The Week In Pop

Twenty One Pilots May Not Be For You (Because They’re For Everyone)

In 2015, Twenty One Pilots were the biggest band you’ve never heard of. By the end of the following year, they were the biggest band, period.

After debuting at #1 three years ago with Blurryface, their second album for Warner subsidiary Fueled By Ramen, the Columbus duo kept up the slow-burn growth that had lifted them from unknowns to grassroots cult heroes to major-label radio stars. They worked the album hard — their longstanding social media savvy enhanced by corporate promotional muscle, their constant touring grind blown out to ever-larger venues (including Saturday Night Live) — and ended up, statistically speaking, the most popular rock band of 2016.

Despite being released in May 2015, Blurryface was America’s seventh best selling album of 2016, trailing only Adele, Drake, Beyoncé, Chris Stapleton, Pentatonix, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Factor in streaming and track sales and it was fifth, right between Rihanna’s Anti and Justin Bieber’s Purpose. They were also Spotify’s fourth most streamed artist of the year, edging out Kanye West, and Blurryface the platform’s fourth most popular album, beating the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness.

Furthermore, the album’s lead single “Stressed Out” ranked #5 on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100. Two other hits, “Ride” and the Suicide Squad soundtrack smash “Heathens,” finished at #20 and #21 respectively. And the success of “Heathens” had a lot to do with Suicide Squad: The Album wrapping up 2016 as the year’s ninth most popular LP. Somehow, they had scaled their we’re-all-in-this-together cult audience to mammoth international proportions, a feat Tyler Joseph wasn’t entirely sure how to pull off when I interviewed the band five years ago ahead of their major-label debut Vessel.

Twenty One Pilots had conquered the music industry. No other rock-identifying act was putting up numbers comparable to the pop icons of this era. The door to permanent residency on top 40 radio seemed wide open if they wanted it. So it was surprising when “Jumpsuit,” the lead single from their new album Trench, stormed out of the gate with thundering fast-paced drums, an explosive Godzilla-sized bass riff, and the sonic equivalent of industrial-grade strobe lights flickering with seizure-inducing intensity, and ended with Joseph screaming his lungs out. Even more surprising was the bridge, when the bottom dropped out and a gorgeous crystalline melody hovered amidst the nothingness. Not only had these surefire hit-makers apparently forsaken pop radio to follow their muse, they’d apparently traded their corniest impulses for something like restraint.

Not that Trench is entirely devoid of corniness, but it presents a more puréed version of Twenty One Pilots’ signature genre stew. When the band made the leap to the majors, they were a perfect fit for Fueled By Ramen, the label that helped launch maximalist experimentalists Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. Whereas those groups were Warped Tour pop-punks at first, Joseph and drummer Josh Dun were colliding such influences with hip-hop and EDM from the start and strictly prohibiting guitars on their songs. (Joseph often strummed a ukulele instead and now can regularly be seen laying down bass lines.)

Sometimes the results of that mixture were fairly streamlined, as on early fan favorite “Car Radio,” a brooding alt-pop anthem that exploded into shameless Electric Daisy Carnival euphoria at its climax. But the apotheosis of this early sound was “Ode To Sleep,” a festival-ready fever dream that toggled between tense electro-rap verses and a jaunty piano-pop chorus that surged its way up into Queen and My Chemical Romance’s airspace. Combined with Joseph’s kamikaze showmanship and class-clown affability, these songs turned every Twenty One Pilots gig into an arena show even when they were still performing at dive bars and local festivals.

Blurryface reined in those whiplash-inducing mad-scientist tendencies without losing the duo’s genre-agnostic ethos. On Trench, their sound further coheres, but as the project’s advance singles demonstrated, different sides of their sonic personality continue to emerge on a song-by-song basis. There is “Jumpsuit,” the full-bodied rocker, which went to #1 at alternative radio but topped out at #55 on the Hot 100. There is the reggae-inflected “Nico And The Niners.” There is “Levitate,” a misty, uptempo rap song buoyed by bass bombs that could send your sensible sedan’s shocks bouncing like they’re in a rap video. And there’s “My Blood,” the album’s closest thing to a pop crossover bid, which builds to a glowing ’80s chorus flecked with falsetto cries of “Stay with me!”

