My friend Jon Weyer once said that “Christian” is a bad adjective, but it’s a great noun.
With that thought in mind, meet twenty one pilots. They’re not a Christian band. They’re an amazing band—made up of two wildly creative Christians.
Josh Dun (drums) and Tyler Joseph (vocals, piano, etc.) are twenty one pilots. The band’s name comes from All My Sons, an Arthur Miller play.
The musical duo signed with Fueled By Ramen, a record label that’s also signed Paramore and Panic! At The Disco. Tyler and Josh tour throughout the world, and their following is only getting bigger.
I saw them perform last week. I want to walk through the deep meaning dripping from their music. I might be misreading them, but it seems that the duo’s Christianity bleeds through their lyrics and actions on stage.
I mean, just look at the lyrics of the second song they played, “Migraine”:
Behind my eyelids are islands of violence
my mind’s shipwrecked, this is the only land my mind could find
I did not know it was such a violent island
Full of tidal waves, suicidal crazed lions
They’re trying to eat me, blood running down their chin
and I know that I can fight or I can let the lion win
I begin to assemble what weapons I can find
‘Cause sometimes to stay alive you got to kill your mind
Am I the only one I know
Waging my wars behind my face and above my throat
Shadows will scream that I’m alone
But I know we’ve made it this far, kid
yeah, yeah, yeah
Are the “suicidal crazed lions” looking to eat him an allusion to 1 Peter 5:8? Consider the verse:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (NIV)
It’s easy to lose yourself in their music and miss these deep lyrics. As if the words weren’t heavy enough, something else happened after this song: the stage went dark and two loud gunshots blasted from the speakers.
After these jarring noises, I saw that Tyler and Josh had changed into skeleton costumes. They started the next song, “Ode to Sleep.”
You can watch a live performance of this song, complete with the costumes, below. The first three minutes of this video sums up everything I’m trying to say in this post. Do yourself a favor and watch for a few minutes. Pay attention to how the lyrics, lighting, and Tyler’s costume all change.
Do you notice what happens?
When the stage is still pretty dark, Tyler spews more dark and depressing lyrics:
I wake up fine and dandy but then by the time I find it handy,
To rip my heart apart and start planning my crash landing,
I go up, up, up, up, up to the ceiling,
Then I feel my soul start leaving, like an old man’s hair receding,
I’m pleading please, oh please on my knees repeatedly asking,
Why it’s got to be like this, is this living free,
I don’t want to be the one, be the one who has the son’s blood on my hands,
I’ll tell the moon, take this weapon forged in darkness,
Some see a pen, I see a harpoon.
Immediately after saying “harpoon,” he throws himself down on the stage.
But then, after Tyler takes off his skull mask, the vibe changes. He belts out the next lines while sitting down and playing the piano:
Why am I not scared in the morning,
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out,
I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone,
They told me I was gone.
After finishing these words, he jumps up from his seat. He physically and lyrically soars:
But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
Please tell them you have no plans for me.
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them!
After “Ode to Sleep,” the band played “Screen.” At one point in the performance, Tyler had the audience sing along with him:
We’re broken people, oh.
We’re broken people, oh.
Think about the ground they’ve covered in these opening songs. “Migraines” speaks of a mental battle with depression, temptation, and possibly the devil; “Ode to Sleep” begins in darkness but ends in illumination; and “Screen” features a call to repentance.
This triumph of light over dark reminds me of the True Detective season finale. In the last scene, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) talk about the battle between good and evil, using the night sky to make their points. They look up at the stars and offer different perspectives on how light (good) is faring in the fight with dark (evil).
MARTY: . . . it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.
RUST: Yeah? You’re right about that. . . . You know, you’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing. . . . Well, once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.
At the end of the twenty one pilots show, I had a similar feeling. The show began with dark lyrics and emotions, but the show persevered. Tyler and Josh pushed through the darkness, reveling in a jubilant catharsis.
Their music challenges me to think. They challenge me to change my perspective. Their lyrics acknowledge deep, dark, and deadly struggles. They don’t stop there, though.
It seems that they agree with Rust Cohle: the light’s winning.
21 thoughts on “twenty one pilots & True Detective”
It’s highly encouraging to me that bands such as twenty one pilots are willing to tackle issues (at times) left to the sidelines in the church (and in the public eye for that matter). Their brutal honesty — and creativity — gives me hope that Christians can make good music that does bring life to the world. Hopefully those in the crowd who only bounce along to the beat (and this is a struggle regardless of band) will take time to actually hear the depth of what’s being sung.
