“I didn’t know that there were many rules in music when I started writing.”—Tyler Joseph
My dad is a burly, bearded man of approximately 5ft 6in—on a good day. He does not own a real jacket, instead settling for the miserable warmth provided by his oversized Jets zip-up. He doesn’t even watch football, but perhaps that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is that his only pants are exactly 5 similar pairs of worn blue jeans, buckled with the only brown belt he owns. Or maybe it’s that he uses the same electric razor for his beard on his thin salt-and-pepper hair. Maybe it’s that on a good day, he looks exactly as homeless as you’re picturing right this moment.
The day we saw Twenty One Pilots for the first time was not a good day. Ruthless rain turned my dad’s striped polo from gray to black, his skin white to blush red. He was wearing dark sweatpants, and he’d traded his Jets zip-up for a plaid wool coat. His hair hung down to his neck on either side, creating a slide down his body for the rain. Today would be an odd day, I told myself as I buckled my seatbelt and watched my dad begrudgingly do the same. Today would be long, I told myself as my dad angrily skirted around cars on the freeway like Sora dodging balls of fire in Kingdom Hearts. But I also knew that that day would be something incredible—a day remembered for years to come, not because it would be stained red by my dad’s bad mood, but because it would be the day I saw one of my favorite bands up-front and personal (from at least the fifth row I planned). I’d estimated showing up to the venue five hours before doors opened would be perfect.
Mostly though, the day is remembered as a canvas of a giant black hole with a tiny, tiny blue dot in the corner. If you’ve attended a Twenty One Pilots concert, the biggest question you’ll ask me now is: how could Twenty One Pilots only be a small blue dot in your day’s grand scheme of darkness? It’s not that the concert was bad, but more so because it was a night of emotion, of two panic attacks, high fives from Tyler and Josh, and an ache in the chest that whispers, has it really already been two hours?
“A lot of things you do to cover up insecurities can be just as harmful to you as anything else.”
Twenty One Pilots is best described as the living, raging manifestation of nostalgia, or at least the more retro, grown-up version of that emotion. The band’s musical high points are roused by melancholic beasts exploding with roars of suicidal thoughts, mental anguish, and scars won from battles with their own heads. In fact, the most common message throughout Twenty One Pilots’ music involves severe depression. In a ballad from their early self-titled debut, the lyrics run: “My trial was filed as a crazy suicidal head case.” To be blunt, the duo’s music is quite disturbing to most people who carry around pink iPhones filled with Billboard’s Top 100, and so the main question becomes, how did a two-piece band with extremely depressing music and a lead singer who constantly twitches when his voice cracks get so famous? How, in the span of merely two years, did this pop-indie-rock-alternative-electronic-punk-anything but country band go from playing small bar-settings to selling out the most famous music venue in the world?
“When you write music that expresses doubt or concern or talks about some of the darker things that a developing human goes through, people will come out of the woodwork to listen to someone else say it out loud.”
I didn’t know the answer for a long time. All I knew was that I had grown to love the band, that I was proud of them for coming so far. For a while, I thought maybe it was just the band’s appeal to the younger, heartbroken, struggling, emo(?) crowd. Few artists produce high-quality music with even higher quality lyrics that discuss taboo subjects, like suicidal thoughts or anxiety. Teenagers often feel the brunt of mental health issues, and most times before agreeing to fork over hundreds of dollars for a single therapy session, parents will simply advise their kids to look on the bright side; to smile more; to get over it. No parent wants to admit to themselves that they’ve raised a depressed child, but would rather hide beneath the fabricated veil that swears mental illness is something too costly to diagnose.
Depending on where you live and how good of an insurance you have, therapy sessions can cost anywhere from $200 to $300 on average. And it’s common knowledge that depression is a warden, handcuffs you to your bed, never allows you to do anything productive except sleep—only during daylight hours, of course. And so teenagers get sick thinking about the amount of schoolwork they have, shake at the thought of college, of going into the workforce so they can make a living for themselves. It is at this point where we become helpless, praying for anything to just come and save us, to come rescue us from this inescapable life.
Music does not save you, never mind a specific band or artist. Rather, music gives you the strength to save yourself. A special type of novocaine, a parent’s dreamy alternative to drug cocktails prescribed by a wrinkly hand. Music is perhaps the purest form of therapy, scientifically proven to combat depression, anxiety, and stress. It dulls the sharpest of our mind’s knives, giving us enough will to pull ourselves out of the hole we’ve fallen into, if not at least reach a hand out into the light, screaming until someone finally pulls you out.
“I remember the first time I ever showed my parents a song that I had written. The content may have been a little darker than they were used to, or really introspective in a way that may have been uncomfortable. I thought they’d retaliate with some kind of judgment or concern about whether I was feeling all right, but they were proud of it.”
So while Twenty One Pilots is incapable of saving lives themselves, their music perhaps gives fans the strength to stay awake, to stay alive. Is it the most obvious conclusion, then, that this is the reason the band has grown so successful, so quickly? No, say most fellow artists promoting the same kind of message. Similar bands have yet to reach the peak of their careers. For example, Mayday Parade, who’s most famous song is about struggling with the grief of losing a loved one, has merely half—if that—of the following Twenty One Pilots does. Headlining tours have seen them sheltered in small bar settings and theaters. They’ve yet to play a real arena as a headlining act, yet their songs deal with the same topics Twenty One Pilots’ clique loves: mental anguish, loss, emotion. And so the question as to how Twenty One Pilots became so famous must not solely lie in the fact that their music is unique, that their lyrics are somehow revolutionary. What else, then, can we name for their success?
