How Twenty One Pilots rectify rock radio’s depression obsession

Photo: Jabari Jacobs. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.

Note: This article discusses depression and suicidality.

After the 2016 election, again after the 2017 inauguration, and at various moments of political unrest since, a GIF circulating on Twitter invited viewers to breathe in time with the expansion and collapse of an abstract geometric shape. More than assurance that things would be fine or calls to join the #resistance, the GIF offered an immediate, concrete measure for reducing anxiety. Slow your breathing, and your racing thoughts might slow to a canter, too.

It’s such an effective device—here, have a tempo for your breath—that it’s surprising more artists haven’t put it to work. But Twenty One Pilots, the Columbus, Ohio duo known for wearing balaclavas on stage, known for their Donnie Darko skeleton imagery, known for their genre-slippery single “Stressed Out,” do: on the 2011 single “Guns For Hands,” one of many TOP songs about not killing yourself. “Let’s take this one second at a time,” vocalist Tyler Joseph sings. “Let’s take this one verse, this one rhyme / Together, let’s breathe / Together, to the beat.” An airy synthesizer zooms into frame. It sounds a lot like breath, and if you synchronize your breathing to it, one inhale and exhale per measure, you might start to breathe more deeply than you have been. It might calm you.

Alongside bombast-rock upstarts Imagine Dragons and synth-anthem purveyors Bastille, Twenty One Pilots have enjoyed healthy airplay on Top 40 and alternative rock stations over the past few years. And like their experimental peers, they confound what was considered “alternative rock” just five years ago. Neither member of the band plays electric guitar, and Joseph, whether he’s singing, rapping, or wailing, has more of a beta-male yawp than a grungy howl. Their closest ancestor might be Linkin Park, but they’ve synthesized much more than rap and hard rock. Show tunes, ska, and EDM shiver through their DNA, often all within the same song and with no discernible boundaries.

That Twenty One Pilots became radio titans has a lot to do with the elasticity of their songwriting, which can snap back and forth between different tempos and genres without sacrificing its original shape. On “Guns For Hands,” Joseph and drummer Josh Dun cannonball into a chorus that turns out to be a pre-chorus, though you’d never guess it before you’d heard the whole song. They pull this trick a lot; choruses become codas, post-choruses become bridges. If famed Britney Spears producer Max Martin had pop structure chiseled to a tee in the late ’90s—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, repeat—Twenty One Pilots explode it. It’s like they’re chasing prey evolved to zigzag away from its predators, and their only hope of catching it is to zigzag harder, in more directions, with more conviction.

Still, TOP never lack cohesion. Their songs may be all over the place, but their themes, at least, are consistent. Joseph crams as many syllables as he can into each bar of each verse, and most of them describe the same thing: the shadows that creep into his brain after dark, his incapacitating self-doubt, the pull of suicide. The thoughts that needle him throughout his lyrics might be Twenty One Pilots’ closest tie to alt-rock as a historical genre, besides the dark color scheme and the clothes. If grunge can be considered alternative’s birth into the mainstream, then alternative has been about wanting to die since birth.

But Joseph doesn’t stop at the desire. Nor does he slip into easy, feel-good aphorisms about its opposite: wanting to live. He does something few lyricists have been able to do, which is dance close to the despair without drowning in it. “Am I the only one I know / Waging my wars behind my face and above my throat?” he asks on “Migraine” from 2013’s breakthrough album Vessel. “Shadows will scream that I’m alone / But I know we’ve made it this far, kid.” On “Semi-Automatic,” from the same album, Joseph digs into the ebb and flow of depressive feelings, the relief they offer in their absence and the dread in their inevitable return: “The horrors of the night melt away / Under the warm glow of survival of the day / Then we move on,” he sings. “When the sun is climbing windowsills / And the silver lining rides the hills / I will be saved for one whole day / Until the sun makes the hills its grave.” Twenty One Pilots’ songs don’t simply reflect suicidality, nor do they outright deny it. They are documents of working with suicidality—an extreme rarity in radio pop.

