I originally wanted this post to be about the music of twenty one pilots, and how their themes of mental health and depression are expressed very differently than how most pop artists approach them. This idea presented a problem, though, because I’m not sure I could classify the band as being 100% pop. But by thinking about which genre they should belong to, I had to dig a little into how they and their fans describe the music.
Twenty one pilots use such a wide variety of instruments and musical forms that it’s difficult to assign them to a particular genre, though they are usually clumped into ‘alternative.’ I felt that this was too broad a description, so I kept looking for the right word or phrase to use.
I came across the label “schizophrenic pop” on their Wikipedia page. “People typically have trouble affiliating the band to a specific genre to describe them, since they bridge so many. However, many fans (and themselves to a degree) have labeled their genre as “Schizophrenic pop” (also known as Schizoid pop), a technically unofficial subgenre of pop.” A quick search for the phrase brought up an Urban Dictionary entry about the indie-pop sub genre being started by twenty one pilots, as very few others have been associated with the phrase at all.
I hadn’t heard those words used to describe them before, and at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the label. Following the sources provided for this information only led me to the twenty one pilots official website and an interview from an Ohio University radio station interview in 2012. The band website actually says nothing about genre, and the only mention of it in the interview is when drummer Josh Dun says that they have no specific genre that they strive for: “Our manager calls us ‘pop-rock-piano-rap,’ which fits us but is a mouthful. If you can think of one and send it to us, we’ll roll with it.” Frontman Tyler Joseph then said, “I’m tied to melody. I don’t care what genre it is, if it catches my ear, then there must be something good about it,” when describing his genre-melding (WOUB 2012).
That was before twenty one pilots signed to the label Fueled By Ramen later that same year. Their goal was to sign with someone who would give them control of their own music, which they seemed to have succeeded at. But even after they were committed to the Atlantic Records subsidiary, it was hard to pin down what their genre actually was.
The search for the phrase “schizophrenic pop” brought up a couple of other reactions to the term. Writer Chris DeVille from Ohio blog Columbus Alive claims to have coined the phrase in one of his interviews from 2012. His most recent revue of their second album asserts that front man Tyler Joseph “favored” the description, though there’s no proof that the band members have accepted or still accept this arguably controversial name. Many fans seem to grasp its problematic nature, as I’ve encountered multiple forum posts condemning the term.
My own reason for hesitating to use “schizophrenic” or “schizoid pop” as a legitimate genre was similar to other fans’ reasons, which were due to its connotations about mental health. The term schizoid is used to describe a person with a personality disorder such as schizophrenia. Most of the definitions I’ve found are relating to the fact that a person with such a disorder would be marked by passivity, dissociation and withdrawal from society, and an indifference to criticism or praise.
To me, this description did not feel accurate enough for twenty one pilots, since their music feels much more genuine and emotional, making their audiences feel like they are not alone in their struggles.
Using the term “schizoid” also makes me uncomfortable, as it has negative connotations about A) anyone who actually struggles with schizophrenia or B) anyone who struggles at all with their mental health. Using this term basically says that anyone who experiences the same kind of mental issues expressed in the music is a crazy person. This thought is a hard thing for me to swallow as someone who has witnessed loved ones struggle with both anxiety and depression. This makes me think that whoever came up with the phrase didn’t think about all of its implications.
In his 2016 Rolling Stone article about the band, Andy Green addressed that twenty one pilots “are one of the hardest-to-categorize hit acts in years,” since they mix “angsty lyrics, Macklemore-style rhymes, Ben Folds-like piano pop, 311-ish reggae beats, hard-rock energy and the occasional ukulele ballad.” When Tyler talks about genre in this particular interview, he says that they felt pressure to label themselves one way or the other. “People would tell me all the time, ‘you can’t be all things to everyone.’ I would say, ‘I’m not trying to be! I’m being what I want to be for myself’” (Rolling Stone 2016).
One of their songs from their second album, Blurryface, addresses this struggle when Tyler sings, “They say ‘stay in your lane boy’/ But we go where we want to.”
The fact that twenty one pilots have ever referred to themselves as “schizoid pop” is still unproven as far as I’m concerned. From every interview I’ve ever seen or read, the band tends to shy away from picking a particular genre because they don’t want to limit themselves. The best I could come up with is “emo synth-hop,” a mixture of emo/punk rock, synth pop, and hip-hop. But even then, it doesn’t quite touch on the complexity of their musical styles because they’re far more than just a pop band singing about sad stuff. They address heavy topics in a way that tells their fans that they are not alone.