Maybe you know them as that group that performed with A$AP Rocky at the VMAs, with that guy whose neck looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Maybe you recognize the odd name from a venue marquee on one of the stops of their sold out North American tour. Or, if you’re like us, you know them as Tyler and Josh, the two brilliantly bizarre masterminds behind the duo Twenty One Pilots.
Hailing from Ohio, where the hardcore scene is heavily prevalent, the pair have made a name for themselves with their unique blend of hip hop, rock, and electronic music. Like many musicians with a dream, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dunn embarked on a journey of basement EPs and awkward shows with tiny crowds before successfully signing to their label, Fueled by Ramen, in 2012. Since then, their hard-hitting beats, relatable lyrics, and unforgettable stage presence have made them a household name in the alternative world.
Perhaps their best work so far can be found in their sophomore full-length, Blurryface. There is a reason the TØP fan community, affectionately dubbed the Skeletøn Clique, splatter album lyrics across social media accounts, bedroom walls, and even patches of skin. The record is jam packed with therapeutic anthems fit for, in Joseph’s words, “the few, the proud, and the emotional.” This largely virtual but genuine solidarity between artist and fan is rare to find, and many of the duo’s songs are successfully relatable to their audience of self-proclaimed “mutant kids” because they undergo the same daily mental struggles that their listeners do. An especially clear manifestation of this mutual support can be found in the track “Message Man”, nestled near the end of the album as the last dark, programming heavy tune written in a minor key. If we dive deeper into Joseph’s lyrical verbiage, we can begin to understand that the battles he sings for are as sympathetic as they are empathetic.
Joseph identifies the difference between his outward self and his quiet inner turmoil in the first two verses, painting a compassionate scene for fans who feel similarly. He begins, “A loser hides behind a mask of my disguise / And who I am today is worse than other times.” The second verse takes a similar shape, with Joseph singing, “You don’t know my brain the way you know my name / You don’t know my heart the way you know my face.” In these introductory lines, the message is fairly clear- there is much more to Joseph than the front he puts on at surface level.
The pre-chorus that follows leaves more room for interpretation. The words, “You don’t know what I’ve done / I’m wanted and on the run” could be read literally; this wouldn’t be the first time Joseph will have used a song to claim to be running away from a wrongdoing. Alternately, this section could be explained as a metaphor for Joseph’s relationship with the industry, where the media is curious about the facts they don’t know about the relatively introverted artist and Joseph is choosing to respond to this demand by running away. The pre-chorus ends with the line, “So I’m taking this moment to live in the future,” directly correlating with the first line of the chorus, “Release me from the present.” Here, Joseph further emphasizes his dissatisfaction with his current mental state, so much so that he looks forward to a future of wellness.
The chorus continues with three main focus points. The lyrics, “I’m obsessing all these questions / Why I’m in denial that they tried this suicidal session” can be read as further internal commentary from Joseph on his personal conflicts. The way he copes with these demons is through the words and music he shares through TØP, and in producing lyrical stories that will resonate with fans. The distinctive nature of The Clique is obvious in the ending lines of the chorus and into the hook: “These lyrics aren’t for everyone / Only few understand / My people singing.” Joseph is clear in that the ideas he is trying to communicate have a very tailored audience, and he makes no moves to translate the message to listeners it wasn’t intended to be for. This further unifies the singer with his audience, insinuating that they’re very much in this fight together. Possibly the most important line in the chorus is found in the middle, where Joseph sings, “Please use discretion when you’re messing with the message, man.” (Is it ironic to dissect the lyrics to a track about distorting the message? Probably. But we digress.) In the album booklet, the comma break suggests that Joseph is addressing that the fragile nature of the lyrics and overall message that is delivered by the music. However, word play is not a foreign concept to the artist’s writing style, so it wouldn’t be a coincidence to interpret the line with the Message Man as an individual, hinting at the fragile nature of not only the message, but also the messenger.
The us-against-the-world feeling that seems to exist within the Twenty One Pilots community is especially evident in the third verse, where Joseph switches gears from melodic phrases to more traditional rhythmic rapping. Following the trend of duality, the verse seems to be split into two parts, with each section geared toward a specific listener. Part A is a callout for unfamiliar listeners and non-clique members: “I hope you’re dead ‘cause how could you sleep at a time like this?” Joseph seems to be referencing the slang term of “sleeping on” an artist, or not acknowledging underrated talent. Joseph poses that while “we”, the understanding party, are impressed by the content of his songs, outsiders “rip it, flip it,” passing judgement and misinterpreting words that merely exist to provide hope to those who take shelter in music’s healing quality. The idea that individuals could be so unaffected by music almost renders soulless, as referenced by a reiteration of the line, “You’re dead ‘cause how could you sleep at a time like this?”
Part B of the third verse is curated specifically for the Skeletøn Clique, the heart and soul behind the positivity TØP try to spread with their music. Joseph tackles the digital nature of modern times, and how online communities have developed into the only support some young adults have to turn to: “Life is up here but you comment below / And the comments with always become common motivation.” The unified movement to push past daily obstacles and look forward to the next day (“your show’s next episode”) is stressed, as is keeping a positive outlook despite the journey to get there may seem too distant. Joseph connects himself to the fans with the line, “Together we’re losers, remember the future,” further emphasizing that he is fighting the battle alongside them, and that together they will reach the light at the end of the tunnel “when night is dead.”
To some, these lyrics will mean nothing, the song just another excuse for musicians to scream and wail behind the guise of outreach. But to others, this song and this artist are just that– outreach. Moreover, outreach that is accessible from anywhere, so long as you’re connected digitally. Cliche as it may be, the power of music has been supporting various communities of fans through all of life’s challenges. As obstacles have graduated to the digital world with cyberbullying and internet abuse, support has moved alongside it, with communities coming together in the most personal virtual interactions we’ve seen so far in the modern world. And for this one community, this one Clique, countless lives have been inspired to continue past dark moments because of the connectivity available to them. And maybe “only few understand.” But, then again, maybe that’s the point.