Our editor asked his 16-year-old cousin to explain the world’s biggest rock band to him, and to everyone else.
Andrew: Here’s something you might not know: of all the bands on earth making what is now considered “rock” music in 2016, Twenty One Pilots are the biggest one. MTV called them the biggest band on earth way back in 2013, and Rolling Stone did the same in January. They are legitimately one of the five biggest musical acts on earth right now.
Because you’re reading this here, I’m betting you had no idea of this either. A band with a lead singer covered in body paint who sometimes raps—and mostly really cringingly—is the biggest band on earth right now? That hardly seems possible. But it’s the truth: they play only America’s hockey arenas now.
But the group’s fanbase is probably the reason they’re able to be enormously huge and also relatively unknown to the discerning music appreciating culture: they are, by a wide margin, most popular with teenagers. If it wasn’t for 5 Seconds of Summer, they’d have cornered the market on teenagers who want at least the trace of a guitar in their music.
But unlike a lot of people on the wrong side of 30, I refuse to accept my own obsolescence. I want to know why I don’t know Twenty One Pilots, and I want to understand why the teens love them. I don’t want to remain part of the uninformed #old contingent; I want to remain part of the pop cultural zeitgeist.
Lucky for me, I have my 16-year-old cousin Molly, who introduced me to Twenty One Pilots via her fandom, and the 45 minutes in a car on the way to Michigan last summer where she made us listen to Blurryface. I don’t even really remember listening to them, but I know I thought of them being the biggest band on earth didn’t even cross my mind then.
So, Molly: How big is this band in high school classrooms? Do you agree with Stereogum’s assertion that Twenty One Pilots make music that is tailor made to hit teenage pleasure centers? Am I old and out of touch to not know 21 Pilots’ discography front to back?
Twenty One Pilots are super popular, but they’re an unspoken element in high school classrooms. Most people don't talk about them, even as they quietly sing the chorus to TØP’s most popular song “Stressed Out” to themselves. On social media, it is a completely different story. Fans have created Twitter and Instagram accounts called Update Accounts that keep tabs on the two bandmates anywhere they go and everything they do. If this is surprising, we haven't even scratched the surface. They are usually trending worldwide on Twitter, but I am assuming that most people don’t notice that.
I totally agree with Stereogum’s assertion, because, realistically, every band needs to find those pleasure points to make it, but the unique attribute about TØP is that they can hit a variety of people’s pleasure points. For example, I went to France this summer and one night my host family and I were playing Monopoly. My host sister turned on music through Spotify and “Stressed Out” started playing. Even though the song is in English, everyone knew the tune and sang along to it. This was shocking to me. Personally, I listen to Twenty One Pilots for the lyrics and the messages that they try to send. The actual sound isn't as important to me, but here was this family in another country that loved this American song, yet they couldn't understand a lick of it except for “We’re stressed out” and “The mama sang.”
The reality is that people in a lot of countries love TØP and people other than teenagers love TØP. My 56-year-old dad loves Twenty One Pilots because all their songs are different and its own individual. My 24-year-old brother loves TØP because of the live shows and the execution of the songs live. Everyone can find a Twenty One Pilots song that they enjoy for completely different reasons because TØP does a great job at finding those pleasure points and abusing the hell out of them.
Andrew, I know that you might take offense to this because you cherish your twitter account and your audience, but I believe that these things are the very reason why you haven't discovered Twenty One Pilots until I introduced you to them. They are social media giants, but on Twitter you surround yourself with people your age and people who like the same things you like. That's why I think everyone should have a #dope teen in their life. So they can be exposed to things that they normally wouldn't have discovered on their own.
Me being the rebellious and topical teen that I am, I want to say a sarcastic comment like “You're 30. It’s time to start acting your age: old.” or “No, Twenty One Pilots is for cool people.” The thing is, I genuinely think anyone at any age can enjoy Twenty One Pilots because of the versatility that Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun provide in their music. You just have to go into listening to their music with an open mind. Even if you don't like them, you have to give props to TØP for being one of the biggest bands in the world, excelling at what they do, and being able to remain themselves while everyone is watching.
Something I want to ask you about that’s been a prevailing criticism of groups beloved by teens going back to like, Elvis (he was a dude with bad hair who sang songs when pterodactyls flew the earth): Do you think Twenty One Pilots are destined to keep their streak as being the biggest band out right now, or will they fade away as their fans get older? People said it about a variety of bands when I was a teen, and sometimes it’s a true criticism (peace to 98 Degrees). But I also think that’s a way of dismissing music that teens love without considering it for real. I wonder if you can describe what it’s like to be way into a band that people are saying that about in the moment. No one my age is stopping to ask teens why they are into something, and if they think they’ll like that thing forever; we’re all just explaining success away and figuring out if we can cash in on y’all.
I think the main takeaway people should get from this is that they should be open, and they should take time to seek out stuff they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. But I guess the question for me is: How is it possible that this band can ascend to being the biggest rock band on earth, and yet still have vastly more people on earth not know them than do? Part of that is because rock music is vastly less important than it used to be, but part of it is that the internet has splintered into little neighborhoods you never have to leave. So I guess one of my follow up questions for you is: Does it feel that way to you, someone who has grown up with the internet always existing? Does it feel like 21 Pilots are part of some corner of the net that you go to?
And where should someone start if they’re wanting to give Twenty One Pilots a whirl?
Molly: The thing is that as the fans age, their music tastes will change, but I don’t think that the message that Twenty One Pilots portray will be forgotten; at least not for me anyway. TOP stresses that even in peoples’ darkest days you should create anything you want because in doing so you have a purpose. In the song “Kitchen Sink” off their unofficial album Regional at Best, Tyler sings the lyrics “Are you searching for purpose? Then write something, yeah it might be worthless. Then paint something, yeah it might be wordless… You’ll see purpose start to surface.” To this day, Tyler refuses to give the meaning to “Kitchen Sink” and in doing so, he has a purpose because he is the only one who knows the true meaning of this fan favorite.
Being a #teen, I am still learning a lot of things about the world, the people around me, and myself. I learned that everything that you do is scrutinized; including the music that you listen to. When people ask me what music/bands I listen to, I give them a vague response because I know that I will be judged for my answer. Liking a band that is dismissed because of their fan base is nothing new to me; I have just learned to deal with it. Do I wish things were different? Yes, but most people won't reach out to teens and ask why we like the type of music we do. But that’s okay, you don’t have to like them for me to listen to them.
Growing up with the internet, I know these little neighborhoods and TOP’s “clique” (as the fans call it) is one of my favorites. It really is a community and I have made many friends online and in real life through Twenty One Pilots’ music. I am eternally grateful for the music that Twenty One Pilots has created.
So what I'm basically saying is don’t judge a book by it’s cover and let the teens live.
If you would like to listen to Twenty One Pilots and see what all this hype is about, you can find them here. To test the waters, I suggest listening to “Kitchen Sink,” “Heavydirtysoul,” “Migraine,” “Holding on to you,” “The Judge,” “Guns for Hands,” “Polarize,” and “Goner.” These songs especially show versatility in TOP’s music and are some of my personal favorites.
(Molly wants me to include a link to her Twitter here, so here that is.)
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