Twenty One Pilots Gave Me Something To Hold On To

Vocalist Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots at Revention Music Center in October 2015
Vocalist Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots at Revention Music Center in October 2015
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
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In March 2013, a good friend of mine died of suicide. His name was Jared, and he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. My friends and I were stunned. Jared was well-liked, gainfully employed and always came across as a genuinely happy guy. Beneath all that, he was hurting and none of us saw it.

Personally, I spent an unhealthy amount of time wondering if there was something I could have done. Did I overlook signs? Were there cries for help? I missed the last phone call he made to me, and it took me a long time to forgive myself for that. If there was any blame to be placed, I was sure that at least some of it was on me.

A few months after Jared’s death, another friend made a Spotify playlist for me. On it was a song called “Holding On To You” by a band I’d never heard of: Twenty One Pilots. It spoke to me. Vocalist Tyler Joseph rapped and sang of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He spoke to his demons, not as an invading horde to be defeated but more as a fundamental piece of himself to be reckoned with.

The band’s major-label debut, Vessel, further explored these themes. It walked the line between angst and hopefulness, providing me with an outlet for my despair while simultaneously lifting my spirits. It was an essential record for me during that point in my life.

Vessel made me think about everything Jared had been going through and how none of his friends saw it. Through the band’s lyrics, I was able to better collect my own feelings about my departed friend and, in some ways, I even heard his voice in Joseph’s lyrics.

“While you’re doing fine / There’s some people and I / Who have a really tough time / Getting through this life / So excuse us while we sing to the sky.”

In November of that year, Twenty One Pilots visited House of Blues and cemented my fandom. Five years later, the band is scheduled to perform at the Toyota Center in front of nearly 20,000 concertgoers. Watching the band grow and share their message of optimism through dark inklings has given me hope for people like Jared who wrestle with mental unrest.

Some critics have argued that Twenty One Pilots’ music romanticizes mental illness, but I just don’t hear it. Joseph himself addressed that criticism on his latest album, Trench, which was released in early October to critical acclaim.

“Don’t get me wrong, the rise in awareness / Is beating a stigma that no longer scares us / But could it be true that some could be tempted / To use this mistake as a form of aggression / I'm not disrespecting what was left behind / Just pleading that it does not get glorified.”

Twenty One Pilots aren’t above reproach, of course. Their music won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s fine. But the band was there for me during a dark time in my life, and I’m glad so many others have been able to find solace in their lyrics as well. Like all art, their music is subjective. But the band’s rise is proof that its message is resonating with a lot of folks, and for that I’m grateful.

Because Twenty One Pilots will always remind me of Jared, but they also bring to mind all the people who are still struggling. Jared was much more than his end, and I’ll remember him for his compassion, intelligence, honesty and humor. But he kept his sadness hidden, and I really wish he hadn’t.

Fans of Twenty One Pilots, meanwhile, can lean into those feelings and challenge them head on. Compared to suffering in silence, confrontation seems like a pretty healthy alternative. Because sometimes, quiet is violent.

Twenty One Pilots, AWOLNATION and Max Frost are scheduled to perform at 6 p.m. (doors open) on November 6 at Toyota Center 1510 Polk. For information, call 866-446-8849 or visit houstontoyotacenter.com, $39.50-$79.50.

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