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Twenty One Pilots Defied Categorization At Outside Lands 2019

I first came to Outside Lands six years ago. My first music festival, the experience was defined as much by what I didn’t yet know as it was by what I came to see. I was initially anchored on the top lines, mostly the rock acts, from Paul McCartney to Phoenix only down to about Foals. But 2013 was a pivotal year in my musical development where I started to listen wider and dig deeper, and I partially credit that shift to the list of names I had bought the opportunity to see but then needed to make decisions on prioritizing. Propelled by a novice’s enthusiasm, I methodically set out to listen to every name on the poster, plowing through YouTube videos to feel out what resonated the most.

This process endowed me with artists that have grown into rest-of-lifelong staples — Kurt Vile, Jessie Ware — as well as local bands I’ve come to ardently champion (the Soft White Sixties deserve your attention; give it to them). Of course, as is true with most major music festival lineups, there was a fair amount of chaff that didn’t inspire much, if any excitement. Before organizers filled their gaps by plucking straight from streaming algorithms, they did so using a rotating stock of benched players from the KROQ minor leagues. Listening to the difference between what stood out versus what I tuned out helped me narrow in on what my “taste” was, even as the wide array of styles on the lineup expanded what I realized my taste could include.

Then there was Twenty One Pilots, a duo from Columbus who split that difference by trading in Frankenstein prog-pop suites that stitched together styles within then-contemporary EDM, rock, and rap. They essentially picked up where My Chemical Romance’s pugnacious last album left off, masking high concepts in broad messaging and wielding stereotypical signifiers of underground music as weapons for blunt hooks. Or, less charitably, they filled a hole left by the long-dormant Gym Class Heroes, similarly combining formless rap with guitar-averse alternative music that serves as training-wheels pop for listeners who stubbornly identify exclusively as rock fans.

Regardless of interpretation, I was as impressed by their music’s effervescent immediacy as I was confounded by its abrasive sincerity. They copied the attitudes and aesthetics of early aughts pop-punk epitomes like Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco (both of whom Twenty One Pilots later opened for on a joint tour) while employing the sonics of those bands’ latter-day crossover efforts, coming up with something their own that defied easy classification. The intrigue was enough to get me to follow my friends on that first day of Outside Lands to scope them out against the conflicts.

My curiosity was immediately rewarded in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Blasting out of the gates with a seemingly unsustainable velocity, the duo managed to carry that energy over 50 minutes of blitzkrieg performance. They played their songs like they were tearing them part, Joshua Dun conducting the percussion as though he was trying to snap his drumsticks on the snare rim and Tyler Joseph bleating his troubled thoughts like he needed to expunge them from his mind altogether. Their intensity was expressed beyond the music in a nonstop flurry of air kicks and backflips, the two scaling the rafters, trading instruments, and ripping on and off their trademark ski masks as though they worried they would have to leave the stage if they ever stopped moving.

About half the crowd was comprised of the superfans that Twenty One Pilots were already rapidly accumulating at that point during the promotional campaign for their Fueled By Ramen-released “cult” classic Vessel, and the other half, like me, were the uninitiated and immediately captivated. The band made the most of a stage that even at that early point in their career was clearly too small to contain them. Their blindingly apparent intention suggested they were not a group that was going to let the fire they were harnessing fade away. Still, they would have been impossible to peg as the chart-topping mainstream mainstays they’ve now taken the mantle of.

Last night, just six years from that afternoon introduction, Joseph and Dun came back to headline the entirety of Outside Lands, a stage that many now believe is far too big for a group that was and still remains a relative unknown to anyone who watched their ascent from a distance. It’s not that Twenty One Pilots aren’t extremely popular. Their fourth album Blurryface was the first full-length LP in history to have all of its tracks go gold, and it’s been on the Billboard Top 200 for over four years straight now. They’re also wildly influential, even if still no one vying for their chart placements sounds exactly like them. They are architects of the dominant modern sound that is the monogenre, which is really just all genres at once, an agnostic predisposition that’s increasingly the norm with the latest generation of internet-raised artists.

By those metrics, it would seem natural for the commercial juggernauts to be anchoring festivals across the country at the same font size as the likes of Paul Simon and Ariana Grande. But the numbers overshadow how radical Twenty One Pilots are as a topline draw. Their music doesn’t conjure images of beer on blankets, ravers with water backpacks, or any of the other marketing vision boards festival organizers aspire towards. Festivals are all about projecting relevance and cultural savviness, and Twenty One Pilots are instead nerdy, insular, and depressed, but not in the numb way that’s become hip-hop’s most popular new wave. Rather, the band is bursting with agitated, gawky resilience for life.

