Choosing life: twenty one pilots avoid the glow of “Neon Gravestones”
We take a closer look at a controversial song from twenty one pilots' recently released Trench, which addresses complex thoughts and solutions about suicide.
In the scheme of our daily routines—before glimpsing your Twitter mentions, checking CNN to see if the world actually ended, maybe just placing your Starbucks order—do we ever ponder how we got here? Do we ever consider how many generations of human beings it took to herald our arrival on this big blue marble? Can we ever discover exactly how much struggle, hardship and biological fortitude was involved to get you to where you are today?
The heart and soul of twenty one pilots founder Tyler Joseph is always taking the deep dive of existentialism when it comes to matters of the inside, the unknown and what’s next. On the recently released Trench, the band maintain their modus operandi (read: “Let’s never ‘not go there’”), by writing one of the most controversial songs of their career, “Neon Gravestones.”
“There was a minute when I showed him [the song] and said to him, ‘Well, what do you think?’” Joseph says when he presented the song to his musical foil/bestie Josh Dun. When Joseph was worried about the response to the Blurryface track “Lane Boy” (where he was taking on the music industry in no uncertain terms), it was Dun who greenlit the idea.
“It’s not a song where you listen to it once and say, ‘OK, this is where I land.’ It’s something you have to kinda live with for a little bit, talk about and bounce off of other people—give it oxygen and let it breathe.
“So while it’s sitting there in Josh’s brain, I’m waiting to hear from him. Ultimately, if he says, ‘This is not coming off correctly or I think we should be worried about this not being perceived right,’ I would know that’s it. For him to live with it and come back and say, ‘I get behind this,’ is what I needed to hear.”
“I think we have always kind of seen eye-to-eye on a lot of different subjects,” says Dun, when asked what he thought when Joseph presented him with the lyrics. “From political things to spiritual things. Which is why I think we started getting along right away. Like Tyler says, there can be sensitivity within those kinds of things so I want to find a balance between something that’s just not too sensitive but not too extreme. [The song] is something that I sat with for a bit, but I think that it’s kind of bold—and I like that.”
“I think we have always kind of seen eye-to-eye on a lot of different subjects. From political things to spiritual things. Which is why I think we started getting along right away. —Josh Dun
The song is a meditation on those people who choose to end their lives by their own hands. While the duo are recognized for their ability to couch strong emotional platitudes in perfect pop hooks, they’ve never gotten as dark as this.
Listeners’ reactions may kneejerk to accusing Joseph of being massively insensitive to victims’ stories (the hypothetical rap with lines like, “I’ll mourn for a kid/but won’t cry for a king” and “I’m not disrespecting what was left behind/just pleading that it does not get glorified”) and the circumstances that brought them to those sad and tragic conclusions. Others may consider what he’s conveying with regards to solutions.
“The idea of self-harm, depression, suicide,” he begins, “I’d like to believe that there are multiple ways to approach it and talk about it. This angle that ‘Neon Gravestones’ is talking about is one that I haven’t heard much of and wanted because I know that’s what I’d respond to as a challenge.
“I think at some point, ‘We hear you and we are here for you and we understand you’...” his voice trails off, “There’s a point where that doesn’t help. And what’s the opposite of that? That’s a challenge to step up and defeat something. To win.”
“I think at some point, ‘We hear you and we are here for you and we understand you—there’s a point where that doesn’t help. And what’s the opposite of that? That’s a challenge to step up and defeat something. To win.” —Tyler Joseph
Joseph cites his life growing up around his parents, who coached basketball for various schools. He says that while there are certain ways to advise and empower people in certain specific age groups, “but even then, you can’t break it down as ‘you should coach middle-schoolers this way and high schoolers this way and coach collegiate athletes this way.’
“Each person responds to certain things in certain ways,” he continues. “Inside that is realizing there is a challenge and trying to rise to that. With me and some other people, we do respond to this. When you realize, ‘I respond positively to this call to action, as well,’ then in a whole other way, you come to realize [you’re] not alone. But you didn’t need me to realize, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ You find out in a more organic way.”
At the end of the song, Joseph suggests to spend some time talking to people who are older than you. Listen to their stories of survival and love of life, in the hopes of getting some answers. (“Find your grandparents or someone of age/Pay some respects for the path that they paved/To life they were dedicated/Now that should be celebrated”) To this day, the singer finds solace and power in the cover photo of TOP’s 2013’s major-label debut Vessel, where both his and Dun’s grandfathers—who have since passed away—represent the promise of a full life.
“Those are two guys that we looked up to for seeing life all the way through,” says Joseph. “And that’s the kind of thing I see motivating and encouraging. It’s something I look at for inspiration on those moments where I don’t want to move on or if I don’t think that I can.”
“I am hopeful that people know what I’m trying to say,” he says. “Because it’s potentially hurtful, potentially harmful, potentially offensive, potentially…” he pauses to re-collect his thoughts. “I’m singing what I would want to hear and what I do need to hear. And I feel like there is a group of people like me who will respond to a challenge and respond with a little bit of conflict and a win/loss mentality. I know if someone challenged me with that, I would get behind that. I would be inspired by that and get excited by that—and that approach would help me.”
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting GO to 741741.