At first glance, their parents’ nightmares: a pair of punked-out tattoos representing the millennial generation of songs on suicide and despair while wearing a black mask looks even more sinister than the make-up and ears that they hide.
But do not deceive the dark look. The two alt-rock 20 pilots that are currently on tour in the US are good for your kids and they may be the most important musicians working today.
Twenty One Pilots (usually rendered in all lower case letters, and, if you’re writing it correctly, the “o”s have a slash through them) is Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, who hail from wholesome parts of Columbus, Ohio, and have ascended the heights of pop stardom thanks to their 2015 hit, “Stressed Out.”
“Stressed Out” was called “an anthem of Millennial anxiety” by The Atlantic, and the music video, in which Joseph and Dun ride giant tricycles and sip juice boxes while rapping about the lost ease of childhood, has been scorned by some as a lullaby for the spoiled and entitled. “Millennials need to put away the juice boxes and grow up,” one headline in The New York Post said.
Well, yes, some do. But it would be a mistake to count Joseph and Dun among them.
Their “Stressed Out” is a cotton-candy tune, a commercial success that shows little resemblance to the deeper, darker catalogue of songs that are the duo’s foundation. Their fans don’t even care that much for it. At the concert in Providence, Rhode Island, on Jan. 17, its opening notes drew a lukewarm response.
A parent walking past a child’s room and hearing a snippet of a lyric might be tempted to order the music turned off, and not just because of “Heathens,” the band’s other current breakout hit. Twenty One Pilots lyrics include repeated references to guns, suicide and despair—but listen carefully, and you’ll arrive at an “aha” moment: Joseph and Dun are not glorifying suicide, but working to prevent it.
In interviews and recordings on Spotify, Joseph has shared his concern about the recent rise in suicide, which has been particularly dramatic among adolescent girls, a large part of the band’s fan base. His songs honestly convey his own struggle with depression and despair—one, “Not Today,” says, “I don’t know why/I just feel I’m better off/ Staying in the same room I was born in.”
In “Guns for Hands,” he sings about understanding the temptation of ending a life that seems unbearable: “you all have guns/and you never put the safety on/And you all have plans/ To take it, to take it/ Don’t take it/take it/take it.”
In “Friend, Please,” he sings, “I know you want to leave but/Friend, please don’t take your life away from me.”
And perhaps, most poignantly, in “Truce,” Joseph sings of how the night always eventually ends—“The sun will rise and we will try again,” he says. “Stay alive, stay alive, for me.”
Over and over, Twenty One Pilots extend a hand, offering to pull out anyone sinking in a bog of despair. The stage is their pulpit—fitting, since both were raised by conservative Christian parents, and Dun told Rolling Stone that “We’re always questioning things, but I guess it’s safe to say that we’re both Christians.”
To discern the character of both Dun and Joseph, however, look to the band’s name. Famously, it’s of literary origins. Joseph read the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, in which a man who manufacturers airplane parts makes the decision to deliver parts that he knows are faulty. Twenty-one pilots die because of that decision, and the man commits suicide at the end.
In explaining why his story was about him and why he chose the band’s name, Joseph wrote on Facebook in 2010: “I think we all often encounter moral crossroads and decide that the benefits ‘now’ will have consequences , But it seems tough decisions and charges will now end up with more rewards. ”
We need more crossroads for musicians like Joseph, sleepless nights, worrying young people in trouble, and ethical inner life including the foresight. Given the iconic addiction icons of the past, some of them refuse to give up the stage even now, 20 a pilot worthy of our children’s admiration-juice box. In view of the suicide of middle-aged women, mothers may want to start listening.