On 21 Pilots and transcending coolness

There’s nothing memorable about “Madden 16,” with its over-designed cutscenes and main menus distracting you from a lazy reskin of the same game they’ve been feeding us for decades at this point. But I’ll never forget the heavily reverbed wubs that filled my basement speakers when I booted the game up for the first time, which swirled away to reveal an electrifying drum line that sparked one of the most electrifying hooks I’ve heard in my life. At that very moment, there was no Madden, PS4, football, couch, or lukewarm slice of pizza, just a singular desire to find out what exactly I was listening to. I didn’t even know that there was a whole app dedicated to tracking songs, so I Shazamed the old-fashioned way: swapping my controller for a pen to frantically scribble the lyrics down– precious search terms that would be the key to my next musical hyperobsession. As I silently read the title and artist of this musical masterpiece, my heart sank as quickly as it rose: 

“heavydirtysoul” by… TWENTY-ONE PILOTS!??!?!

This revitalized cool-kid persona I’ve spent the better half of the summer constructing in an elaborate scheme to vault myself into my middle school’s social elite? Dead on arrival. No amount of obnoxiously colorful Nike Elite Basketball socks could cover the stench of a whole 21 Pilots enjoyer. The mere association with such an artist would put me in a league with a bunch of angsty ring-wearing, anime-enjoying WEIRDOS. While I would’ve loved to tell you that this fast-tracked some radical transformation where I would shed my gratuitously over-the-top facade to reveal the angsty ring-wearing, anime-enjoying weirdo I would eventually become, that’s only partially true. 

I was offered an auditory glimpse into what my heart wanted and a future that, I would incessantly reassure my middle school self if I could, isn’t as bad as it sounds. But instead of dropping my controller and loading up Twenty-One Pilot’s extended discography for a transformative, prophecy-fulfilling listening session, I discreetly saved “heavydirtysoul” into my library before diving into the meaningless malaise of virtually forcing a virtual ball from one side of the virtual field to the other, entranced by the insidious sway of peer pressure. Though I didn’t exactly have an army of neon-lacrosse-short-clad pre-teens physically side-eyeing me from across the room as I was losing my shit to a cardinal sin of Commack’s coolness clergy, I could almost taste their axe-body-spray-scented judgment. 

It’s kind of like the evil version of when you’re trying to advance into a restricted area in “Pokémon,” but you haven’t completed the proper quests, gained enough gym badges, or strengthened your party of pocket monsters to a certain level. So you’re physically prevented from advancing as some thought bubble flashes across the screen that’s attributed to some NPC making some vague ass excuse for halting your progress like “there’s a time and place for everything but not now.” 

But where the extrinsic mental barriers in Pokémon are mechanisms for maintaining the narrative and power-scaling integrity of the gameplay itself, the extrinsic barriers from your false idols, whether it be the fastest kid in your 9am Thursday gym class who manages to spend lunchtime with a different girl every week or the obnoxiously pretentious music snob in that one music publication you were peer-pressured into joining who won’t shut up about lofi hip hop beats, can reduce the integrity of your distinct personal voice into one that aspires to nothing more than their cheap, dollar store copy. At least Professor Oak gifted you with a rare starter Pokémon. 

Nowadays, it feels like these invisible, pressures are becoming more and more manifest, as they’ve been socially commodified year after year. Spotify Wrapped is dope and all as a nifty walk down your musical memory lane, but the incessant posting and reposting of these Wrapped summaries on social media (which some critics bemoan as “the worst day on Instagram”) have devolved into something of a ranked competitive metagame for music tastes. Various playstyles have cropped up ranging from looping a specific playlist overnight to the selective exploitation of the “private listening session” feature. But that collection of heavily distorted neo-psychedelic farts you’ve been looping in your sleep is gonna get you as far as my Nike-Adidas-Under-Armour-branded unicorn-barf of a wardrobe got me in middle school. You better enjoy your five seconds of fabricated fame while it lasts because it won’t be long until you ask the wrong person who their favorite member of Tame Impala is (not knowing it’s actually one guy!) or realize that the reason those cool kids called you “Yao” wasn’t because they were trying to learn the Chinese version of your last name, but because they reduced you to an analog for that other freakishly tall-Asian dude they saw on TV the other day. And sure, the shame of being someone you’re not will sting for a bit, but there’s nothing more freeing than realizing that exactly what you were running from is what you’ll end up chasing. The pursuit of cool just doesn’t seem that cool anymore when it becomes the enemy of self-actualization. 

So what if I resonated with “Stressed Out” on a deeper personal level than the entirety of Kendrick Lamar’s Jazz-rap magnum opus “To Pimp A Butterfly?” So what if I cried to “Tear in My Heart” just as many times as I did to Tyler, the Creator’s ode to unrequited love, “GONE GONE/THANK YOU?” So what if the entirety of my Twenty-One Pilots obsession entirely hinges upon the three songs that I’ve mentioned throughout this winded-ass word vomit? From this point forward, feel free to add Twenty-One Pilots Casual® to the long list of personal descriptors that’ll make my middle-school self puke all over his hideous limited-edition blue and orange elephant-printed Air Jordan 31s.

Feature graphic by William Yuk

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