Twenty One Pilots as a symptom of suburbia

The Columbus band’s sound is an honest reflection of suburbs such as New Albany – a seemingly non-threatening landscape that makes the corrosive elements more frightening.
Twenty One Pilots photographed in 2011
Twenty One Pilots photographed in 2011Taylor Dorrell

Twenty One Pilots just released two singles for its upcoming album, Clancy. The radio-friendly hooks of “Overcompensate” match the duo’s previous chart-topping albums, weirdly blending emo, pop and rap with a Travis Barker drumline. The song’s minimal lyrics strive for an unsophisticated depth – “You bow to the masses/Get kicked to the curb/For passin’ the classes/Half empty, half full, save half for your taxes,” goes one passage – a void that an accompanying music video attempts to fill with cryptic texts, affable masses resembling sheep following a leader and other vaguely religious imagery that adds to the band’s world-building lore.

Twenty One Pilots is Christian, although they don’t consider themselves a “Christian band,” a distinction that appears as minute as it is effective in the field of public relations. The group’s appeal is augmented by its concept albums, mysterious metaphors and the member’s willingness to discuss their mental health journeys, including ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety.

Despite rejecting confinement to the genre of Christian music, all current and former members of the band played in the church band at New Albany Church, now called 514 Church, originally located in New Albany’s elementary school cafeteria, where the group performed for middle-class families like my own. As Hanif Abdurraqib wrote in his book They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: “Twenty One Pilots are from the suburbs! … Twenty One Pilots are good Christian kids!” 

With their ambiguous Christian records, Twenty One Pilots has become emblematic of the new cynical movement online calling for a return to Orthodoxy, a niche fetishization of religious images and ceremony without the belief. The band’s music provides palatable fables drenched in ski masks and trendy fonts meant to appeal to a disheartened and alienated middle-class youth.

But Twenty One Pilots’ chaotic-but-catchy songs and embrace of gloomy imagery pose a compelling contradiction to the image of its bourgeois neighborhood of New Albany, a suburb defined by its McMansions, white fences and sprawling brick structures. The pair’s music is a reverse image of our concept of the domesticity offered by these suburbs, depicting, not unlike Anne Sexton’s poetry, a fatal reflection of the weary realities of suburbia, going against traditional notions of entertainment to deliver an honest incarnation of the underbelly plagued by its association with Les Wexner (and by connection, Jeffrey Epstein), upper-class criminal activity and an alienation that pierces the idealism of the American Dream. 

A man can’t be a Jesus in this world

There’s one story that repeats itself throughout crises in American history, especially since industrialization: corruption in the name of class-mobility and family ties. It’s one perfectly displayed in Arthur Miller’s 1947 play, All My Sons, which follows a father, Joe Keller, who, wishing to keep his family in their fictional middle-class Ohio suburb, seizes on the wartime production frenzy to sneak past a batch of cracked cylinder heads for planes that result in the deaths of tens of young pilots fighting in Europe during World War II. 

The wisdom of the story is two-fold. First, nobody can make it into the upper-middle-class unscathed; in the concluding pages, Keller lets out the pivotal quote, “A man can’t be a Jesus in this world!” And second, our society cherishes fantasized images over grim realities. In facing the consequences of his actions, which the family suppressed for normality, Keller lashes out: “You wanted money, so I made money. What must I be forgiven?” 

After Keller loses his first son in the war, the play concludes with his second son’s death by suicide, followed soon after by the father’s. Miller’s story of middle-class alienation and guilt is a common trope in a body of work that’s often critical of capitalism’s lofty promises. It’s also one that repeats throughout history; contractors for the Iraq War and COVID-19 pandemic both pulled the same kind of tricks in the clamoring for class mobility/stability (see: Arms and the Dudes, from 2015, and Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick, from 2022).

All My Sons served as the inspiration for the name “Twenty One Pilots,” which is the number of pilots Keller’s faulty plane parts end up killing. But the play also displays the main themes present throughout the band’s catalog: underneath the facade of a capitalist utopia are paranoia, alienation, corruption, and guilt. 

The sound of Twenty One Pilots is the honest sound of suburbs such as New Albany, a place that promotes itself as a gleaming tech-utopia but isn’t immune to pill mills, murders, suicides and, occasionally, crossovers of each. Just like the suburb in All My Sons, New Albany displays an “undisturbed normality,” as Miller put it. But it’s this seemingly non-threatening landscape that makes the corrosive elements more frightening, especially considering the brick architecture was inspired by the James River Plantations. As Mark Twain once wrote, “It looked natural because it looked somehow as if it were in pain.”

Music Precedes Change

As Twenty One Pilots has risen to colossal fame over the years, it’s become fashionable to brush them aside as a suburban Christian band. But with popularity comes the reality that millions of people identify with the duo’s messaging, especially its dealings with depression, meaning and the significance of creative outlets. A line such as “I wasn't raised in the hood, but I know a thing or two about pain and darkness” might be considered cringy by some, but it nonetheless resonates with millions of Americans. 

Jacques Attali once argued that music precedes large-scale social and economic change. We should be asking what this means for popular music today and how a band like Twenty One Pilots fits into it. There are those militant country singers on the far-right and slowly rising leftists, including the Grammy-winning Killer Mike. The musical manifestations of our era can expose different perspectives of our political reality and could invert music from being something that’s produced by the times into a medium that can be harnessed, as Brecht would say, into a “hammer to shape [our reality].”

Then there’s Twenty One Pilots, whose music more often provides a criticism of suburban alienation – in the general sense of isolation, depression and anxiety, but also in the classic Marxist sense, exploring a world of people connected primarily through things. This is where the band offers us something worth recognizing. Twenty One Pilots is both a symptom and a critique of New Albany and the American Dream.

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