“When Josh and I are recording a record, we’re very mindful of how the music will manifest itself live. That’s where we have to live every day. When we tour for the next record, I imagine there will be a new story to tell, and we’ll introduce new characters.”
The lights dim to electric blue. There’s a deep buzzing sound filling this room, but I can barely hear it over the sudden orchestra of screams emitting from the crowd. The fans, all 500 of them, all claw at one another for a spot at the front, and a few even pass out from the excitement. The lights grow even dimmer, and from my side-stage view, I see two tall shadows emerge from backstage, their faces covered by ski-masks. Finally, the buzzing sound cuts off. The lights shut off completely for a brief moment before flashing onto frontman Tyler Joseph, blue suit and black ski-mask and all, standing in a flamboyant pose. The crowd transforms into a monstrous machine, all screaming and jumping at the same time. The intro to “Guns For Hands” begins. Twenty One Pilots has taken their full form.
Is it, then, that Twenty One Pilots’ success can be drawn from their stage presence? The theatrics of the ski-masks, the dramatic intros to their most upbeat songs? Is it the energy fed off of Josh Dun’s animalistic drumming, or Tyler Joseph’s acrobatic leaps? It’s completely possible, and yet, it still doesn’t feel like the most organic answer.
Again, we must look at the bands and artists with the best stage presence. Story Of The Year may be quite an old band, but their stage presence involves the frontman jumping into crowds, bassists and guitarists throwing their instruments around and making direct eye contact with the fans. However, the band has failed to become more than merely a one-hit wonder. The All-American Rejects are doing well for a band that saw most of its success in 2005 to 2008, but they certainly aren’t selling out arenas as the main act these days. Yet their stage presence is amazing, with frontman Tyson Ritter somehow managing to get the entire crowd singing their hearts out. Stage presence, therefore, cannot be a sole factor in determining a band’s success. So what else is it about Twenty One Pilots, then?
“Music can connect people on an intimate level. What Josh and I are trying to do is represent anyone who has some of the questions that we have.”
Tyler abruptly stops strumming his ukulele. He turns to tell Josh to stop the electronic beat running from his drum set, then points to the middle of the crowd. “Hold up, hold up,” He says, voice worn. “Can we let her through? Guys— guys seriously—” Fans scream in respect for the 28-year-old, drowning out his words. Again, Tyler tries, “Come on, there’s a young girl passed out in the middle of the crowd right here. Can we bring her to the front?” He leans over the edge of the stage and taps a balding security guard on the shoulder, nodding in the direction of the unconscious girl, held up only by the fans around her. She’s successfully rescued from the sweaty, crushing crow—a pack of waves almost too unruly for Tyler himself to control. From the bar a few feet away from the stage, my dad smiles.
A few minutes to go, and the show is ending. The 90-minute set has drawn to a close almost too soon, and my heart, along with everyone else’s in this room, aches. It’s like asking your crush on a date for the very first time: the adrenaline hits, then the excitement settles, then joy overflows you until, finally, the day becomes just another regular day. The live performance of “Trees” is one no Twenty One Pilots fan will ever forget. And thus, it is almost disrespectful to attempt to describe the experience. But there are a few key details: the beating of the drums in your chest, your veins, your everything; coughing from cheering so loud; hands shaking from clapping so hard.
It is still raining when my dad and I exit the venue. He lifts one flap of his jacket over my head and runs alongside me to our car. I look at him as he starts the engine, flooding the vehicle with a warmth we honestly didn’t need, after the experience we just had. I ask him meekly, “Did you like it?” He looks over at me, and there is a sudden light to his green eyes—one that I’ve rarely seen: a light drawn in only by hopefulness, by a full heart. He smiles, “Yeah. They seemed pretty cool.” Even his voice is a little sore, making me realize that if anyone could have gotten my dad to sing, of course, it would be Tyler Joseph.
Maybe that is what has gotten Twenty One Pilots so far. The stage presence and the emotional music surely aided the band’s fan base’s growth, but maybe the true cause for their rapid success lies in the fact that yeah, they are pretty cool. They high five fans after walking off stage. They meet fans outside their tour bus after shows. They trust their fans more than anyone to hold them up, to make sure they never fall. And that, my friends, is a band-fan relationship completely unheard of. Twenty One Pilots is a duo of two real dudes from a cool city in Ohio, making cool music and putting on good shows and making themselves known as one of the most different, most interesting Grammy-winning bands to exist.
Two years later, I saw Twenty One Pilots perform on their Emotional Roadshow tour to a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Despite a few new effects, a bigger stage, and a bigger crowd, the band remained just as energetic and real as they were just 24 months before.
My dad wasn’t there to see any of my videos or photos from the night, but I have a feeling he was still watching from the clouds. I have a feeling he still said to himself, “Yeah…they seemed pretty cool.”