Most of the album distills these disparate ingredients into something less definable but easily recognizable: the everything-boiled-down monogenre sound that now rules pop radio and streaming alike. It turns out the aggressive “Jumpsuit” was a feint and Twenty One Pilots have embraced pop’s dominant centrism after all, albeit in their own unmistakably quirky fashion. “Morph” sounds like the Odelay version of Maroon 5. “Chlorine,” with its annoyingly infectious “Sippin’ on straight chlorine” hook, is a Spotify-era answer to their Fueled By Ramen predecessors Gym Class Heroes. “Bandito,” the namesake of the band’s upcoming arena tour, imagines alt-J’s gnarled digital prog smoothed out into an anthemic power ballad and will surely send each of those sheds into fits of ecstasy.

Joseph still raps like a nerdcore Eminem, but his music exists in closer conversation with Post Malone, who came up through different cultural channels but shares Twenty One Pilots’ aversion to stylistic parameters. The two acts form a fascinating yin and yang. Whereas Post goes all-in on trap signifiers, face tattoos, and the pursuit of every possible indulgence, Twenty One Pilots still present as a rock band from the suburbs, and no one would be surprised to learn Joseph used to be a Christian worship leader. Given their squeaky-clean image and the inspirational support-group quality they’ve fostered among their young fan base, it might be best to understand them as the anti-SoundCloud rap.

The contrast is never clearer than on “Neon Gravestones,” a mournful hip-hop piano ballad on which Joseph — who has been singing about his own mental health struggles and pleading with his fans to stay alive since back when Twenty One Pilots were just a regional concern — reckons with the fallout from so many celebrity musicians taking their own lives. He raps, “Don’t get me wrong, the rise in awareness/ Is beating a stigma that no longer scares us,” while worrying that suicide is becoming understood as a glamorous means to attention or even revenge. His conclusion? “Find your grandparents, or someone of age/ Pay some respects for the path that they paved/ To life they were dedicated/ Now that should be celebrated” — an unusual message in modern pop music, but unsurprising for a group that put their grandfathers on the cover of their major-label debut.

These sentiments are deeply woven into the band’s mythology. If the Twenty One Pilots fan community is a secular youth group of sorts, the band’s albums are sacred texts to be pored over, filled with complex allusions but founded in simple concepts about self-worth, perseverance, and anxiety. Blurryface was based on an insecure title character: “My name is Blurryface, and I care what you think,” Joseph sang on “Stressed Out.” Trench builds on that storyline, imagining the battle with depression as a literal war zone. The initial trilogy of videos envisioned Joseph and Dun (the Silent Bob of this partnership) in paratrooper uniforms, leading a procession of eerie druid types across a mountainside by torchlight.

The album and its accompanying materials flesh out the narrative with a Lost-like tendency to raise further questions which each new revelation. You might miss all of this if you weren’t looking for it, but the story involves a character named Clancy who must escape a city called Dema ruled by nine bishops. There’s a whole lexicon of terminology plus references to Zoroastrian towers of silence and Nicolas Bourbaki, the collective pseudonym of a group of French mathematicians in the 1930s. It’s a lot, but as always, the core messaging is impossible to miss. On “Bandito,” Joseph explains, “I created this world to feel some control.” On “The Hype,” he instructs, “You’ll be just fine/ Just don’t believe the hype.” On “Cut My Lip,” he affirms, “I’ll keep on tryin’/ Might as well.” And on closing track “Leave The City,” this is the mantra: “In time I will leave the city/ For now, I will stay alive.”

