About four or five months ago, a song started showing up in my YouTube Music feed called Level of Concern by Twenty One Pilots. It immediately “grabbed” me and made a pretty deep impression. I immediately started doing some research on the band and the more I read and heard, the more I fell in love with these guys. I initially just jumped in and started listening to a variety of their other songs on YouTube. I was surprised by how many of them I was already familiar with after hearing them on the radio station that I listened to here in Seattle. However, the songs themselves didn’t convince me to move beyond a passing listen. It was the depth of their lyrics and the stories told in their videos. These guys weren’t the usual fare.
Their lyrics are deep. They weren’t about the usual fluff you normally hear in top 40 songs. These songs are about issues such as depression, anxiety, and even faith – things that spoke to my heart about the hurt and pain I routinely felt. It felt weird knowing that I was a 63 year-old man listening to this 20-something duo, but I found their fans were quite accommodating to someone my age. I was quickly welcomed to the “Clique” as they call themselves. (I found out that many of these folks have similarly found themselves to be outcasts such as myself and that’s why they’re so welcoming.)
Another thing that I like about the Pilots is their approach to music. The duo’s albums (at least their latest 3) are written around this over-arching concept – a land called Trench and a city called Dema controlled by a group of nine authoritarian bishops. The citizens of Dema are trapped and kept from escaping – when one is able to break out of the city, the bishop assigned to the individual is tasked to bring them back. This isn’t merely a fantasy story. As lead singer and songwriter Tyler Joseph explains, this is an allegory for his experiences with depression and anxiety – yes, at times he feels he has escaped from the depths, but still he finds himself dragged back down at a later time. Like the citizens of Dema, he finds himself escaping despair then dragged back again. It’s a constant battle and not something he is ever completely over.
I’ve included sort of a chronological story below using some of their videos that portrays Trench and Dema better. You’ll find the “official” videos in the left column; I’ve also included versions that display just the lyrics in the right. Be aware – some of these songs are heavily rap. It may not be your cup of tea, but I strongly suggest giving each a listen. This isn’t the usual stuff relating to sex, drugs, and other “gangster”-related topics. As Tyler says in the first song, “This is not rap, this is not hip hop. Just another attempt to make the voices stop.” It’s hard for me to admit, but some of my favorite songs are the heavy rap numbers (heavydirtysoul and Levitate).
I invite you to watch each official video followed by the one with the lyrics. If you do, you might find that you, too, relate a lot to these guys if you deal with issues like depression and anxiety.
(Note: I originally wrote this quite differently with a blow by blow of each of the videos. However, I changed my mind and decided to just give a brief bullet list of ways in which I relate to what they’re singing about. It’s still not perfect, but I could devote a blog post to each song and it still wouldn’t cover everything well.
I’ll also include a few things that might be a little cryptic here and there but I leave a lot of it up to you to interpret yourself. That’s part of the world of Twenty One Pilots – for each song, there’s usually multiple theories and discussions how members of the Clique interpret things. Below is a partial view of mine.)
heavydirtysoul opens the album Blurryface and sets the stage for the remainder of the songs. It’s heavily rap spoken at breakneck speed. On the lyric side, I’ve included a version that’s been slowed down so you can understand them a little better.
- The video starts out with Tyler trapped in a vehicle, speeding down the highway barely under control and falling apart. It ends with it crashing and burning. This is what it feels like in the midst of things falling apart.
- The driver of the vehicle is a character known as Blurryface, the titular character of the album, who represents the voice in Tyler’s head that torments him with all of his insecurities and anxieties. For so many of us, we find this to be true – we find ourselves under the control of a condemning voice who accuses us with all our faults. And the longer it lasts, the stronger the voice becomes.
