If you’ve turned on your radio more than once this year, you may be a little sick of “Ride.” You’ve probably also heard your fair share of friends belting the chorus of “Stressed Out,” and the pop music culture in general seems to have taken up a policy of Twenty One Pilots, Twenty One Thousand Times a Day. What exactly attracts so many listeners to this band? The music is catchy, sure, but plenty of music is catchy. There must be something in the lyrics that draws us in, and the more I listen to these songs, the more I think the draw runs deeper than the buzz of a few overplayed songs.
I think we listen to “Ride” and “Stressed Out” because we’re afraid.
By “we,” I mean American young adults, but I don’t intend to rant about the superficial problems of Millennials. The fear that Twenty One Pilots talks about is, I believe, a rational fear. When I look at the lyrics to “Stressed Out” (and when I listen to my friends sing along) I hear the words of people who are watching the weight of the world descend upon their shoulders—and they’re afraid. “Stressed Out” resonates with listeners because it speaks to what has been, for many, a rude awakening to the real world.
There’s a part of the song where the singer remembers playing pretend: “Used to dream of outer space, but now they’re laughing at our face, singing, ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’” Who hasn’t listened to those words with an understanding ear? In many ways, it seems like the adult world—the world of accountability—is a cruel caricature of the childhood haven we lived in before, where, as the singer claims, “nothing really mattered.” Twenty One Pilots speaks honestly to that deer-in-the-headlights feeling we get when we no longer have the option to live in a fantasy.
I sympathize with this paralysis in the face of new responsibility. After all, we’re playing for higher stakes now. My question to Twenty One Pilots is, are higher stakes necessarily a bad thing? Judging from the popularity and content of the band’s music, it seems many people might answer, “Yes.” In their song “Ride,” Twenty One Pilots lists some questions they have to ask themselves as responsible human beings: “Who would you live for? Who would you die for? And would you ever kill?” These are intense questions to ask, and when we consider our answers, we often discover something in ourselves we hadn’t wanted to find. It’s no surprise that these questions are a segue into one of the refrains of the song—“I’ve been thinking too much.”
Ultimately, that may be what we’re most afraid of: thought. Now that we can’t play pretend anymore, our minds aren’t always places of escape; instead, our most pressing concerns and anxieties seem to come from within us. Whereas children use their imaginations to fly, we look within ourselves and realize, in the words of Twenty One Pilots, “I’m falling.”
If our attraction to songs like “Ride” and “Stressed Out” are based in some of our deepest fears, what are we to make of this? Certainly the easiest option would be to give in to this defeatism, this resignation to “falling and taking my time on my ride.” We’re attracted to despair, and for a good reason: if we let go of hope, we erase meaning—and therefore consequences—from our lives. But I would argue that this is not the noble choice. Twenty One Pilots accurately depicts the struggles of young people, conflicts both internal (moral, emotional) and external (social, economic), but I don’t think we have to live in these conflicts as if they comprised our lives entirely. The stakes are high— consider for a minute whether they might be that much more valuable.
So by all means, take your time on your ride, and enjoy it.