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You Don’t Get to Call Yourself a Twenty One Pilots Fan

By Anna Billy | 25 March, 2024

You don’t get to call yourself a Twenty One Pilots fan… let me explain why.

Compared to a casual listener, a fan is someone who has an investment in the artist, their sound, and the development of their musical career. More specifically, fans are well connected and well versed in the mythos built around their favorite artists. There is a deeper understanding behind the artistic mission rather than an appreciation for what sounds the artists make.

True Twenty One Pilots fans have been present from the beginning. I don't mean this bold statement in a “you are only a real fan if you know the lyrics to all their songs, have bought every single piece of merch, attended at least one concert, etc.” kind of way, I mean this in the  “I did not make fun of the people who enjoyed Twenty One Pilots music at the height of their breakout in 2013-2015” way.  So much of my social media has been flooded with their content ever since their recent announcement for their latest album Clancy via TikTok. With the resurgence of fans clamoring to claim their “OG status,” it is important to outline the band’s relationship to popular culture and media, their history with their fan base, and the world-building that has slowly developed overtime.

The History:

The band’s self-titled debut, Twenty One Pilots, received little acclaim from the industry in 2009, but had a cult following from social media platforms like Tumblr. You can hear the elementary components of the record in Tyler Joseph’s recordings from his childhood basement in Ohio: the simplicity of the piano chords, his soon to be iconic sing-talk voice, and the four-four time signatures in the majority of his songs. 

fan holding an "im alive" sign
via Twenty One Pilots Instagram

Several years later with the original trio shrunk to a duo, Vessel was the first instance of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun’s bigger break. The “underground” music scene on Tumblr remained steadfast in their support, and the band’s signing to Fueled By Ramen the year prior undoubtedly led to their more commercial success. Releasing singles like “Car Radio” gave something for the socially anxious, awkward, “weird” kids (if you will) to hold on to. It set the precedent for what would unfold over the next ten years.

Blurryface continued Twenty One Pilots’ rapid rise to fame, resulting in a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Stressed Out.” This 2015 album cycle also kick-started a storyline that is only now coming to a close. One of the most genius features of this album is Joseph and Dun’s exploration of concept albums as a singular body of work. Joseph said in a 2016 Alternative Press interview, ““Blurryface is this character that I came up with that represents a certain level of insecurity.” 

Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph stare pensively before a show
@elmakias via Twenty One Pilots Instgram

The Beginning of the Lore:

Initially interpreted as a personification of his own inner demons, Joseph’s Blurryface character gave the general public pause. Painting his throat and hands black during live performances, Joseph's Blurryface resembled a manifestation of an inner self– of what he could not say or do as someone in the public eye. This branding was not well received by those outside of the fanbase. Because of Vessel’s lyrics, Joseph and Dun were spotlighted as the new face of a mental health wave. Whether advocating for or against self-help (it’s debatable), Twenty One Pilots pioneered a new wave of discussing profound sadness plainly. While steeped in (sometimes corny) metaphor, it gave voice to those who felt voiceless. For example, the first verse in “Doubt” reads 

scared of my own image

scared of my own immaturity

scared of my own ceiling

scared i’ll die of uncertainty

fear might be the death of me

fear leads to anxiety

Similarly, the bridge to the album’s title track “heavydirtysoul” reads “death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit / can you save / can you save my / can you save my heavy dirty soul?” For a band that is open about their Christian faith upbringing, the lyrics of Blurryface resonated for those who did and did not share religious childhoods. It transcended boundaries between agnostic and faithful communities to create mass appeal yet still wandered on the outskirts of pop music. Perhaps the band’s disinterest in labeling their music as Christian removed firm ostracization from mainstream media and enabled a welcome place at the table.

Josh Dun drums during concert solo
@anniemallistic via Twenty One Pilots Insgtram

Furthermore, what has been described by other press as “schizoid pop,” Blurryface takes traditional top 40 sounds and turns them on their head. This is part of the album’s genius: the bite to Dun’s precise drumming in “heavydirtysoul” accompanied by Joseph’s morphed singsong rapping twists a new and emboldened sound void from previous records. Yet, it is important to note their singles maintain a sonically safer sound for the pop charts. 

