The Mood-Swing Vote

How Twenty One Pilots channeled Trump-state anxieties and became the biggest new rock band (if they are a rock band) in America.

Musicians Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots perform onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots perform onstage during the American Music Awards on Nov. 20 in Los Angeles.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Much of Facebook was taken over last week by the 10 Influential Teenage Albums meme, which had users listing the LPs, cassettes, and CDs that made lasting impressions on them as teenagers. If you have as skeptical a friend circle as I do, maybe you saw some snarking that people were back-curating their lists to pose as having been precociously cool and sophisticated. Come on, the realists scolded, you were really listening to Meat Loaf and Whitney Houston, or Limp Bizkit and Ludacris, not Kate Bush and the Velvet Underground.

This wave of reverse taste-shaming seemed like grown-ups forgetting how much time and curiosity many music-loving teens devote to their obsessions, across those often endless-seeming years. A more sympathetic objection came from a gay friend who hated the exercise because he didn’t want to think about how sad he was all the time back then. But wasn’t it good, I asked, to recall the records that helped him get through that misery? Young people seek out some music to impress, some as balm, but much of it to alter them. Wanting to be cool then included aspiring to be better, in every sense: to grow, and to be healed.

Twenty years from now, when that meme surfaces again on some trendy, neurally implanted social network, I wonder if many 35-year-olds will list Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface in their top 10s, whether with an embarrassed ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or with a grateful survivor’s loyalty. And will they remember the adult condescension that met their enthusiasm, or reproduce it?

Twenty One Pilots are the heartfelt alt-rock-rap-emo-tronic duo of singer-keyboardist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, from Columbus, Ohio. They are best known for their ubiquitous hits “Ride,” “Heathens,” and especially “Stressed Out,” the one with the chorus, “Wish we could turn back time/ to the good old days/ when our mama sang us to sleep/ but now we’re stressed out.” Twenty One Pilots were one of the biggest phenomena in music in 2016, but as Billboard put it, saying that “would almost minimize what they really accomplished.” A couple of years ago, Joseph and Dun were a regional Midwestern niche act with a cult following among the young readers of Alternative Press, the emo/pop-punk bible. Now they tour the world, including selling out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row.

In 2016, they became the biggest nonlegacy rock band (if they are a rock band) in America. It was that year that Blurryface, their fourth album, released in 2015, went platinum and became the best-selling rock album in years, not to mention 2016’s best-selling vinyl LP in any genre. On Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, they had the No. 1 spot for nearly every single week of 2016, with three No. 1 singles. “Heathens” also powered sales of the Suicide Squad soundtrack to itself debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in August. That same month, Twenty One Pilots became the first band to have the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Alternative and Pop charts simultaneously since Green Day did nearly a dozen years ago. They’re also the first rock act to have five Hot 100 hits simultaneously in 47 years—the previous one was the Beatles, and before that only Elvis Presley had done it. And “Stressed Out” is nominated for Record of the Year at the upcoming Grammy awards, the only rock pick in the major categories, in a year when the voters passed over even David Bowie’s final album.

Many listeners would object to Twenty One Pilots being called rock at all, given that Twenty One Pilots use no electric guitars (there is the occasional ukulele). TOP, often rendered TØP—as they’re known to fans, collectively dubbed the Skeleton Clique—don’t perform with a band but with prerecorded and programmed keyboard tracks and beats, though Dun also plays his live drum kit with manic skill, broken up by frequent acrobatics (specifically, backflips). And Joseph talk-raps nearly as much as he sings, often while wearing masks and body makeup. Now in their late 20s, the pair started off on conventional instruments but found success as part of a cohort that creates on laptops; loops have taken over from riffs, software has supplanted guitars, and music making has moved from the garage to the bedroom. University of Virginia musicologist Karl Hagstrom Miller, who’s studied that shift, told me he sees TOP as a perfect example of how bands in turn are changing from the rock/punk, guitar-bass-drums model to “other configurations of musical collaboration.”