- As things hit bottom, he cries out in despair – “Can you save my heavy dirty soul?” I guess it’s natural to feel like something you’ve done is the cause of these dark feelings. And even if you tend to lean toward the non-believer side of things, it’s quite easy to cry out to someone – anyone – you don’t believe in, hoping that you may find some relief. (I’ve seen clips where he’s performed this song live and ends up screaming at the top of his lungs this phrase. It’s pretty damn moving and can easily bring tears to my eyes because I know exactly how he feels.)
- You might notice his neck and hands are black. He explains that this represents his own insecurities about his voice (his throat) and his musical ability (his hands). This symbolism will show up numerous times later on.
- Colors play a big role in their videos and they’re not accidental. During the Blurryface era, colors are black, grey and red and they show up here on the car accents and Josh’s (the drummer) drumsticks.
- Most haunting lyrics to me – besides the titlular “Can you save my heavy dirty soul?, there’s “Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.” There’s no time to stop and think when you’re being pursued – all you can do is follow your instincts and run as fast as you can.
Stressed Out is probably the most familiar song off of Blurryface as it was a huge hit on the radio. The song plays a role in later videos; thus, I’ve included it here:
- The chorus: “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.” The first mention of the character of Blurryface. As mentioned above, Blurryface represents everything we’re anxious about. You’ll also notice Tyler’s neck and hands are again painted black, representing his own insecurity with his voice and musical abilities.
- The colors red and black are found throughout the video. You see it everywhere – and like everything else in Twenty One Pilot’s videos, it has meaning. Nothing is accidental.
- Take note of the handshake – it’s hard to miss and plays a role in a later video.
- I won’t say any lyrics here are particularly haunting. Still, I can easily relate to just about everything he talks about – in today’s world, it’s hard not to be stressed out about something.
(I’ll be honest – the first time I saw this video, I thought these guys were a couple of goofballs. Only after reading more about their background do I see the purpose in this video.)
The album Trench begins a new era for the band, one in which the land of Trench and the city of Dema is explicitly discussed and shown in videos. Jumpsuit opens the album and serves as the first video of a trilogy showing life under the bishops.
- Even though it’s on a different album, Jumpsuit takes place immediately after heavydirtysoul – Tyler is shown leaving the burning car and then waking up in this trench. He seemingly has escaped the city of Dema but laments the pressures of his new surroundings. Yeah – sometimes it seems I would rather be back in a hell hole of a situation than faced with an unfamiliar place even though it might be better for me.
- What is the jumpsuit he keeps referring to? Most think it’s something to do with the tools he uses to help himself when he feels anxiety, depression and stress – a security blanket type of thing.
- As he walks in this trench, he sees this group of folks watching him from above. (These people are known as the Banditos and represent everyone who has escaped from the city of Dema. They also are friends and family who support those escaping.) He’s unsure what to think about them – he doesn’t hide from them but he doesn’t run to them either. This is something familiar to people going through depression – the feeling that you’re totally alone in the world, not knowing who really is an ally.
- Eventually, we see the bishop riding toward Tyler in order to take him back to Dema. Tyler stands there, seemingly helpless. He merely waits for the bishop to arrive. Again, this is all too familiar – I can feel myself slipping downward, caught once more in the trap of depression. Still, it feels like there’s little I can do except to just give up and accept it. And again, even though it’s painful, it’s also familiar.
- Once Tyler’s been captured, his insecurities show up in full force – his throat and hands immediately turn black once the bishop touches him. It seems to happen all at once – once I fall under the influence of this negativity, it affects everything about me and I become insecure about everything once more.
- The Banditos show their support by throwing the yellow flower petals. (Like red is the color of Blurryface and the bishops, yellow is color of the Banditos. Apparently the bishops can’t see the color yellow although it frightens the bishop’s horse.) This support emboldens Tyler who makes a run for it. Still, it’s not enough and he stumbles once more. He is eventually recaptured by the bishop. (Shades of “Resistence is futile” – the Borg.) However, he holds one of the yellow flowers – a remembrance that he felt support for a time.
