Breaking up, we’re all aware from our pop music education, is hard to do. And it turns out growing up is hard, too.
That’s the overarching theme in the biggest hit so far from the surging alt-pop-rap duo Twenty One Pilots. Sounding for all the world like a mash-up of Macklemore and Foster the People, Twenty One Pilots strives to reconcile the innocent dreams and experiences of childhood with the constant yet mundane pressures of adulthood.
That leaves the group’s frontman, Tyler Joseph, feeling “stressed out.”
The first set of stresses Joseph identifies focuses on his frustrated realization that creating something new and fresh and interesting isn’t nearly as easy as he thought it would be.
“I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,” he raps disappointedly. “I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words/I wish I found some chords in an order that is new/I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.”
(I see what you did with that last line, Tyler!)
But Tyler Joseph’s disillusionment goes beyond mere creative angst. It extends to pretty much everything about adulthood’s constant squeeze to perform, to pay the bills, to take care of business. And those concerns aren’t at all what the guys in Twenty One Pilots had imagined when they were young and innocent.
And then there’s this, too: “I was told when I get older, all my fears would shrink,” Joseph laments. “But now I’m insecure, and I care what people think/ … I care what you think.”
(Note that this is a startlingly stark admission in a music world where “I’m the king” braggadocio often rules.)
The balance of the song alternates between a longing for the pure blissfulness of childhood—and all that came with it—contrasted with the nuts and bolts of daily life that responsible adults must reckon with.
“Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days/When our momma sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out,” the chorus laments. “We’re stressed out.”
(An intentionally ridiculous video features Tyler Joseph and bandmate Josh Dun riding massive Big Wheels through suburbia and performing in people’s houses.)
Pop music often majors in escapist fantasies, extravagant emotions and the downtrodden depths of despair. But what “Stressed Out” describes and articulates is none of those things. Instead, there’s a dose of raw reality here that’s pretty rare in the circles Twenty One Pilots traverses.
These guys wistfully reminisce about the glories of childhood (“We would build a rocket ship, and then we’d fly it far away”) even as they try to come to grips with the cold, hard fact that adulthood is harder than they thought it would be.
Does that realization qualify as depressing or just honest?
As a working adult who does indeed have to get out of bed in the morning because I, like Joseph sings, “need to make money,” I’d hazard that it’s some of both. This is not a happy song. But I want to give Twenty One Pilots a little bit of credit for telling it like it is … without getting too angsty or giving up on it all.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.