Trench occasionally veers into other territory. “Smithereens” finds Joseph promising to fight any dude who threatens his wife even though he’d “get beat to smithereens,” while on “Pet Cheetah” he adopts and cares for a fleet-footed feline that he names Jason Statham. The main gist of the album, though, is expressed on “My Blood” — that even when you feel desperately isolated, you’re not alone. It’s like the Old Testament story in which the prophet Elijah, exhausted and broken at Mount Horeb in the aftermath of his climactic showdown on Mount Carmel, laments to God that he’s the only believer left, only to have God reveal that 7,000 others remained in the fight. Except this time Tyler Joseph is assuring a nation of lonely teenagers that it’s safe to descend from their own mountaintop of despair, welcoming them into a community built on shared struggle.

If you want to understand how Twenty One Pilots became one of the most popular bands in the world, understand that. Have they triangulated a hybrid sound that appeals to a wide range of listeners? Certainly. Are they a dynamic live act? Undeniably. Are they willing to be uncool in order to stay true to themselves? Definitely. But at a time when people are more alienated from each other than ever, what has attracted kids by the dozens, then the thousands, then the millions, is the promise of a truly inclusive tribe with minimal barriers to entry. It’s why, although Joseph seems like the mastermind of this operation, I can’t imagine him ever going solo. His brotherly bond with Dun mirrors the familial quality Twenty One Pilots have fostered in their fan base. And based on his lyrics, he needs the support as much as they do. The idea is baked into the band’s DNA: Why shoulder this world’s burdens alone when you can do it with a friend at your side — or a whole trench full of them?

CREDIT: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week with an astounding 480,000 equivalent album units. As Billboard reports, that’s the third largest weekly total this year, and it stems mostly from the second biggest streaming week ever. Wayne tallied 325,000 streaming equivalent albums, which means tracks from Tha Carter V were streamed on demand 433 million times. The rest of the figure comprises 141,000 in traditional sales and another 14,000 album units derived from individual track sales. It’s Wayne’s fourth #1 album, though I’d love to know how many #1s he’d have if the current streaming structure was in place for his Bush-era mixtapes.

Debuting at #2 with 167,000 units and 122,000 in sales is Logic’s Young Sinatra IV. Cher’s ABBA covers album Dancing Queen enters at #3 with 153,000 units and 150,000 in sales — it’s actually the best selling album of the week. Either Logic or Cher could have easily scored a #1 in a less crowded week, but them’s the breaks. In at #4 with 78,000 units / 18,000 sales is Kevin Gates’ Luca Brasi 3. Up next are four former #1 albums by hip-hop A-listers: Drake’s Scorpion, Eminem’s Kamikaze, Travis Scott’s Astroworld, and Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys. Then comes the #9 debut of Tom Petty’s posthumous An American Treasure via 34,000 units / 32,000 sales. Another former #1 by a big rap star, the late XXXTentacion’s ?, rounds out the top 10.

Weezy also has a big week on the Hot 100 singles chart: becoming the first artist to debut two songs in the top five, joining Drake as the only artists to debut four tracks in the top 10, and tying Drake’s record for 22 simultaneous debuts on the chart. Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” holds on to #1 for a third straight week, but right behind it is Wayne and Kendrick Lamar’s “Mona Lisa” with a #2 debut. The song’s arrival bumps down Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” to #3 and Post Malone’s “Better Now” to #4, and then Weezy’s “Don’t Cry” with XXXTentacion enters at #5.

After Travis Scott (and an uncredited Drake)’s “Sicko Mode” at #6 is the next Lil Wayne debut, “Uproar,” at #7. 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood” rises to a new #8 peak, followed by Drake’s “In My Feelings” at #9. And closing out the top 10 is another Lil Wayne song, “Let It Fly” featuring Travis Scott. (By the way, according to Billboard, Wayne now has 160 career Hot 100 hits, third all-time behind Drake with 188 and the cast of Glee with 207.)

