Within the past year, Columbus, Ohio’s Twenty One Pilots have become the biggest rock band in the country, and the biggest new rock band in nearly a decade. The duo were self-aware enough to name their second album Regional at Best (2011), but signed to Fueled By Ramen, a label known for catapulting punks into the mainstream, shortly thereafter. They became breakout stars with the ascension of “Stressed Out” from 2015’s Blurryface. Somewhere along the line, Twenty One Pilots joined The Beatles and Elvis as the third rock act ever to have two concurrent singles in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100. And with company like that, it’s probably time to take them seriously as a long-term prospect, who have already outlived the one-hit wonder potential of “Stressed Out.” Twenty One Pilots are filling the longstanding vacancy for the next big American arena rock band, a wasteland that has largely lain fallow since The Killers’ commercial peak five years ago.
“Stressed Out” is a sticky mindworm that fuses a mumbling conversational rap about insecurity to a sweeping chorus whose nostalgia and pointed reference to “when our mama sang us to sleep” recall “An Old Fashioned Love Song” — the Paul Williams song that became a mega-hit for Three Dog Night in the early ’70s. Like “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Stressed Out” has a haunted, music-hall feeling, and a slightly embarrassing but highly effective earnestness in its longing for a romanticized, innocent past. Twenty One Pilots look something like a vaudevillian double act — easily identifiable as “the one who looks like Paranoid Android” and “the other guy with pink hair.”
Because Twenty One Pilots are such an unavoidable force on the radio right now, I often heard their music involuntarily before I ever listened to it on purpose. At a certain point, I started to find their indifference to coolness charming. “Stressed Out” genuinely stressed me out at first, with its herky-jerk from the verses into the chorus, but I eventually found myself constantly sing-saying “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think” under my breath in all kinds of situations. The imaginary Blurryface character is meant to be a physical embodiment of insecurities and fears. Blurryface brings to mind Slenderman — the internet urban legend birthed on the website Something Awful that became horrifically real when two tween girls stabbed an 11-year-old girl in Waukesha, Wisconsin, claiming to be under the influence of Slenderman. Twenty One Pilots are a direct channel to the Midwestern Gothic Internet — a musical Wisconsin Death Trip.
It was on my fiftieth listen to “Heathens” — their wildly successful single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack — that it finally clicked: Twenty One Pilots are the second coming of late-’90s rap rock. “Stressed Out” and “Heathens” were both coproduced by Mike Elizondo — the producer known for his work on Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. “Heathens” has a distinctly Linkin Park feel, with its self-loathing lyrics and industrial, dark-wave feel. Rap rock’s laser focus on suburban antipathy went out of style after 9/11, but as a cultural phenomenon it never actually went away. Rap rock has always occupied a curious place in the music conversation. It gets treated as a bastardization of both genres it represents, stuck in the middle ground between two forms, like TV movies.
Named after a plot point from the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, Twenty One Pilots formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 2009. Vocalist Tyler Joseph has a background in Christian rap — he credits Christian rap pioneers DC Talk with inspiring him to make music. Many rap-rock bands had Christian-rock backgrounds, most notably P.O.D. Twenty One Pilots do not publicly identify as a Christian group, but both members of the duo identify as Christian. “Christian band Twenty One Pilots confounds secular critics, shows Gen-Y & Z a way to faith,” read one headline that popped up when I googled “Twenty One Pilots Christian?” Having wondered what exactly Blurryface was for months, I was a little disappointed that the answer was simple. Blurryface is Satan, and like Kendrick Lamar’s “Lucy” — or Eminem’s Slim Shady, for that matter — serves as an alter ego for dealing with temptation, the inner voice telling you to just say “fuck it” and do the bad thing that feels good. And Twenty One Pilots and Kendrick say no.
Their third big single, “Ride,” falls into that most bastardized and globally beloved of genres: reggae-rap-rock. Once I stopped letting my critical brain think about “Ride,” I started letting it play whenever it came on the pop station as I drove. Its wavelike hook overpowered me. At some point in time, 311 and Sublime just started to make me feel nostalgic for the ’90s, and “Ride” also makes me feel nostalgic for the ’90s. Which, again, is what I think makes Twenty One Pilots so popular. They’re good old suburban alternative, with rap-rock plugs and keyboards and samplers in lieu of guitars. There are no audible guitars at work here, which makes Twenty One Pilots unusual for a rock band. It’s also what makes them fit seamlessly into the popular landscape alongside straight-up pop and EDM. We may be at peak “no guitars” in pop right now, ever since Taylor Swift put hers down. I’m not worried about the guitars. There are plenty of other place to get them — garage, country, metal, the 20th century.
What further differentiates Twenty One Pilots from previous rap rock is their sheer lack of aggression. If Twenty One Pilots choose to break any shit tonight, it will probably just be some hearts, likely their own. It’s the logical next wave for Hot Topic teens — the store having long ago shifted its brand from goths to a primordial pop-culture stew of merch for rap, classic rock, emo, punk, and stuff like, well, Suicide Squad. If you were to wear every Hot Topic t-shirt at once, you’d get the Twenty One Pilots aesthetic. With their muted goth-glam aesthetic, they also bring to mind some other fliers — Stone Temple Pilots, never the coolest grunge band, whose ’90s run produced a slew of excellent rock radio singles. Scott Weiland was born in San Jose, California, but spent his high-school years in Ohio.
There’s something deeply Midwestern about Twenty One Pilots — their music appeals to a demographic that is rarely prized or courted by coastal music elites, but whose fandom is loyal and long-lasting. Twenty One Pilots own their Ohio-ness — they filmed the “Stressed Out” video in front of Josh Dun’s childhood home. With their electronic-but-not-exactly-funky sound, they’re also a throwback to the “Weird Midwest” new wave aesthetic of the ’80s that produced Devo. Don’t forget what else has come out of Ohio: Nine Inch Nails were formed in Cleveland, as were Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Brian Hugh “Marilyn Manson” Warner was born in Canton. Why are so many Ohio bands obsessed with dark forces (see also: Pere Ubu)? Who do you think gave Ohioans Boz Scaggs, John Legend, The Isley Brothers, Tracy Chapman, Benjamin Orr, Kim and Kelly Deal, The O’Jays, Dean Martin, Bobby Womack, and Chrissie Hynde such beautiful voices, if not THE DEVIL HIMSELF? (Disclaimer: JK, but be careful if you play “Lido Shuffle” backward after midnight on a full moon.)
Part of the knock on rap rock seemed to be that it so directly went after teens in regions who might not have had access to a local record store other than a Best Buy. In 2016, even the most remotely located teen has access to music through streaming on the internet. In 2016, Twenty One Pilots are still making music for suburban and exurban kids — stuck in their parents’ houses, dreaming of living anywhere else. And while white Christian rappers with plugs are not exactly cool in a Hypebeast sense, they represent the people for whom coolness might mean that one kid in your church group with a Misfits shirt or a mohawk. The way Twenty One Pilots’ visual signifiers of coolness are toned down or late and the way their rapping is unpretentious and perfectly dorky are very much in line with rap rock’s tradition of eschewing cool, of signaling that this is all for the love of it. With a musical guest slot on the upcoming season of Saturday Night Live and another record on the way, Twenty One Pilots are sticking around. Don’t underestimate them — they’re everywhere. Deny them all you like, but as they sing at the end of “Heathens,” “it looks like you might be one of us.”