10 hidden meanings in twenty one pilots lyrics you probably didn’t know
There are many reasons to love twenty one pilots. Their music is a giddy mix of alt-rock and emo that also isn’t afraid of taking influence from hip-hop, pop or folk. Their live shows are a carefully orchestrated playground of catharsis and chaos. Josh Dun even has a cute dog.
Where the band really shine, though, is in their lyrics.
Read more: Every twenty one pilots album ranked
Raw, vulnerable and poetic, Tyler Joseph’s words tackle everything from turbulent mental health and shuddering self-doubt to the media’s obsession with suicide, the power that comes from creativity and what it would be like to raise a pet cheetah called Jason Statham. His lyrics are veiled and shrouded in imagery, yet somehow, we always form a connection with his vocals.
Across twenty one pilots’ six albums, the band have offered understanding and a comforting hand in the dark as they’ve used their music to work through giddy highs and crippling lows. They’ve also littered their output with references to literature, film and their own work. You probably know the band’s name comes from Arthur Miller’s iconic 1947 play All My Sons and that the title for 2021’s Scaled And Icy is both an anagram for Clancy Is Dead (a character from the narrative surrounding Trench) and a play on "Scaled Back And Isolated," due to its creation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below, we shine a light on 10 hidden meanings in twenty one pilots' lyrics that you probably weren’t so clued up on…
“I can feel my saturation leaving me slowly/Broke the news on mom's vacation”
“Good Day” (Scaled And Icy, 2021)
The jubilant opener to the band’s sixth album might be full of color, but the lyrics actually see Joseph thinking about the death of his loved ones. “There’s certain topics in songs that really make you feel alive, and man, that was one of them,” he told Alternative Press (AP 400). “I know it sounds morbid, but I was there. I was thinking specifics, talking about losing my wife, and meant it – I glazed over the lyric in the song, but I felt every bit of that while writing [it]. That’s when you know that you’re growing as a person, when you really feel that when you’re writing the song.”
“'Cause the last thing I want to do is make my people make decisions… Should they keep it on display or redecorate?”
“Redecorate” (Scaled And Icy, 2021)
The closing track to Scaled And Icy sees its narrators contemplating suicide. “Because I was writing this inverted record, there’s a lot of shininess in the middle of the record, and at the end it’s ‘but…despair.’ It completes out the idea of a record that is totally opposite from what we usually build,” Joseph explained about the bleak ending.
“[When] people talk about tragic situations, sometimes the only thing they take from it is details. In the most existential, dreadful moment, if you look around at your stuff, it can bring you back to reality. I talked to [people] that had similar situations, where someone they loved passed, and they kept their room the same way. Their memorial [is] the room. That song specifically is exploring the stuff that would be left behind.”
“All these songs I'm hearing are so heartless/Don't trust a perfect person and don't trust a song that's flawless”
“Lane Boy” (Blurryface, 2015)
Following the success of their Fueled By Ramen debut, Vessel, twenty one pilots suddenly found themselves out of America’s basements and with an ever-growing fanbase. “Lane Boy” is a not-so-subtle clapback at people pushing them to chase radio success, but also deals with the sudden responsibility of talking directly to a fanbase. “It was amazing how calculated and contrived a lot of bands I thought I would respect were,” Joseph told Alternative Press before the release of Blurryface (AP 323).
“I assumed they were all trying to say something with their writing when really, they were trying to crank out the next big hit. That was one of the more disheartening things I carried into this record. The other thing I learned is that there are people out there who would die for me that I don’t even know. That’s a heavy thing. That’s a dramatic way of trying to describe our fans, but for the first time ever, I had an album to write an answer to them, to kind of put up against their expectations and what they were wanting.”
“I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink/But now I'm insecure and I care what people think”
“Stressed Out” (Blurryface, 2015)
You don’t need us to tell you that for Joseph, the titular character of twenty one pilots’ fourth album “represents everything that I’m insecure about.” Despite the nostalgia-soaked vibe of breakout track “Stressed Out,” the song was actually written by Joseph to face his demons.
“The idea of creating something, making a song and having the courage to show someone that song is a form of defeating that insecurity,” Joseph explained (AP 323). “Believe me, I know that Josh and I seem very confident when we get up onstage. And we emit this idea of a couple guys who don’t care about what anyone thinks, and we’re so confident. But there are so many times where I get up onstage and I feel the world is about to pressurize me into nothing. There have been times where all I want to do is walk offstage. It can crush you. So I started to try to win. I want to conquer this thing. I want to conquer this person. So I started naming him.”
“I'd live for you and that's hard to do/Even harder to say when you know it's not true”
“Ride” (Blurryface, 2015)
“Ride” sees Joseph struggling not only with his newfound fame but staying connected to where he came from. “Vessel was this record that I wrote in secret from my real life, this person who went down in the basement and wrote songs,” he explained (AP 323).