POP FIVE

Charli XCX & Troye Sivan – “1999”
Counting this, Anne-Marie’s “2002,” and the track reviewed below this one, songs directly appealing to millennial nostalgia for Y2K is a bonafide trend now. “1999” is the best of the crop by far, its procession of pop culture references (JTT!) backed by music that would hold up without a gimmick.

Lauren Alaina – “Ladies In The ’90s”
This country alternative to “1999” also references “…Baby One More Time,” as well as “No Scrubs” and “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” If this trope wasn’t already suffering from saturation, it would be a delight; as is, it’s a respectable pop-country jam with major hit potential among people who’ve never heard of Charli XCX and Troye Sivan.

Alessia Cara – “Trust My Lonely”
I like that Alessia Cara is leaning back into the loner persona we first met on “Here.” This computerized reggae track strikes a nice balance between that vibe and the more clean-cut pop songs she’s been cranking out in since.

Jessie Reyez – “Imported” (Feat. JRM)
Here’s a clever and low-key edgy lyric: “Get over him by gettin’ under me/ But you might OD if you get too much of me.” Jessie Reyez has a lot of those. I like her a lot.

ALMA – “Cowboy”
“I’m a motherfuckin’ cowboy” is an excellent hook for a rock or country song, and as it turns out, it works great for a shimmering guitar-powered pop song too. Remember her name!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Chris Martin and Dakota Johnson are reportedly having a baby together, though Johnson’s rep denied it. [TMZ]
  • Lady Gaga co-wrote an op-ed on suicide and mental health stigma for The Guardian. [The Guardian]
  • Gaga, Harry Styles, and Serena Williams will co-host next year’s Met Gala. The theme is Camp: Notes on Fashion, inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay. [Twitter]
  • Ariana Grande released a “video” for “Breathin'” that is just grainy phone footage of her pig, Piggy Smallz. [YouTube]
  • Cardi B defends fighting Nicki Minaj at a Fashion Week party: “I’m not going to catch another artist in the grocery store.” [W]
  • DJ Snake released his “Taki Taki” video featuring Cardi, Selena Gomez, and Ozuna. [YouTube]
  • This holiday season’s iHeartMedia Jingle Ball tour will feature Cardi, Shawn Mendes, Calvin Harris, Dua Lipa, the Chainsmokers, Meghan Trainor, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Bebe Rexha, Camila Cabello, and others. [iHeart]
  • Speaking of Dua Lipa, she’s the latest pop star to prank Jimmy Kimmel in the middle of the night. [YouTube]
  • And speaking of Cabello, she released a video for the orchestral version of her new single “Consequences.” [YouTube]
  • Quavo strongly hinted that a Drake & Migos mixtape is in the works. [The Fader]
  • Taylor Swift still uses Tumblr. [NY Mag]
  • Arlington native Maren Morris joined Swift at AT&T Stadium to perform “The Middle.” [Instagram]
  • The following night, Swift welcomed Sugarland to perform their collaboration “Babe” together live for the first time. [Billboard]
  • Hailee Steinfeld will host the 2018 MTV EMAs. [Facebook]
  • Missy Elliott confirmed she’s working on her first album in 14 years. [Twitter]
  • Jaden Smith and Ezra Koenig’s Neo Yokio is getting a Christmas special. [Pitchfork]
  • Hundreds of BTS fans camped out for a week at Citi Field (despite Citi Field saying that wasn’t allowed) to get the best spots at the K-pop group’s first US stadium show on Saturday. [Vulture]
  • Logic and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are premiering a song they co-wrote with fans in a one-hour YouTube special. [Rhyme Junkie]
  • An all-star Greatest Showman covers album out 11/16 features Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Missy Elliott, Ty Dolla $ign, Panic! At The Disco, Years & Years, and more. [EW]
  • Billie Eilish released a video for “hostage.” [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes did “Treat You Better” with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots on classroom instruments. [YouTube]

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