TOP’s first, self-titled album—made by Joseph with the initial ensemble he formed at Ohio State University, before the others left and Dun joined—their self-deprecatingly titled sophomore LP Regional at Best, and 2013’s major-label debut Vessels are all more conventionally post-emo: They’re in the lineage of My Chemical Romance or Dashboard Confessional, with almost show tune– or glam-like settings for Joseph’s psychodramatic lyrics, usually based around his piano parts. But hip-hop became a more and more audible influence, and Blurryface also breathes the air of pop, EDM, breakbeat, reggae (with echoes of Sublime and 311), and dancehall. This stylistic restlessness has become their signature, in keeping with a generation that’s always been able to skip from sound to sound with a click. They may not be sure of much, but they know genre boundaries are for the olds.

On the meta-manifesto “Lane Boy,” Joseph mocks the “stay in your lane” admonitions of record companies, rapping, “If it was our way, we’d have a tempo change every other time change … I’m in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin’/ In the industry/ It seems to me that singles on the radio are currency/ My creativity’s only free when I’m playing shows.” He advises fans, “Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless,” and backhands his elders at labels Fueled by Ramen (the imperial seat of pop-punk) and Atlantic with the putdown, “Will they be alive tomorrow?”

Joseph’s rap style is often compared to northwest-coast slack-rapper Macklemore, but among the ranks of post-Eminem white rappers, I find Joseph more probing, sardonic, and expressive. In that vein, too, the way TOP use synths as faux strings and as horror-film effects is reminiscent of Dr. Dre’s G-funk production style for Em. But profanity and shock are not their métier. They grew up in strict Christian households where they had to hide their pop-punk and hip-hop CDs from parental censure, or find faith-friendly equivalents—Joseph’s first favorite band was the Christian rap-rock trio DC Talk. They still identify as Christians, though doubting ones, and a hefty slice of their fan base interprets their songs as an ongoing negotiation with God, as evidenced in lengthy debates on the lyrics-annotation site Genius.

To secular ears, the words center more on depression and anxiety, often with direct reference to self-harm. (TOP’s invitation to the soundtrack of Suicide Squad, with its supergoth gallery of antiheroes, was no coincidence.) Blurryface is a loose concept album about Joseph trying to defeat the alter ego of the title, a monster-image of his insecurities and self-hatreds. “My name is Blurryface, and I care what you think,” goes a nursery-rhyme refrain in “Stressed Out,” at once menacingly flat and paranoiacally self-conscious in affect. On the closing track “Goner,” Joseph implores, “I’ve got two faces/ Blurry’s the one I’m not/ I need your help to take him out.” He is beseeching either the Lord or the Skeleton Clique, but probably both.

This is where a second TOP generation gap opens, less about sonics than about sentiment. Thanks mainly to the back-to-childhood yearnings of “Stressed Out,” they’ve been used as an emblem of millennials’ supposed whiney entitlement. “Put away the juice boxes and grow up,” chastised the New York Post: “Today’s young adults expect the lullabies to continue indefinitely. … What a kid wants out of a job is not that it be secure but that it be fun.”

I’ve heard less contemptuous but similarly impatient takes on “Stressed Out” from more liberal listeners. They all ignore the rest of TOP’s work (which doesn’t go on so much about childhoods) and the fact that both hippie and Gen X bands did plenty of mourning of their lost innocence, and drew similar reactions from grown-ups who’d willfully forgotten that feeling. More than that, though, they gloss over the “stress” and its consequences. What if kids are not asking for security, much less advancement, because they’ve been shown unmistakably—by economic crisis and climate change and global instability, by local underdevelopment and political unconcern and suffocating debt—that security is out of the question?

Kind of quaintly, Twenty One Pilots drew their name from the death toll that’s caused in Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons when a manufacturer cuts corners on the airplane parts it’s shipping out. Joseph has talked about it as a reminder to be committed completely to their work (TOP’s shorthand for “phoning it in” is “sending out the parts”). But it also sounds as if TOP sing from the position of a generation born into an assemblage that came to them broken from the start. No one told them, and no one now will admit it, but the vessel is going down.

It’s a collective crisis—they are two of the pilots, but their audience is the other 19. Testimony to this is everywhere in Skeleton Clique discussions. The “Your Stories” page on the Twenty One Pilots fan site is harrowing reading. It offers page after page of teen depression and alienation, closetedness, cutting, suicide attempts, and accounts of how some lines from a TOP song, or a concert experience, or friends made through fandom, literally helped save fans’ lives. Many of them sound unsure how long the effect will hold, but they are thankful for even temporary relief.

