have to. When I checked out, I asked the cashier if she had been a fan of Hot Topic before she worked there, and she looked at me deadpan and said: “Wasn’t everyone?”
AD: That’s the truth.