Grandpa can keep U2; you can leave Coldplay for Mom; Mumford & Sons are strictly the province of perilously uncool older siblings. For a growing swath of America’s teenagers, Twenty One Pilots are the biggest rock band in the world — or are they are pop? Rap? EDM?
Forward-thinking mainstream music has always been the sound of disparate styles colliding, and in this era of hyper-accelerated culture, that synthesis is happening faster than ever. One of the most commonly cited symptoms of the MP3 era is that genre doesn’t matter anymore; from Napster to iPods to YouTube to Spotify, everybody has learned to mash their music together without a second thought. A “funny” lark like Dynamite Hack’s preppy acoustic cover of Eazy E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood” from 2000 now seems not only #problematic but paleolithic. Whether it results in seamless, undefinable hybrids like Lorde’s “Royals” or see-what-we-did-there Frankenstein’s monsters like Avicii and Aloe Blacc’s “Wake Me Up,” pop’s evolution has long sounded like a reverse Big Bang, a whole universe of sound hurtling towards a single centralized point.
Adore them or despise them — and typically there isn’t any in between with these guys — no band represents that convergence of sounds more colorfully or consistently than Twenty One Pilots. While drummer Josh Dun steers the songs all over the stylistic map, Tyler Joseph toggles between rapid-fire nasal rapping and full-throated singing, spiraling and preening across stages when he’s not pounding his piano or strumming a ukulele. (No guitars allowed in this band.) The ever-ascending duo from Columbus have long been local superstars in and around Ohio, where they built up a massive grassroots audience before moving on to the world of music festival main stages, late-night TV appearances, and top-40 radio rotation. The video for their spastic kitchen-sink anthem “Ode To Sleep,” which is embedded below, tracks that precipitous climb. At this point it’s fair to say Twenty One Pilots have arrived; their new album Blurryface just moved 146,000 units in its first week, good enough to debut at the top of the Billboard 200 by a mile. Yet for a band with a #1 album, these guys are relatively anonymous, especially in the world of online music criticism. So for those of you who scratching your heads wondering, “Who?” let’s backtrack for a moment.
Because my stint writing about music for Columbus Alive coincided with their rise to fame, I go way back with Twenty One Pilots: Four summers ago, when their local gigs were already drawing hundreds upon hundreds of fans, I booked them for a tiny Columbus music showcase that functioned as my birthday party. A few months after that, I interviewed them just before they announced their deal with Fueled By Ramen, the Atlantic subsidiary that launched Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and Fun. And a few months after that, with their major-label debut album looming, I wrote a lengthy cover story about their grassroots rise. Somewhere along the way I coined the phrase “schizoid pop,” which became Joseph’s favored description of their music for a while. A handful of my tweets that Joseph favorited in 2013 still regularly get starred by obsessive fans presumably scrolling through Joseph’s account and mirroring his every expression of approval.
Because of that history, I’ve always rooted for this band, and I usually end up embracing even fearlessly garish stylistic choices that make me recoil at first. Joseph’s rapping is what might happen if Eminem traded horrorcore for nerdcore; big-tent EDM drops often appear out of nowhere to jack up the cheese factor; I recently flinched when I heard the lyric, “The songs on the radio are OK/ But my taste in music is your face” (on the radio, by the way). So many things about their music set off bad-taste alarms in my psyche. Yet they sell it with so much earnest conviction that they usually end up winning me over.
It helps that Joseph and Dun keenly understand the inner-workings of both 21st century pop music and the 21st century teenage mind. Each song aims for about a dozen different pleasure points, knowing it’ll probably hook you with at least one of them. It’s ideal music for a generation whose attention-span has been ravaged by push notifications and infinite scrolling — just when they settle into one aesthetic, the floor drops out and you’re in an entirely different song, only you land on a trampoline that springs you out the window and into another completely new landscape.
These guys have a way of making those counterintuitive, hyperactive musical shifts feel like the most natural thing in the world, as if the song couldn’t have possibly developed in any other direction. On Blurryface, those changes often happen gradually, unspooling radical evolution before your eyes. Opener “Heavydirtysoul,” for instance, morphs from some kind of late-’90s trip-hop/Big Beat thing to a Fitz & The Tantrums song to a monolithic heavy-rock climax without ever inducing whiplash. “Message Man” drops the trap beat and synth line from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” in the middle of a Soft Cell “Tainted Love” homage. “Stressed Out,” probably the most linear Twenty One Pilots song ever, still manages to merge Sublime, Portishead, and A$AP Rocky.
A song about insecurity built around the phrase “My name is Blurryface and I care what you think,” “Stressed Out” is indicative of Twenty One Pilots’ other M.O. They’ve positioned their fan base as both a 12th-man style extension of the band (“you guys did it,” Joseph tweeted upon learning Blurryface had gone to #1) and a kind of safe space for troubled kids, who flood them with fan mail and swarm them at after-concert meet-and-greets. That’s yet another one of their odd amalgams: They’ve cultivated a following that’s part sports fandom, part support group. Blurryface is a concept album about the war that rages inside, and Twenty One Pilots concerts are basically that conflict blasted to the size of a Gladiator match, the audience cheering on as the band battles their demons.