- Most haunting lyrics: “Spirits in my room, friend or foe? Felt it in my youth, feel it when I’m old. Jumpsuit, jumpsuit (cover me). Dusting off my (jumpsuit, cover me)” It seems that these feelings appear no matter our age and our initial reaction tends toward the same thing we initially felt. It’s sort of like being triggered by situations that remind us of our PTSD experiences.
Nico and the Niners
- The video opens back in the city of Dema. Tyler has been recaptured once more but it appears as if he’s planning for another escape. He holds the yellow flower from Jumpsuit and places it in a drawer with several others making you think this scenario has played out several times. Like him, I have experienced numerous episodes in my life – it doesn’t mean that I give up, it just means that I accept the possibility that the alleviation of symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m completely healed. There’s a strong possibility that I’ll find myself in another one later on in my life.
- The Banditos are there to help him escape. Like Tyler discovers, it’s much easier when you have support and aren’t alone.
- Still, sometimes it’s hard to trust that support. You see him shy away from the group coming toward him and turn, only to realize he’s surrounded. Only when Josh gives him the handshake does he know that the help is real. (At times, it’s hard to know if friends or family are really going to be allies – you don’t know who to trust or how they will react to your “bottoming out” once again. Sometimes it only comes with time do you know when someone is really in your corner.
- In this song we find out the identity of the bishop chasing him – Nico, or Nicholas Bourbaki as he’s referred to in another song on Trench. We also find out in other writings that Nico is also Blurryface.
- Most haunting lyrics – “We’ll win but not everyone will get out.” (I think the best description for this line is from this site: “And that is a sobering fact; because a lot of people are going to struggle with things in Tyler’s audience. I think that he connects with them a lot, because he talks about some of the things that he struggles with; and he knows that while he’ll be able to bring help to some people, not everyone is going to escape that; and this could be a reference to those who actually do commit suicide, the ones who can’t escape the clutches of depression, or of Nico and the Niners.”) A sobering thought. This music isn’t just for pleasure – it’s for support and sustenance when you’re feeling alone like so many members of the Clique.
- Tyler has escaped Dema and has arrived at the camp of the Banditos where there’s a celebration.
- There’s a lot to unpack in these lyrics and I’m only going to go over a couple things – he talks about how he learned to fire breathe (write poetry) in the seventh grade and that he feeds on things that fell (a reference to using his own failings and fears in his art creation.) He says “you can levitate with just a little help” – either a reference to rising above the pit with a little support or perhaps saying that anyone can do the same thing he does – use their own failings to create art and rise above.
- Most haunting lyrics: “Cowards only come through when the hour’s late And everyone’s asleep, mind you.” For myself, I know the worst part of the day is nighttime when I’m in the midst of a depressive spell. I’m alone, can’t sleep, and facing all of the thoughts and fears that aren’t brave enough to present themselves during the daytime. In the dark, they taunt, and like Tyler, I find myself swept away back further in the grips of the bishops.
- Sleep in a well-lit room, don’t let the shadow through – more references to the dangers of being by oneself in the darkness. Please, keep me from, please, keep me Down from the ledges Better test it, wooden wedges under doorways Keep your wooden wedges under doors – still more references about protecting yourself.
- The video ends with Tyler recaptured by the bishop and dragged away. Like him, when I feel it happening, again there’s this feeling of resignation – it’s always going to end this way, so why fight it? And the Banditos with him just stare at each other in shock and fear. Our allies can only watch it happen once again, not knowing what to do to help.
So there you have it – my brief overview of Twenty One Pilots. There’s a lot in these videos and I’ve only covered a fraction of it. They’ll likely make a few more appearances on Mystical Bear as I am including them in my writing process.
I have deep respect for them because they’re trying to do the same thing I’m trying to do here – use my pain, my depression, anxiety, and PTSD experiences, and turn them into something good and helpful to others that might be going through the same thing. Like Tyler, and like me, you, too, can learn to levitate with just a little help. So be it.
Photo by NME