Twenty One Pilots Fly Through a Perfect Set for the Millennial Music Fan

Twenty One Pilots
Honda Center, Anaheim
Feb. 16, 2017

Right after the curtains dropped onstage and Twenty One Pilots barrelled through “Heavydirtysoul,” the first song of their Emotional Roadshow Tour, I looked back at the crowd. A teenager with green hair was so overwrought with emotion she was crying, but she instead of directing her energy toward the masked men — singer and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun — she was documenting her tears with a selfie.

Sign of the times, indeed.

Maybe winning a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance last week upped TOP’s cache, but they’ve been THE millenial band since their fourth album, Blurryface, came out in 2015, and the song “Heathens,” from the soundtrack of Suicide Squad, made them bonafide hitmakers. Joseph and Dun commanded the stage fully last night at the Honda Center, never needing much more than the drums and bongos, the piano, the ukelele and a mic to elicit ear splitting screams from audiences.

I doubt that any other band in existence is more of this era than Twenty One Pilots — or TOP, as their fans call them. Their music, their aesthetic, their audience, their lyrics, their mannerisms are all #micdrops #concertfilters #unironiccovers #tubthumpinginearnest #tbt #futurememes #futurelikes.

You can hear the super-obvious pop antecedents in each one of their songs, for example. It’s like Twenty One Pilots grew up listening to a playlist of all the best songs ever made throughout history on random, and that’s what informed their sound. Sublime (“The Judge”). The Police (“Lane Boy”). Eminem (“Car Radio”). The Killers (“Tear in My Heart”). Calvin Harris (“Doubt”). Coldplay (“Tree”). You can hear traces of all these bands in their songs — and oddly enough, it’s not a turn-off. This is post-genre America, after all. Maybe this is what growing up with iPods and playlists instead of albums has turned us into.(And nothing made that more obvious than when,  TOP brought out their opening acts Jon Bellion and Judah and the Lion to play a medley of 1990s hits ranging from “Tubthumping” to “No Diggety” to House of Pain’s “Jump Around”)

The duo straddles a fine line between derivative schlock and and genre-bending innovation. TOP’s songs have been dubbed “schizoid pop;” they’re hard to categorize and move from reggae to rock to rap in seamless ADD movements. It works better for their songs than for their concert gimmickry, however. Ski masks? Pussy Riot did it better and sexier. Dun surfed through the audience in a giant plastic bubble … but Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips did that first, 12 years ago. If the sound is schizoid, so is their aesthetic.

Still, again, it’s hard to dislike them. For one thing, Dun and Joseph are a super-tight band. No sloppy mistakes, no unpolished maneuvers (down to Dun’s backflips onstage). For another, because they’ve been touring Blurryface for a while, every costume change and venue change was precise to the second. At the Honda Center, the production was a well-oiled crowd pleaser. Call and response on ukulele rocker “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV”? Check. Multi-stage production that allowed audiences to get different selfie angles? Check. Magical moves from stage to the rafters? Check. Drummer Dun vs. video drummer Dun drum-off? Check. 

It’s also really hard to dislike them because of the crowd — the audience ranged from 5-year-olds to many, many tweens and their parents, to college kids. Everyone was super well-behaved, and the screams were earnestly happy, and squeaky clean. There wasn’t a mosh-pit (maybe kids today are afraid of losing their phones while moshing?). But everyone sang along, danced and enjoyed themselves — even jaded music journalists like me. And, full disclosure: I’d never heard of TOP until my 14-year-old godson said it was his favorite band. So I brought him along as my +1, and watching him enjoy the show was the best part of my whole experience.

So maybe it’s too much to hope for a post-racial America. But a post-genre America, where Twenty One Pilots reign supreme? That’s something I can get behind. Maybe this is what true harmony is supposed to sound like, anyway.

1, Heavydirtysoul (with “Fairly Local” intro)
2. Migraine
3. Hometown
4. Message Man / Polarize
5. Heathens
6. House of Gold / We Don’t Believe What’s On TV
7. Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley cover)
8. Screen / The Judge
9. Lane Boy

10. Ode to Sleep
11. Addict with a Pen
12. Cancer (My Chemical Romance cover)

13. Josh Drum Battle
14. Holding on to You
15. Tubthumping (Chumbawamba cover)
16. No Diggity (Blackstreet cover)
17. Where Is the Love? (The Black Eyed Peas cover)
18. Jump Around (House of Pain cover)
19. Ride
20. Stressed Out
21. Guns for Hands
22. Tear in My Heart
23. Car Radio

24. Goner
25. Trees

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