On the radio, songs about depression tend to fall into two camps. There’s music written from inside the thick of it, like Linkin Park’s “Crawling” or Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right,” the stuff you put on when you just want to feel like you’re literally not the only person who has ever been depressed—these songs present direct evidence of your illness’ presence in another. Then there’s the far more pernicious breed: the song that acknowledges your illness and then contradicts it. I mean “Beautiful,” by Christina Aguilera, or its grandchild “Scars To Your Beautiful,” by Alessia Cara. Maybe these songs work for some struggling with depression for the same reason Linkin Park worked on me when I first started waking up to pop music: They convey the knowledge that someone has felt these feelings, even if that someone is only sung about vaguely in the third person. But as a tween depressive, then a teen depressive, and now an adult depressive, they’ve always made me feel worse. I doubt I’m alone in that. How dare you tell me I’m beautiful. You don’t even know who I am.

The worst offender, for me, came from my favorite band when I was 12 and first experiencing regular pangs of suicidality. I loved Savage Garden with a fervor I’ve never again felt for any band, but their anti-suicide, anti-violence, anti-bad-feelings song “Crash And Burn” only doubled my incipient depression. It was on the radio around the same time as Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” and both songs prominently featured unsettlingly specific lyrics about suicide. “If you jump, I’ll break your fall,” sang Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes, with whom I was intractably in love. But I knew he was lying. If I jumped from the top floor of my apartment building, as I fantasized about often, I would just die.

The hollow comfort offered by these superficially soothing songs often feels as though it’s intended not for the deeply suicidal but for those somewhere outside suicidality’s tunnel vision. When a song tells me I’ll be okay, I want to tell it to prove it, only I can’t, because there’s no one on the other side who can do so. These songs feel poisonously impersonal, meant not for me but for someone healthier, someone who can be saved with a few greeting-card lines about self-esteem and inner beauty. There’s no thematic genre I’d like more to wipe from the face of the earth.

Until I started hearing Twenty One Pilots, I took solace in the uglier kind of suicide songs, the ones that didn’t try to force hope on me but reflected my reality. In the past few years, though, this strange, earworm-y band has opened a third avenue. Advice that’s worked for me over the years is to take things one day at a time, to wait out the worst of it. I like that Joseph narrows that window to a single second, like the geometric GIF, to a single breath. You survive one, then you survive another. You survive.

On Twenty One Pilots’ breakout single “Holding On To You,” Joseph further articulates his chronic dance between suicidality and survival:

Remember the moment
You know exactly where you’re going
’Cause the next moment before you know it
Time is slowing and it’s rolling still
And the windowsill looks really nice, right?
You think twice about your life
It probably happens at night, right?
Fight it, take the pain, ignite it
Tie a noose around your mind
Loose enough to breathe fine and tie it
To a tree, tell it, “You belong to me, this ain’t a noose
This is a leash and I have news for you
You must obey me”

There’s no offering of comfort, no assurances that the listener is beautiful and deserves to live. There are only instructions spoken in the second person to a bifurcated psyche, the “you” and an unruly mind. “Holding On To You” isn’t about mind over matter, or learning how to stop wanting to die. It addresses the depressive sense of being cleft in two. One side wants to die, and the other might want to live—at the very least, is afraid of dying. Joseph doesn’t ask his listeners to brush off the first side. Instead, he suggests they try to shrink it (“I begin to assemble what weapons I can find / ’Cause sometimes to stay alive you gotta kill your mind,” he sings on “Migraine”), to empower whatever parts of them still feel like they belong to life and put those parts in charge. Suicidality is real, and it is dangerous, and it can’t be waved away, but with practice, it can be managed.

I like to listen to Twenty One Pilots while running, something, like controlling my depression, I never thought I’d be able to do. The tempo’s right, and the strain in Joseph’s voice matches the strain in my body as I clear a mile, then another, steadying my breath as I go. I’ve never much connected with music designed for runners, the slick beats meant to accompany the warm-ups and the sprints and the cool-downs at a preordained rate. I do better with music that pulses with one thought: Keep going.