There was a time when people suffering from depression or anxiety fought the battle in silence. In an effort to adhere to contemporary capitalist culture, talk of mental illness was kept to a minimum. These days, the conversation is much more relaxed thanks to social media. The bravery of talking about mental illness is applauded and encouraged instead of hidden in secrecy. And rightfully so. But it was only a matter of time before this new found freedom was monetized.
Now our culture is over-saturated with emotional and mental health. From memes and pop songs to TV shows and movies, mental awareness is aimed directly at young people who may or may not deal with depression or anxiety on a daily basis. Raising awareness is extremely crucial to education and growth. However, there’s a thin line between awareness and exploitation.
Society is being conditioned to feel unhealthy as if its the new normal.
As a listener of many styles of music (and a teenager once myself) I know all too well the comfort in alienation and awkwardness. I even recently wrote an article correlating my self-proclaimed weirdness with my love for the Misfits. In my early 20s, I was a fan of Taking Back Sunday and Brand New, two bands who wore their sadness like armor. Us fans would sing along to lyrics like “To Hell with you and all your friends” like battle-cries and it was liberating. But even reveling in our sadness we knew we’d eventually get older, outgrow the feeling, and get on with our lives. When those bands romanticized depression, it was in a self-aware, superficial way. If you were actually depressed, you could relate. If you weren’t battling mental illness, you could relate. These days, that’s not really the case.
At the center of glamorizing depression is Twenty One Pilots. Over the past decade, the Ohio duo has 5 albums themed about the difficulties of growing up.
Obviously Twenty One Pilots are extremely popular among teenagers who deal with social anxieties. While not being among the core demographic, I’ve listened to all of their albums and seen them live once. My most viewed article (and one of the most viewed at this publication) is a tongue-in-cheek negative review of their remix album Mediocre At Best. In that article, I exaggerate my disdain for the band and poke fun at the toxicity of their fandom. Even though the review was negative, my opinion remains undeterred. In any event, Twenty-One Pilots are not the first or only band to exploit mental illness but they clearly take no issue with utilizing it for financial gain.
With the latest album Trench, Twenty-One Pilots have crafted a loose concept album about escaping a fictional dystopian city called Dema. It’s a unique idea and something I could get behind. As a matter of fact, I was hoping my preconceptions were wrong and Trench would be a good album. Comparatively, it’s the most cohesive Twenty-One Pilots record to date. But my problem lies within the superficial execution.
Using a dystopian city as a metaphor for mental illness is an obvious choice if predictable. But it works well to establish the universe of Trench.
Unfortunately, every song Tyler Joseph has ever written follows a very distinct formula. While typically not my thing, I understand how some younger listeners may feel empowered by Twenty One Pilots brand. Some have gone as far as claiming Twenty One Pilots have saved or at least had a profound effect on their lives. Sadly, as dense as I find their music, it makes me wonder if their allegiance is the result of good marketing or America’s obsession with depression.
When you think about modern pop stars and characters in TV shows or movies, they all have one thing in common. They’re mostly Byronic in nature. Sad and mysterious yet exceptionally intelligent and all-knowing. These characters are interesting because they lead difficult lives and we identify with their struggles. It just feels more attractive to be brooding than being what society insists is normal.
When depressive characters become our role models, we’re subscribing to the notion that we can’t be interesting unless we’ve been hurt.
In addition to looking up to introverts and the socially awkward, we feed our own insecurities. Almost as if we’re self-diagnosing a mental illness to justify the mood we might be in. This is not to say mental disorders are non-existent by any means. More often than not, people are fighting an inner demon that keeps them from being truly happy. Mental illness isn’t fun. Depression isn’t beautiful. Personality disorders aren’t quirky. Relating to someone or something can be a healthy step in progress, but it’s also important to monitor how these people or things are making us feel.
While on social media, you’ve probably come across some sepia tone photo of a crying girl with a flowery caption like Depression doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’ve been strong for too long. Not only is this more appealing than I have a problem and need help, but it just sounds cooler. As if waving a flag of tragedy makes you more interesting and alluring. With so much emphasis put on the alleged beauty, romanticizing your feelings becomes easier than trying to get better.
Making something horrible as mental illness seem beautiful is a dreadful mishandling and extremely serious.
Twenty One Pilots, Trench takes an odd turn early on with the song “Neon Gravestones”. Twenty One Pilots tackle the would-be controversial topic of celebrity suicides. Despite being the most well-crafted track on the record, any attempt at lyrical competence is undermined by insensitivity masked as good intention. Throughout the song, singer/songwriter Tyler Joseph flirts with the idea of celebrities committing suicide for popularity. As clueless as that sounds, he takes it a step further by insinuating non-celebrities often commit suicide for attention. I feel it’s insensitive to make such accusations since Twenty One Pilots are held to such high regard by younger listeners. Even if the word ‘suicide’ is never said. Not to mention Joseph’s entire career has been based around romanticizing mental illness.
The crux of the problem is the lack of sensitivity to those who actually live with depression and suicidal thoughts. Appropriation is demonstrative of privileged demographics trying to make something their own. By their logic, being sad means having depression or being shy means having social anxiety. Due to their genre-hopping nature, Twenty One Pilots themselves are often labeled as Schizoid Pop. Schizoid is the term used to describe a person who suffers from schizophrenia. Using it to describe a pop record seems disrespectful and ignorant.
This isn’t an issue exclusive to Twenty One Pilots. These guys have a dedicated fanbase and clearly mean something to a lot of people.
But after nearly a decade in the game, Twenty One Pilots do next to nothing in terms of offering a solution. It’s apparent Tyler Joseph understands how depression works and he’s aware his fans (who are mostly children) look up to him but now what? Any words of wisdom? How about something positive listeners can apply to their lives being they’re vital to the Twenty One Pilots machine. Unfortunately, even the lack of answers and cryptic puzzles feel cold and calculated. Essentially, this neglective aspect is part of their marketing push. Hey kids! Stay depressed and lonely but stay alive! We’ll see you on the tour!
All negative opinions aside, I do think Trench inadvertently sparks the conversation about how and what we consume in media. Sometimes its healthy to step back and look at things objectively and wonder how we’re projecting mental illness. Why subscribe to something that only amplifies your sadness or aggression without offering a solution? More importantly, is your support system supporting you? The next time you feel a wave of uncontrollable sadness, perhaps you should turn the pop record off and talk to someone who’s willing to talk back. Someone who understands people are beautiful and mental illness isn’t.
For more information on reaching out for emotional support, please visit The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.