On the lion ref: I think it could be a reference to demonic influence, but may run the gammit of anything that may serve to draw one into depression and/or suicidal ideations — whether one’s own fleshly tendencies and thought patterns, outside temptations (e.g., depressing music), or spiritual attack.
The most powerful lyric imho: “‘Cause sometimes to stay alive you got to kill your mind.” No matter whether you’re in the throes of depression, a complicated relationship, or a philosophical head game, your head can cripple your day-to-day living, and as much as we crave resolution within our skulls, often we must let go of the questions and be patient for answers simply to operate.
21P forever. |-/
P.S. They’re on the cover of Alt Press! Tyler talks about seasonal depression here (“where you get all the good songs”): http://www.altpress.com/aptv/video/twenty_one_pilots_talk_joshs_move_to_los_angeles_seasonal_depression
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Thanks for the great thoughts, Mark! I really like your take on the “kill your mind” line.
The Alt Press article is interesting. I was surprised the interviewer didn’t ask them more about their spirituality—especially since they’ve led church worship before.
Thanks for pointing out the comparison of Migraine with Peter 5:8, I hadn’t seen that analysis before. IMHO, Twenty One Pilots strength is their ability to convey a powerful message to Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re a believer, It’s pretty easy to see that many of the lyrics about God, faith, etc. But if you have no religious background, you can listen to and enjoy (almost) every one of their songs and never imply the root of the lyrics. And their lyrics act in a way that, even if someone explains the Christian origins behind their music, it won’t ruin the songs for agnostics/atheists. It might even encourage a non-believer to take a first or even second look at faith after connecting with TOPs music.
Another blog post about TOP & faith I found interesting:
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Andy, thanks for your comments! I totally agree with you.
I really enjoyed the post you mentioned: “before one can evangelize others effectively, one must first encounter others effectively.”
Hey, I just wanted to point out another allusion. In Ode to Sleep, one of the lyrics is “Desperately yelling there’s something we need, I’m not free, I asked forgiveness three times, Same amount that I denied, I three-time mvp’ed this crime, I’m afraid to tell you who I adore, won’t tell you what I’m singing towards,”
I always interoperated this as a reference to what Peter did in the bible when he denied Jesus three times. And then Tyler seems to also be talking about how he’s afraid to tell you who he is singing for. So yeah, great piece by the way.
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I have an intense fear of the dark, when the lights are off, I will have a panic attack and cry and lose myself. I’m an OALC member. I don’t hear voices, but I imagine paranormal figures. My deepest darkest fear is the dark. In this song, there is the lyric “Why am I not scared in the morning?” This is the way I related it.
Ich habe eine intensive Angst vor der Dunkelheit, wenn die Lichter ausgeschaltet sind, werde ich einen Panikangriff haben und weinen und mich selbst verlieren. Ich bin ein OALC-Mitglied. Ich höre keine Stimmen, aber ich stelle mir paranormale Figuren vor. Meine tiefste dunkelste Angst ist die Dunkelheit. In diesem Lied gibt es die Lyrik “Warum bin ich keine Angst in den Morgen?” Dies ist die Art, wie ich es erzählt.
Thanks for the feedback! You’re absolutely right.
I came across this post after looking further into the faith of twenty one pilots. I have been listening to their music for a long time but never really paid attention to their Christian roots. I have been a non believer all my life but listening to their music one day just made me wonder and look into it. Discovering faith changed my life, made me happy and live a life of good. The band really do change lives.
Reblogged this on • Godly Gal • and commented:
This is an amazing read! I’ve been listening to them for a while now and just knew that there were Christian ties somewhere! I love how we can reveal the truth in their music. |-/
Hmmm, I am a Secular Humanist(yes that’s a non-believer) and I really love this21 Pilots. I think the way they sing about depression, obsessive/compulsive tendencies, and struggling to sooth a mind that can’t stop thinking, asking questions, and soothe itself is evidence that they might be struggling with a Christian’s tendency to just accept things as “God’s Will”, as so many believers tend to do when they have a tragedy in their lives. I have a problem with advice I receive from several Christian family members and friends)that” God has a plan”, “Let Go and Let God(also an AA/NA cliche that makes my skin crawl)”, or to “just have faith”. If anything their lyrics make me wonder not if they practice Christianity, but that they accept and know both good and bad(or “evil”), darkness and light, and triumphs and struggles and don’t accept or practice the habit of not questioning why things happen as they do, which is what fundamental Christiaity advises. The result is their creative, intelligent, and deep poetry they set to music- sometimes frenetically, sometimes joyfully, and often to each extreme in one song.
