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No, Really: Root for Twenty One Pilots at the Grammys

An earnest case for the very uncool rap-rock duo

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Beyoncé should win everything, but won’t; Adele will win everything, but shouldn’t. Thus concludes your radically condensed 2017 Grammys preview. Let us turn now to a silly, implausible, and super-delightful alternate theory: Twenty One Pilots could steal the show instead. They’re up for five awards, including Record of the Year, and watching them win ’em all would be both legitimately heartening and totally hilarious. This is a good band! Seriously! Let’s talk each other into this. If you’re into the Grammys for the shock value, for the chaos, for the universe-trolling delirium, these fellas are your new best friends.

They are polarizing fellas, to be sure, fearless and bonkers and gleefully Problematic, their strident Midwestern uncoolness fueling a rap-rock hybrid that desecrates traditional notions of “rap” and “rock” in equal, gargantuan measure. Frontman Tyler Joseph mostly pounds a piano and raps as though the kid from Eminem’s “Stan” straightened himself exactly halfway out; drummer Josh Dun pounds his kit with arty-jock aplomb, all biceps and tattoos and Travis Barker–esque tough-guy flamboyance. (As a drummer, you can choose between trad grip, matched grip, and Mountain Dew grip.) They hail from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and are not shy or apologetic about this fact: “I wasn’t raised in the hood,” Joseph spits (!) on “Lane Boy,” a bizarre lite-reggae lope. “But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness.” Spot the lie.

“Lane Boy” is an excellent litmus test, actually: If you haven’t fled in terror within the first 30 seconds, you will come to love this band. Eventually. (Yes, there is some unfortunate stylistic overlap with the Lonely Island’s “Ras Trent,” but try to hold on at least until the gonzo drum ’n’ bass breakdown. In concert, that’s the point when two anonymous dudes wearing jumpsuits and gas masks join the band onstage and start bopping around.)

The talent-show-gone-nuclear aesthetic here drives people nuts; it also sells tons of records. Twenty One Pilots are, by default, the most commercially successful young rock band of the past several years; their fourth album, 2015’s Blurryface, debuted at no. 1 on Billboard’s album chart and lurks in the top 20 to this day. This past summer, joining a cohort that includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and nobody else in the rock category, they snuck two songs — “Ride” and the dreamy Suicide Squad–soundtrack jam “Heathens” — into the Hot 100’s top five simultaneously. Whatever else happened in 2016, we’ll also remember it as the year critics and biz prognosticators alike were finally forced to figure out how to deal with these guys. Grammy voters, too, apparently.

But this isn’t about numbers; it’s about emotions. So let the record show that I find the “Stressed Out” video to be enormously affecting.

“Stressed Out” is Blurryface’s biggest hit, and raises quite the question: Can infantile ever be a compliment? The big wheels, the Capri Suns, the trophy-lined bedrooms, the elaborate handshake, the ritual transition from playing at one guy’s house to playing at the other guy’s house, the “Wake up / You need to make money” chant taken up by the Greek chorus of all their moms and dads and siblings — there’s a whole lot going on here. (There’s a whole lot going on here is the unofficial Twenty One Pilots motto.) But this video very nonchalantly does a fantastic job of establishing that we’re dealing with real people, from a real place, with a real bond, and a real urge to regress all the way back to their respective (and real) childhoods. These guys toured Ohio for years and years (please consult their second album, 2011’s Regional at Best) before breaking big, pushing just a little farther outward every time.

Like it or not, this is about as organic a success story as you’ll get from an awards show this corporate. “Stressed Out” is nonetheless a pretty wild pick for Record of the Year, joined by mostly far heavier hitters, including Adele’s “Hello,” Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Rihanna’s “Work” (featuring Drake), and Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.” (Record of the Year honors a song’s performance; Song of the Year goes to the writers.) “Stressed Out” is also up for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance, where hopefully the boys can beat out the Chainsmokers; “Heathens” is up for three statues of its own, including Best Rock Song (versus David Bowie and Radiohead) and the clunky Best Song Written for Visual Media (versus Justin Timberlake’s Trolls jam). But here, friends, is the loopiest category of them all.

Best Rock Performance

“Joe (Live From Austin City Limits)” — Alabama Shakes

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” — Beyoncé Featuring Jack White

“Blackstar” — David Bowie

“The Sound of Silence” (Live on Conan) — Disturbed

“Heathens” — Twenty One Pilots

This is nuts. It’s the single weirdest group of nominees in recent Grammy history, in any category. So much so that The New York Times just wrote a really excellent article about it, attempting to detail how, exactly, an outdated Alabama Shakes bonus track and an equally outdated and super-goofy Disturbed cover of a Simon & Garfunkel song made the cut. (The climactic quote from a Grammy voter is priceless: “It’s time to move on. I voted for Bowie.”) A Beyoncé win here would trigger yet another rage paroxysm from the sordid “keep Beyoncé out of my country music” corner of the internet, and that’s always fun. But Twenty One Pilots are very quietly the right call here, too, in that no band better exemplifies how deconstructed and destabilized the idea of rock has become.

Rap music will survive these fellas. I’m pretty sure about that. But rock music is a different animal. The Grammys have no idea how to talk about the genre, and haven’t for years: Their solution, in terms of both nominees and performers, has long been to simply throw Dave Grohl at the problem. (Just this past week, the awards show violently reversed course on a plan to goad him into joining A Tribe Called Quest and Anderson .Paak onstage for Sunday’s ceremony, which would’ve offended fans of all three parties, equally.) Twenty One Pilots hardly qualify as “rock,” either: There are basically no guitars involved, for one thing. But you encounter a song like Blurryface highlight “Tear in My Heart,” with its stabbing piano chords and trance keyboards and loopy finger-snapping breakdown, and you recognize the grandeur, the outlandishness, the stadium-packing aggression immediately. This is rock ’n’ roll very much against its will, and maybe against your will, too.

The Grammys delight in setting up obvious favorites and easy narratives, and then blowing them all to hell, so much so that many of those obvious favorites — from Drake to Justin Bieber to Frank Ocean to, of course, Kanye West — are either boycotting this year’s ceremony or at least threatening to. Twenty One Pilots winning three awards with “Rock” in the title would be a fantastic way of announcing that (a) rock as you know it is dead, and (b) rock as many people refuse to understand it is alive and well. That they might win Record of the Year is just fantastic. Imagine the looks on their faces. Imagine the looks on everyone’s faces. Imagine the look on yours.