Take “Ride” for example. Light and airy with its staccato synths and an easy chorus to belt, the track fits into a pop mold. However, looking at the track from a more critical lens, it continues to restructure and reconfigure the possibilities of pop music. The average pop song on the radio has a BPM (beats per minute) between 100 - 130. “Ride” splits the difference almost in half, with a BPM of 75. Twenty One Pilots refused to conform to tradition and instead forged their own unique sound regardless of popular opinion, winning them media acclaim and chart success. 

While the band’s 2018 album Trench furthers the storyline started in 2015 with Blurryface, the record’s visuals take world building to a new level. Music videos for this album are astounding. The record’s dual debut singles,“Jumpsuit” and “Nico and The Niners” are cinematic: lush greenery fills the cavernous landscape in “Jumpsuit” contrasting the cement city in “Nico in the Niners,” providing an oppressive and suffocating feel, reminiscent of Blurryface.

It is worth noting not every video conforms to this storyline. “My Blood” exemplifies this, depicting the story of a young boy dealing with grief after losing a loved one.

Fans easily began drawing parallels between worlds, speculating their connection; however the band’s silence or cryptic responses left room for open interpretation. For instance, in a 2019 NME interview, Joseph says, “[Trench is] about using the art of storytelling to better understand a much less fantastical issue which is navigating your own psyche and giving it a destination and places you should and shouldn’t go and characters you should avoid.” Yet, upon the release of Scaled and Icy, new theories faded away. 

Sonically, their 2021 record strayed far from their previous work. The edge of the band’s unconventional alternative pop sound vanished; the brilliance of Blurryface and Trench washed away. When Joseph and Dun once trail-blazed what could be categorized as pop music, Scaled and Icy remained traditionalist in its sound, lacking classic Joseph tongue twister rhymes or intricately complicated drumming solos for Dun. The record opted for simple beats and classic chord patterns. The closest track that emulates previous albums is “No Chance.” Relying on a darker and heavier bass track and layered choral chants to invoke a moody atmosphere, it starkly contrasts the other ten tracks. 

The Here and Now:

So why does all of this matter? Why care? 

What should have been a steady rise to fame was thrown off course. The lack of understanding for Twenty One Pilots creative vision exemplifies pop culture’s never-ending need to have holistic bodies of work; each project must be wrapped up nicely in a bow. Pop culture disallows for the messy, ambiguous, and unresolved. Bands like Twenty One Pilots, and their fanbase, lend themselves to stigmatization because lyrical content straddles a thin line between socially acceptable power anthems and music made for “outsiders.” 

Building a platform, let alone a large platform, on the fight for discussing mental health unfolded duplicitously: the division built upon an “us” against “them” mentality emboldened a disinterest in understanding the deeper meaning behind Joseph and Dun’s body of work. It is paradoxical - Twenty One Pilots are mainstream yet they rest at the edge of social acceptance; their music is consumed by the masses but relentlessly critiqued for not adhering to a “love song” model.

I am not claiming everyone needs to be a Twenty One Pilots fan, nor am I claiming everyone needs to be educated on the deeper complexities of what the band has built for themselves. But knowledge is power, and understanding the trajectory of this band's fame as well as the impact of their lyricism lends a more total understanding of not only the laws of alternative pop as a genre, but also of the modern conversation around mental health and self-help. 

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun smile holding Cd copies of Scaled and Icy
via Twenty One Pilots Instagram

This band broke and redefined genres and continues to push alternative pop music forward. To see the dismissal of their work because of one album “flop” - which only now has been revealed as semi-intentional - is saddening. Moreover, now witnessing fans recommit themselves as if they never left the fanbase is astounding. 

To consider yourself a true Twenty One Pilots fan, I urge you to think about the band’s love of subversion. Reflecting on their artistry, how it has changed over time, what purpose it has served, and how media engagement has ebbed and flowed based on the band’s output is notable – they have carved a space out for themselves that was once non-existent. 

The expectation for Twenty One Pilots to remain static in their sound is absurd when they have shown time and time again to reinvent their sound. Blurryface and Trench redefined what listeners expected of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun as they broke into the alternative pop space. For ten years, the band has been piecing together multiple albums to create a larger conceptual body of work. Yet, once Dun and Joseph received acclaim they were once again thwarted to the periphery of pop music because Scaled and Icy wasn’t as cutting edge as expected. 

Every new album cycle Twenty One Pilots reinvent themselves and I would argue that is one of the most strategically brilliant moves in twenty-first century pop music. So, if you can’t understand the creativity of what Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have built, then you don’t get to call yourself a fan.


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