The way they sing about “depression, obsessive/compulsive tendencies, and struggling to sooth a mind that can’t stop thinking, asking questions, and soothe itself” is evidence of us being in a fallen world, and it seems through their lyrics that these guys, not only know that as fact, but do not deny (superficially) that Christians are immune. You mentioned, as an unbeliever, that fundamental Christianity advises not questioning why things happen as they do. I am sorry that someone gave you that impression, but they were wrong. One only need to read scripture with the fullness of Spirit to see the depths of struggle humanity faces. Look at St. Anthony the Great, who wrestled with demons. The profit Elijah was depressed, weary, and afraid. After great spiritual victories over the prophets of Baal, this mighty man of God feared and ran for his life, far away from the threats of Jezebel. And there in the desert, he sat down and prayed, defeated and worn:
“I have had enough Lord, he said. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:4
Christians live a life of spiritual warfare. We are encouraged to meditate aka think deeply, as the Bible tells us to (http://stronginfaith.org/article.php?page=19) – or as “Car Radio” expounds. The result is “creative, intelligent, deep poetry that they set to music – sometimes frenetically, sometimes joyfully, and often to each extreme in one song”.
I started listening to TOP a few months ago, and as someone who does research into everything i found out about their legitimate connection to the christian faith. It was pretty obvious, through many of the lyrics of their songs, that they were referencing Christianity. One of the things that i love the most about their music, besides the fact that it sounds great, is that the references to christianity and theism in general don’t need to be taken that way. It is clear that /they are what they are/, however as the band states their intent to ‘make people think’, they seem to want each individual to think about the lyrics in their own way, as people don’t think as a collective mass. I like that their lyrics can be taken as more of a tribute to conquering doubts and reaching hope and strength, rather than just “god is real, you better believe”.
I’m not a Christian. In fact, I dislike Christianity. However, the fact that Tyler Joseph’s lyrics deal with faith doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He’s an incredibly talented songwriter, musician, and performer. His music is honest. His band mate drummer Josh Dun is skilled and creative as well. Not to mention wicked fast.
Tyler Joseph needs depression and anxiety to create these sounds and provocative lyrics. He needs to keep wrestling his demons, and he needs faith to pull him up. I don’t think he could produce this level of quality without that dichotomy always haunting him. He needs Blurryface.
I know this is literally years late, but that last paragraph is an extremely dangerous thing to say. As an artist and Christian who struggles with similar things as Tyler, and often likes to view themself as Tyler, I’ve often considered the relationship between my struggles and my art. I’ve been afraid to get out of the bad, unhealthy places I’ve been in, because I didn’t want to lose my ability to make good, meaningful, true art. But if you have the experiences, you can always write about those. You can reflect and write even more hopeful things, now that you’re out of the bad place you were in. I’m so thankful to be out of the darkest, most hopeless place in my life, and still can create art due to my past experiences, but also just my ability to think deeply about the world and heavy concepts and topics. To wish mental illness on Tyler, hope he continues experiencing it, and go as far to say he NEEDS it is evil. That’s inhumane. For him to suffer just to make things for others and make others feel better for a while is quite literally torture, and to say he needs it is an awful thing to say. He needs Jesus, which He has, and God has allowed for him, his story, and his struggles to reach so many people who need to hear it, including myself.
Great write up. Another new somewhat incognito Christian (I think) superstar group – Years and Years https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv91THkkj4WXJdzvTpvX-Rw. Twenty One Pilots I think especially has a lot of parallels to the approach of Kendrick Lamar, especially evident in his most recent album. They speak to a specific audience that has shared experiences to their own and with language that their audience will identify with, but I think a big part of both of their music is spreading the Gospel even though they stay away from overtly saying that.
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Even the demons believe and tremble. This group is deception and not at all portraying real truth in lyrics of suicide and illuded drug culture as well as other mess using a slight christian phrase in it to decieve the listener. It is self destructive trash and if it were so christian, why do christian radio stations not play it or christian book stores sell it?
Christian radio and shops don’t publicize 21 Pilots cause they are not clearly promoting Christianity. They choose to address dark topics in order to overcome them. They are promoting joy and many people conceive that as Christianity but others may not. It clearly says that in Message Man – “Please use discretion when you’re messing with the message man, these lyrics aren’t for everyone, only few understand.” The best artists (writers, singers, painters, etc.) are the ones who can convey a message without clearly stating it. But most Christian industries only want what’s clearly Christian. They aren’t “deception,” they are honest and true, unlike a lot of Christians and Christian music.
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