You may not have heard of Khalid, but Kylie Jenner has. Shortly after Khalid released his first single, “Location,” the Kardashian associate posted a Snapchat of herself dancing to the song. The single exploded on YouTube and Spotify, and the 19-year-old musician’s tour quickly sold out.
Having your single featured on a celebrity’s Snapchat is about as perfect a marketing opportunity as Khalid could have gotten. It dovetailed perfectly with the themes of American Teen, his debut album: the communication crisis—and opportunity—faced by teens in the United States, brought on by social media like Twitter, Facebook, and yes, Snapchat.
Khalid kicks off the album by acknowledging the transience of teenage life: “Living the good life full of goodbyes.” That transience is an example of one obvious fact of young life: it will be over pretty soon.
Pop music has tended to overlook this mark of the teen experience. Boy bands, Katy Perry types, and angsty rock musicians all present themselves as thinkers addressing uniquely adult issues. They’ve lost (or found) the love of their life. They’ve determined that no one understands them. They’ve discovered that the way to infuse meaning into life is to just, like, have fun.
Pop music’s MO has been to apply rather immature teenage “wisdom” to adult situations. The result is a kind of reverse-aspirational musical genre that only affirms what may be a teenager’s worst suspicions about the world: you can’t live without her, you’re all alone, and this is all there is.
American Teen explores the ways these assumptions are misguided. Without the preachiness that overwhelms alternate takes on teen life (see: Christian music, the after-school special, etc.), Khalid looks at the high-school experience with awe and wonder, but also with a disarming, stakes-lowering eye to the future.
Accompanied by synthesizers and drum machines, the album sounds like the Stranger Things soundtrack co-opted by a seasoned R & B singer. It’s a musical nod to Khalid’s beyond-his-years wisdom. American Teen could easily create connections between a younger and older audience.
In fact, Khalid seems to understand human connection better than most adults. In “Location,” he speaks to the necessity of both in-person conversation and relational intentionality. It’s a love song built around the truth that “things go a little bit better when you plan it.”
The song’s request to meet in person is presented as a chill suggestion, rather than a desperate demand. Even more impressive and countercultural, Khalid leaves ample room for his prospective girlfriend’s consideration and consent.
If all of this paints a rosy picture of Khalid, the album makes clear that he’s less mature than he is self-aware. On “Another Sad Love Song,” he admits that he’s “not good at showing my emotions.” “I must be honest, I have a lot of pride / But I'm broken inside,” he admits before a haunting chorus lingers on the fallout of his communication skills: “Bridges they are burning/Lover, I am worried/Tables they are turning/Lover, I am hurting.”
The album hints throughout that some preternatural figures may be responsible for guiding Khalid through life. In the final ballad, he seems to give a shout-out to his parents, whom he refers to as “Angels in my living room.” They give him guidance and perspective, and pave the way for him to thrive: “I hope for better days / And lately times are tough / The angels give me strength / And I'm not giving up / So I wipe away my tears / I unveil my pain / They're brushing off my shoulders / And I hold on to their stain.”
Every generation of young adults faces new challenges. Those faced by today’s teens are particularly insidious: every experience is mediated by a screen, while in-person communication with family and friends is less and less a priority or a possibility. Sexting and online bullying take someone’s dignity and privacy and expose them for the world to see.
The degree to which parents are caught off-guard by these trends likely mirrors the degree to which teenagers see them as normal. As Scripture teaches older generations to pass the faith on to the next generation (Psalm 145:4; Eph. 6:4), youth leaders, parents, and educators will have to study the sea changes their children take for granted. With much of life taking place digitally, kids are able to live as autonomous a life as ever. If culture is the sea we swim in, teenagers may be swimming in the deep end earlier than we thought.
But Khalid’s tone doesn’t instigate despair, for teenagers or those who love them. For adults who lament the demise of the family, or worry that millennials are oblivious to their own failures, Khalid reminds us that with a little guidance, teenagers can be left to make their own choices, even if some of them are unwise. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just the end of high school.
Khalid seems to understand human connection better than most adults. In “Location,” he speaks to the necessity of both in-person conversation and relational intentionality.