It’s beautiful actually, to see such a devoted fan base take a band with such a niche point of view to the biggest of pulpits. Festival headliners are typically chosen for their appeal to broad audiences, a big uniting factor at the end of a choose-your-own-adventure day. These are artists everyone was into at a time or at least inundated with enough to know the words for minimal participation: the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem, Post Malone and Foo Fighters. Quite often this leads to headline performances with high attendance, low retention, and muted enthusiasm.

Twenty One Pilots do not have a mass common denominator in their catalog like “Everlong” or “My Name Is.” They write songs that are hook-filled and anthemic, but they aren’t primed for field-length sing-alongs. While their intention is to make people feel less alone, their music is most fervently felt individually. All of that is true, and yet their headlining set was among the most engaged I’ve seen in my six years of Outside Lands.

Their live show was already the stuff of legend early on when they were mostly performing in their hometown, where they sold out larger theaters than nationally recognized acts before they brought their buzz to festivals and now arenas across the country. That live show hasn’t gotten any less dynamic in the last six years, only proportionally scaled. When the festival sent a notice earlier in the day the band’s set would “feature loud sound effects that may be startling to some patrons,” I chuckled because, well, this is a festival. Shouldn’t that be expected? Then, over the course of 90 minutes of cracking fog cannons and pre-drop firework pops, I understood the need for a heads up.

Yet if anything, Twenty One Pilots have only calmed down on stage as they’ve amassed a larger following. Joseph still alternates in rapid succession between rapping, screaming, and falsetto singing, all while hopping around from the bass guitar to the piano to the ukulele, but he does so from a static mic stand for a larger portion of the show. Their newer music is a bit more even-tempered than the manic headrush of their breakthrough, and they are committed to their relatively austere two-piece set-up despite their increased scope, even when the music might have benefited from the added oomph of additional live accompaniment.

The easing of kinetic stimulation doesn’t mean they aren’t still making the most of their platform. The show opened with a prop car being set on fire, and the antics were only elevated from there. Joseph flung himself off his piano, climbed staging structures, and mounted the flaming sedan while Dun tossed a number of sticks over the barricades, aggressively stomped on his kit, and prefaced and punctuated the expected tradition of a still-satisfying backflip. Best were the multiple points when the crowd held up risers for Joseph and Dun to perform atop, a trick so impressive it transcended gimmick to induce genuine awe.

Between the stunts, Joseph’s stage presence is still subversively charismatic, circumventing cynicism against his camp counselor call-and-response tendencies by pulling off crowd work that asks and then receives great effort from the audience. The most affecting moment was when he told the crowd to “give it up to the security guards in the front row taking care of you all weekend,” and then subsequently surprised them by pulling them up on the big screen one by one to show off some heart-warmingly endearing moves. Later, they actually wound up on the stage to lead the crowd in a big arms-around-one-another line dance. The success of these audience requests speaks to their showmanship, which outpaces similarly sized acts who’ve been at this for decades longer.

Artists that blow up early by being caught in the ever-shifting post-internet hype cycle risk being put onto to stages far before they’re ready, and the subsequent live performances wind up looking more like press appearances than productions. But Twenty One Pilots are internet-era superstars who paid their dues on the road, a modern rarity, and their live show is representative of an old school and new school that otherwise seem incongruous with one another. They’ve got classic chops, but are also hyperactive and unpredictable, getting lost in building hype for their songs the way inexperienced, suddenly viral rappers do. Preserving that excitement in what fans have come to ascribe significance to is as important as performing the songs themselves.

Because while they unquestionably have hits, seeing the band live is truly more about seeing their approach than the songs. With Twenty One Pilots, their unifying ability as headliners comes not from shared background knowledge of their cultural footprint but the band putting on such a sincere spectacle that it resists the justified skepticism. They had a slimmer crowd than both Lil Wayne and Blink-182, who performed earlier in the day on the same stage, and yet their music drew a far more emphatic response that belied its far shorter lifespan in the public eye.

Look, Twenty One Pilots are jarring to be sure, but it’s genuinely heartening to see a band become so popular so rapidly only by doubling down on everything that makes them stand out. Neither six years ago nor yesterday did I walk out of their show with any motivation to listen to their music, but their palpable commitment helps to temporarily sell songs that would otherwise hit as ham-fisted, and the more cloying aspects of their catalog on-record feel less salient when placed in context of their good-natured reception. As our very own Chris DeVille once put it, “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.”

Twenty One Pilots have continued to attempt even bolder risks in spite of the rising likelihood of fatally falling on their faces. That characteristic, more than prodigious songwriting or obvious brilliance, will endear you to fans. Just ask Kid Cudi. Where a band like Maroon 5 is leveraging the popularity of monogenre to converge their sound on something resembling the midpoint of all music, Twenty One Pilots seemingly wish to be operating on all the extremes at once. No matter your predisposition to their sound or style, they’ll make sure you’ve never seen anything else like them. As true as it was the first time I listened to them at Outside Lands, they defy categorization. That’s still their most appealing quality.