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Why is Twenty One Pilots So Popular?

The first time I heard Twenty One Pilots’ “Guns for Hands,” I was hooked. The engaging melody, catchy chorus, and fun beats drew me in. And I soon realized that I was not the only fan of the quirky musical duo. Over the past few years, Twenty One PIlots has skyrocketed to the tops of charts. Their large reception led Rolling Stone to describe them as “the biggest new band of the past year” (referring to 2015) and Forbes to declare that they have “changed rock history in a major way.”

So how can a couple of guys from Columbus, Ohio, equipped with just a drum set and a keyboard, quickly become such an international sensation? While their unique combination of various styles certainly plays a role in their appeal, I think their magnetic sound isn’t the only driving factor. Twenty One Pilots is so popular, at least in part, because they have found a way to musically channel the experiences of anxious people in an age dominated by distraction, doubt, and despair.

“Sometimes, Quiet is Violent”

The Twenty One PIlots song “Car Radio” describes how silence can be oppressive when you’re not accustomed to it. The vocalist’s car radio has been stolen, forcing him to sit in silence and contemplate all of the disturbing thoughts that he uses sound to keep at bay:

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve…
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real…

I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound

“Car Radio” echoes Pascal’s insight, “I have often said that man’s unhappiness arises from one thing alone: that he cannot remain quietly in his room.” Silence causes us to face ourselves: our thoughts, our fears, our doubts, and the uncomfortable yet undeniable realities of our existence.

Resorting to distraction to escape silence is nothing new, but distraction has never been so readily accessible to the average person than it is today. Our lives are dominated by social media apps, games, email, streaming services, and news notifications. This constant stimulation creates a fractured consciousness as we experience a wide range of emotions in an instant. We feel frail and spread thin, but we’re also too addicted to stop. The silence is too much for our anxious, over-stimulated brains, so we pick up our phones (or turn on the radio) for another dopamine hit.

Order and Chaos

Twenty One Pilots articulates the existential despair and doubt that is at the back of our minds; the nagging thoughts and feelings that remain in our periphery no matter how hard we try to drown them out. And while the content of their music voices our concerns and fears, their musical style mirrors the disarray of our distracted lives. The chaotic electric sounds from their tracks resemble the cacophony of stimulation coming from our screens, and their melding of different genres imitates the convergence of disparate narratives thrust upon our psyches.

But Twenty One PIlots is probably so enchanting because their music doesn’t simply remain discordant, but is coalesced into a coherent stream of sound. They provide just enough order to navigate the chaotic waters we all wade in. As a result, their music doesn’t as much offer a respite from our distracted lives, but forces us to confront the pandemonium head-on, in addition to the discomforting thoughts that always haunt the periphery. And that’s no small feat.

Jacob Quick

Jacob Quick

Jacob is a displaced Texan who lives in Belgium, where he and his wife, Annie, are students. Jacob recently completed an MPhil in continental philosophy at KU Leuven. Jacob earned an MA in analytic philosophy from Northern Illinois University in 2015 and a BA in theology from Moody Bible Institute in 2012. Jacob enjoys travelling, reading, and discussing theology and philosophy with friends. His particular interests center around the intersection of philosophy, Christianity, and animal ethics.

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