One of my absolute favourite bands is Twenty One Pilots, or twenty øne piløts, TØP, or various versions of the logo on the right. I stumbled upon this band in a cool way. For years I have been indoctrinating my son in the best music, people like Muddy Waters, the Beatles, Bob Dylan (and Jakob), Elton John, Queen, Billy Joel, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, The Tragically Hip, Green Day, Counting Crows, Marc Cohn, Mark Heard, Train, Eminem, fun., Relient K, the Foo Fighters, Jars of Clay, Mumford & Sons, Fall Out Boy, Pierce the Veil, 30 Seconds to Mars, Needtobreathe, Imagine Dragons, Lorde, Chvrches, Arcade Fire, the Avett Brothers, and a hundred others that might come on your radio in a minute or two. Even doing this list, I’m not sure Nicolas knows about Jack Johnson or Stars or Steve Earle or Bruce Cockburn or the Decemberists. Jeepers, what if all he knows of Clapton is what’s on the radio? Shameful. No doubt I am a derelict in your eyes because of who I missed. Be assured I am hanging my head in shame.
Of course, not everything connected. Nicolas doesn’t share my fascination for Brandi Carlisle or Americana in general, but we have institutions for that kind of thing if he gets in trouble. We have enjoyed some great non-great greats–we are actually going to see TobyMac, Skillet, and Paul Colman next week at Soulfest in Gunstock, NH–and we just kind of breeze for fun over 70s rock, 80s pop, and 90s acoustic rock without coding it too deeply (but without neglecting it). It has been a fun 13-year journey, which began with “I Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night” when he was so young he looked like a ginger-tinged naked mole-rat.
Our journey of family music has grown over the years, especially with our recovery of vinyl and the brilliant age we are in of music videos. I don’t know how many times we sat as a family and watched Pharrell Williams’ video, “Freedom”
or how much we’ve talked about how ideas, symbols, activism, criticism, pop sensibility, and art come together in Childish Gambino’s “This is America”:
Even now I had to just stop and watch that again. Wow.
All of this great music. But what is cool is that it was Nicolas who brought Twenty One Pilots to me for my edification and training. The son leads the father. The disciple teaches the master. It actually began with a video, I think, of a song I had no doubt heard on the radio a few times, “Blurryface.”
Catchy song and a fun video, with this kind fresh-breeze innocence about it. As I thought about it more and more, though, I began to see that the metaphor of “Blurryface” is actually kind of brilliant, even if the song seems to have two paths that don’t fully converge. Digging into it a bit, we discovered that there was a subtle, narrative thread that runs through the album, with character and story links that show real skill in combining pop music with cultural criticism.
I started listening more deeply. Even in what looks like just another innovative pop song that causes a musical apocalypse in Chinatown, “Tear in My Heart” is actually a pretty intelligent word picture for what that radical experience of otherness looks like when we truly fall in love. Plus, it features lead singer Tyler Joseph’s wife, which is pretty cool, and Josh Dun just thrashing the drums as Joseph pounds on the keys in the street.
And then there is one of their biggest songs ever, “Heathens,” a Grammy-award nominated/MTV Award-winning single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack. For me, the video is just another well-done movie tie-in video rather than a short film, but the lyric of the song is a terribly important message to the American evangelical community–if they have ears to hear.
I don’t know if they’ll be able to hear or not as they aren’t majoring in subtlety or showing artistic sophistication at the moment. But, there might be more.
I mean “might” because I’m not certain. A couple of weeks ago, after a long, long silence, a fanlist email came to my box and twitter lit up with a kind of creepy eye gif.
And then, for TØP fans, the world exploded. On the same day, July 11th, they released two songs and announced an international tour. The first video, “Jumpsuit,” is a visually rich interplay of–again–symbol and ideas wrapped up with Tyler Joseph’s own journey.
When the second short film released this past week, “Nico and the Niners,” the fan theories and digital suspicions suddenly made a lot of sense. The songs are not just linked by the “jumpsuit” image, but by some sort of integrated story that goes beyond small tips of the hat back to previous work (which are there too). Rumours were that a three-song cycle in the album was actually the story of Tyler Joseph’s character trying to escape from a cult. I’ll let you see if there’s a link:
Fan response has been strong. I was about the 250,000th person to view “Jumpsuit” on Youtube and by the time Nicolas got home from camp two days alter there were more than 10,000,000 hits (and doubled again in a week). Apparently, 5.2m hits in the first 24 hours is a Youtube record, and “Jumpsuit” is the first song in a decade to reach Billboard #1 for Alternative songs in just two weeks. It hit, and hit hard.
Anyway, the popularity doesn’t matter much to me. But it does show Nicolas’ pretty strong instincts for a good thing. I think it comes from a proper musical education. I do hope, though, that the popularity is a sign that listeners want to tap into songwriting that is more rooted than much of pop music today. In any case, it works for us. And Nicolas was blown away when we told him I’m taking him to Boston for their October concert. I don’t know if this band will be one of the greats, or if this album will reach the epic status fans want, but I suspect it will be an epic moment in Nicolas’ life.