Twenty One Pilots used to run in Christian rock circles, and Joseph did time as a worship leader before the band hit it big, and there’s definitely a hint of youth group in songs like Vessel’s “Screen,” with its “We’re broken people” refrain. But the brand of we’re-all-in-this-togetherness they tout at their concerts and online isn’t framed in religious terms. “Fairly Local” is pitched as a call-to-arms for “the few, the proud, and the emotional,” and “Polarize” makes things as plain as possible: “We have problems.” Blurryface never gets especially spiritual in its language, give or take a reference to the devil.
That said, the album is haunted by mortality at every turn. “Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit,” Joseph sings on the opening track in one of his cleverest turns of phrase. “Yeah I think about the end just way too much/ But it’s fun to fantasize,” he proclaims on “Ride.” The antidote for all this morbidity turns out to be (surprise!) falling in love. “Tear In My Heart” is all about how Joseph’s wife jolted him out of stasis, and on “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV,” he sings, “I don’t care what is in your hair/ I wanna know what’s on your mind/ I used to say I wanna die before I’m old/ But because of you, I might think twice.” The words tell a story as complicated and messy as the music; doubt and despair commingle with bold self-assurance. Joseph is routinely dismissive of the radio, perhaps a suggestion that all he needs is the homegrown coalition that lifted him to the top. And the DnB/reggae/rap rave-up “Lane Boy” musically and lyrically scoffs at the notion of staying in your lane. Given where they’ve been and where they’re going, it appears they don’t have to.
See you later, “See You Again” — we have a new #1 single! “Bad Blood” is kind of a shit song, especially by Taylor Swift’s standards, but I’ll take it over Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s saccharine Paul Walker tribute. And so will the rest of America, now that Swift’s star-studded remix video has accomplished its purpose and racked up a Vevo-record 20.1 million global views in its first 24 hours. “Bad Blood” becomes Swift’s fourth Hot 100 #1 single and third from 1989 following “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” (Alas, “Style” only made it to #6 — maybe because unlike the rest of those hits, its video was instantly forgettable?) That makes 1989 the first album since Adele’s 21 to generate three #1 singles. Weirdly, “Bad Blood” also becomes Kendrick Lamar’s first #1 single due to his appearance on the remix. Billboard reports that it was an extremely tight race, so maybe “See You Again” will rebound, but for now it falls to #2. Speaking of Billboard…
Song promoted by Billboard for 2 weeks & broadcast into millions of homes care of Billboard tops objective chart by neutral party Billboard
— cralbert (@cwilliott) May 27, 2015
The rest of the Hot 100 top 10 remains relatively consistent, with “Bad Blood” mostly just bumping everything else down a slot or two. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” drops to #3, Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” holds firm at #4, the Weeknd’s “Earned It” slides to #5, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” drops to #6, and Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” descends to #7. David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” featuring Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack, climbs to #8, becoming the week’s only other new song in the top 10. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” is down to #9, but they’ll surely have yet another horse in the top 10 soon with “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like A Motherfucker” (#31 and rising). And T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” falls to #10.
As indicated above, Twenty One Pilots top the Billboard 200 with 146,000 units, well surpassing the performance of their #58-peaking 2013 effort Vessel. The figure is also more than enough to hold of Swift’s 1989, which raced back up from #9 to #2 with 91,000 units thanks largely to “Bad Blood” mania, as Billboard reports. The Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack slides to #3 with 74,000, followed by the #4 debut of Zedd’s True Colors, which tallied 50,000. Meghan Trainor’s Title shoots back to #5 from #12 with 47,000, likely due to Trainor’s appearance on the Billboard Music Awards. Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am makes a significantly larger leap from #69 to #6, with sales increasing by 358 percent to 39,000 in light of the Platinum Edition with eight new songs. Ed Sheeran’s x gets a BBMA boost from #13 to #7, racking up 38,000 units. The Furious 7 soundtrack falls to #8 with just over 36,000, and the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack lands at #10 with 35,000. The two soundtracks bookend Jamie Foxx’s Hollywood: A Story Of A Dozen Roses, which debuts at #9 with 36,000.
Icona Pop – “Emergency”
It sucks when a group with its own unmistakable style decides to sound like everybody else.
Jason Derulo – “Try Me” (Feat. Jennifer Lopez)
Just wait until Marvin Gaye’s family hears this one.
Zendaya – “Neverland”
Zendaya has been responsible for a number of my favorite pop-R&B songs in the past couple years — “Replay,” “Be My Baby,” and the Bobby Brackins/Jeremih collab “My Jam” among them — but “Neverland” is the kind of tepid faux-inspirational ballad I never need to hear again.
Rob Thomas – “Trust You”
Remember how much you scoffed at Matchbox 20 and “Smooth” and all the rest? Those songs are solid gold classics compared to “Trust You.” Every generation gets the Rob Thomas it deserves, I suppose.
Tamar Braxton – “If I Don’t Have You”
When you can sing like Tamar Braxton, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, the stringently traditional ’90s R&B throwback “If I Don’t Have You” does boast some nice modern production flourishes under all that vocal bombast.
Bonnie McKee – “Bombastic”
The retro workout video kitsch is tired, but this is a better Sleigh Bells song than anything on the last Sleigh Bells album.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Jennifer Lopez got doused with glittering confetti at LAX. [Just Jared]
- A tweet from Miley Cyrus may have secured a second season for Netflix series Grace And Frankie. [E!]
- A high school teacher promised to cancel final exams if Taylor Swift calls him. [Time]