To some degree, these are the perpetual trials of adolescence. But they are also specifically of this moment and, as another TOP song title puts it, “Fairly Local.” The current emo revival is fueled partly by millennial twentysomethings’ nostalgia for the music of the early 2000s, but the timing is conspicuous, in the way the angst-ridden style seems to have receded with the dawn of the Obama era and returned at its twilight. And, coming from Ohio, TOP hail from one of the Midwestern states that turned to Trump in this election, and from the white, lower-middle-class demographic that has occasioned so much fretting and so many think pieces in the months since the vote.

It’s one of the regions where suicide and overdose rates have been rising in synch with deindustrialization and the conversion of full-time work to precarious temporary contracts without benefits. In “Hometown,” Joseph sings, “Where we’re from, there’s no sun/ Our hometown’s in the dark/ Where we’re from, we’re no one/ Our hometown’s in the dark.” He is talking about Columbus but also about a more abstract foundation that is unmoored and unwanted—about being from somewhere that is nowhere.

TOP partake in the general blind spots of that subgroup, too—their appropriations from rap, reggae, and dancehall are familiar and warmly meant, but shallow, a consumer and spectator’s distanced dabbling in black cultures. Joseph tries to acknowledge this (“this is not rap, this is not hip-hop/ just another attempt to make the voices stop,” he says in “Heavydirtysoul,” and in “Lane Boy,” “I wasn’t raised in the hood/ But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness”), but it just makes it worse. Likewise, gender is seldom an explicit concern, and when it is, it sometimes approaches the worst of earlier “where the girls aren’t” emo, with boys as girlfriends’ innocent victims, as in “Tear in My Heart”: “She’s a carver./ She’s a butcher with a smile.”

Yet, in the same song, Joseph sings about driving with that companion sleeping in his car, trying to avoid waking her by hitting potholes and “cursing my government/ for not using my taxes to fill holes with more cement.” It’s a goofily touching moment, but it also evokes the absence of infrastructure, of a social contract that is failing to care and protect.

I may seem to be making much out of a morsel here, perpetuating the kind of melodrama that puts less-earnest listeners off, usually including me. But it’s these flashes where personal despair links to a larger context, whether of faith or location or sympathetic community, that makes me more receptive to TOP than to a lot of more insular emo-adjacent artists. That stretch for connection is also encoded in the musical eclecticism, trying to welcome every voice, whether inside or outside your head. Along with Dun’s rhythms and Joseph’s vocal flair and genuine (if patchy) way with words, I think it’s part of why they broke so widely out of the usually narrow “alternative” pack. To use a much-degraded term of late, it’s populism.

This month, wrenchingly, the brilliant English music writer and academic theorist Mark Fisher died by suicide. (We knew each other a bit online, thanks to his influential K-punk blog, but not in person.) He was 48, well out of the Twenty One Pilot target range, and while his tastes could be unpredictable, I doubt he rated them that highly. But in addition to his writing on music, film, politics, and more, Fisher wrote often and candidly about his long struggle with depression, arguing against the way it’s been personalized and separated from other social struggles. As he wrote in 2014:

We must understand the fatalistic submission of the UK’s population to austerity as the consequence of a deliberately cultivated depression. This depression is manifested in the acceptance that things will get worse (for all but a small elite), that we are lucky to have a job at all (so we shouldn’t expect wages to keep pace with inflation), that we cannot afford the collective provision of the welfare state. Collective depression is the result of the ruling class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act. This isn’t a failure of will any more than an individual depressed person can ‘snap themselves out of it’ by ‘pulling their socks up’.

Fisher was not denying the psychic side of depression, but pointing out that it worsens with deprivation, and with the loss of support, possibility, and hope. Depressed individuals are in many ways the worst-hit heralds of afflictions and falsehoods that can erode life for everyone.

This is what Donald Trump at once pretends to salve with his empty promises and perpetrates with his scorn of “losers” and minorities, and his jeering pantomime of a disabled reporter. And it’s what TOP try to counter by sharing their battles with the Blurryface within and by being there for the Skeleton Clique, that skeleton-crew nightshift of laborers in feeling, at peril of being crushed in the machines. The kids aren’t all right, this band raps and croons and sometimes moans, but they can find solidarity in that unwellness. They appeal in “Fairly Local” to an unmobilized force of “the few, the proud, and the emotional.” If that sounds aggravating to others, most of all to so-called adults, then maybe it’s supposed to.