“Those songs never breathed the same air that I was breathing every day. Now, writing songs and traveling and playing music is my life, and these songs have been forced to breathe the same air that I am with my family, friends and the town I am from. That’s a lot of real-life things creeping into the lyrical content. There’s a specific lyric claiming to want to live for other people. But at the same time, I’m getting phone calls from family members, and I’m hitting ‘ignore’ on the side of my phone because I don’t have time to answer the phone for them. And that really hurt me. So I took those emotions and put them in that song.”
“I'm fairly local, I've been around/I've seen the streets you're walking down”
“Fairly Local” (Blurryface, 2015)
Detailing their struggles about coming from humble beginnings to becoming career musicians, Dun explained in AP 323 that “no matter what your circumstances are, you still have to deal with the same things. Ever since I met Tyler – and this is why we agree on so much – there are so many things to talk about. I think people can talk about these things in some relatable way. Whether or not you are a kid who grows up abused, with one parent, no parents of with a great family yet deals with depression, we all go through something. It’s harder to continue moving forward in life. I just want to write about things that are a lot more relatable than staying out until 7 a.m. and drinking. It’s really about your intentions and the honesty. Hopefully, people can pick up on that.”
“I created this world to feel some control/Destroy it if I want”
“Bandito” (Trench, 2018)
twenty one pilots’ fifth album was inspired by the amount of touring the band had done on the Blurryface cycle. “Because I was seeing so many different cultures and seeing the idea of moving forward, I knew the narrative was going to be about a place – more specifically, in between two places,” Joseph said in AP 362.
“I’m always feeling like I’m moving from one place to another, whether it is literally or figuratively, mentally and spiritually,” he continued. “And a lot of the time, when you feel like you are between those two places, it feels… uncharted. Not tame. Scary. Dark. But at least it’s not where you know you’re not supposed to be. That’s what Trench has become to me. Leaving this place, I knew I shouldn’t be anymore. But just because you leave, it doesn’t mean your problems are being solved – you have a whole new list of problems trying to survive.”
“And start a concert, a complete diversion/Start a mob and you can be quite certain/We’ll win but not everyone will get out”
“Nico And The Niners” (Trench, 2018)
Talking to Alternative Press after the release of Trench (AP 362), Joseph admits that while “Nico And The Niners” was originally a source of personal catharsis, it had quickly grown into something else, especially against the backdrop of Trump’s America. “I feel like I’m learning about Trench every day. But what it’s helped me with is where we talk about the political landscape our country is in. What would it accomplish if Trench was this place where it’s kind of this mirror where our culture and our country are right now?
"I could say thinking it could only help things, just because of what it’s done for me personally," he continues. "To live in Trench, to try and go through it, feel alone and yet find people that will make me feel not alone, it’s this world that fixed me and helped me a lot. To turn up the rocket fuel on this idea and apply it to something as big as our culture and where America is, that’s exciting.”
“My shadow grows taller along with my fears/And my frame shrinks smaller as night grows near”
“Semi-Automatic” (Vessel, 2013)
Talking to Spotify, Joseph explained that “Semi-Automatic” is “very introspective, and I know I talk about the nighttime a lot. I feel like I listen to a lot of pop music today that talks about the night in a completely different way than I talk about the night. There’s a lot of writers that talk about the night like it's an awesome time, that everyone’s partying or whatever, and usually nighttime for me is the worst — that’s when everything comes out for me. That’s when I realize that I don’t really understand why I’m here or what I’m doing, and it’s when the doubts happen. So a lot of these songs are showing you the things that I’m thinking about at night.”
“We've turned our hands to guns/Traded our thumbs for ammunition”
“Guns For Hands” (Vessel, 2013)
Inspired by a wave of kids coming up to him after a twenty one pilots show in Cincinnati, Ohio and talking to Joseph about their issues with depression and suicidal thoughts, he realized that a generation of people were struggling with questions about purpose and belonging.
“When you don’t have the answers to those questions, sometimes it can lead you to do something that you ultimately shouldn’t do,” he explained.
“I feel like a lot of the older generation when they hear about someone struggling with it, their first reaction is, ‘No, you’re not. Don’t think about that. You’re just trying to get attention.’ But this song was really trying to say, ‘Listen, I know you have the ability to hurt yourself. I recognize that, but let’s take that energy, and let’s point it at something else. Let’s divert that; let’s kind of shift that momentum and look at something like art, or something like this music specifically, or even point it at me. Just point it anywhere, but don’t point it at yourself.’ That song will always be important to me. I’m not a professional when it comes to this topic, but I write songs, and I feel like someone should say something about it.”