Today I’m writing about the hugely popular recording “Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots, why it is successful as music, and why so many people love it. As with everything I write on this site, my basis is this principle of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
“Stressed Out” succeeds, as I see it, because it delightfully puts together the opposites of tension and ease, complaint and joy — also boldness and uncertainty, or boldness and modesty. Don’t we want these opposites to be beautifully, sensibly together in our lives? Of course! We like this music (or any really good music) because it does what we want to do.
The song is basically one long complaint by a young man about how hard life is and how he longs for the “good old days” of his childhood. But it is done with humor, with rhythm and energy — in such a way that makes it likable.
Coupled with this is a deeper, more legitimate complaint that so many young people today have. That is, when they come of age they are saddled with student debt, have a hard time finding good paying jobs, and even so, don’t like the basis on which they are asked to work — to make profit for somebody else. They have a hard time feeling they can have a purpose in their lives they can honestly like. And as a result, they’re “stressed out.” This isn’t said explicitly, but it’s implied.
The song is an interesting mingling of hip-hop, electronic pop and reggae. Singer and songwriter Tyler Joseph starts out by complaining about how hard it is to write a song, then ends up complaining that now that he’s older he’s “insecure and cares what people think.” Then we get to the refrain, “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think,” indicating, I suppose, the pain of a person so concerned about what others think that he has no identity of his own — he has a “blurry” face. Then we hear the grand, sweeping, anthem-like chorus about longing for “the good old days when our mama sang us to sleep/But now we’re stressed out.” Listen:
As a fortunate man who is grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism about how harmful it has been to my life to use the comfort I got from my mother to see the world as harsh and unfriendly, I am certainly not recommending the sentiments expressed in this song. What I am saying is that these complaints are presented with a form that makes them pleasing and that, in fact, constitutes a criticism of those very sentiments.
What Art Says about Conflict in Life
In a great class taught at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City called The Opposites in Music, we recently studied music in relation to the landmark work by Eli Siegel, “The Aesthetic Method in Self Conflict,” a chapter of his book, Self and World. In that work, Mr. Siegel shows greatly that the deepest conflicts affecting people every day are aesthetic matters, and that the resolution to those conflicts can be found in the technique of art. For example, he writes about a man he calls Harold Jamison:
Look at Jamison. He is shy and he is arrogant; in fact, he is like most people. Sometimes, Jamison looks at himself and finds a person who is timid, wants to evade people, thinks people don’t like him; is unassertive and inferior. At other times, Jamison is raring to go, feels like an excited regiment, like a dozen energetic lions up to something…
The question Jamison and other people face is: Can, in one mind, feelings represented by superiority exist with feelings represented by inferiority? Can we be both humble and bold at 3:30 PM Tuesday? — Only art shows that the answer is, Yes.
As I said, I believe a large reason “Stressed Out” has been so extremely popular is that, in very likable ways, it puts together these opposites of boldness and humility. Also, opposites related to boldness and humility — definiteness and vagueness.
Vague and Definite
The song opens with very indefinite sliding sounds, produced probably by a synthesizer in sets of three: “buh-um, buh-um, buh-um.” The bass notes hover and hum in a sort of ominous way, which, together with the sliding quality, gives a feeling of swampy indefiniteness. Then there are the spooky, twilight zone-ish, high-pitched, echo-y sounds that come floating in from time to time. You get a sense already of a person feeling aimless, unsure.
But the fact that these sliding sounds land so precisely on the first and third beats of a measure and then on the first beat of the following measure (and this pattern repeats) makes them also quite definite, bold, confident. The drums likewise anchor this introduction, accenting the second and fourth beats of each measure. Subtle intervening organ chords give the whole groove a reggae feel, which also lends a kind of jaunty confidence. The overall effect is one of ominous vagueness together with a feeling of sureness, direction, purpose. Here’s that intro:
Now the singer complains about how unsure he is of himself; about how he’s “insecure and cares what people think,” and here he’s like Jamison who sometimes, Mr. Siegel writes, “is timid, wants to evade people, thinks people don’t like him; is unassertive and inferior.” But even here, amidst all this uncertainty and unsureness, the words are said with a very orderly rhythm. He is definite about what he’s unsure about, and together with the drums, we feel a very reliable structure. And tell me if you don’t find humor in his pathetic, self-pitying voice.
Then the refrain: “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.” The melody here — is it downcast or lightsome? The way it descends at the end can seem downcast, but there is also something lovely, buoyant, about it. Meanwhile, the music accompanying this refrain floats even more eerily than before, seeming to represent a self that is drifting all over the place. Yet again, it is all contained securely within that very sure, bold beat.
The Purpose Everyone Is Aiming for
I believe this song is trying to get at something much deeper than just pining away for one’s childhood. In fact, Tyler Joseph said in an interview, about his point of view as a songwriter:
I feel that humans are struggling all the time when it comes to purpose, trying to figure out what their purpose is…justifying your own existence. A lot of kids and people my age struggle with “What’s the point?”
I hope Tyler Joseph and the whole generation of people he is representing in this song will soon learn of Aesthetic Realism and its explanation that the deepest purpose of everyone’s life is to like the world. He could also learn that in the very structure of this recording, he and his musical partner Josh Dun are illustrating, however unconsciously, what liking the world means. The chorus that follows is at once soothing and sour, advancing and retreating, nebulous and exact — and as such stands for a world in which these opposites are one and that therefore can be liked.
Floating, spreading synthesizer notes accompany Joseph’s voice as he grows grandly nostalgic on the words “Wish we could turn back time to the good old days/ When our mama sang…” Then the melody gets more tortuous and sour on the words, “…us to sleep but now we’re stressed out,” ending on a really uncomfortable note. When these lines are repeated, drums, instruments and voices come in with more crashing force, once again bringing a definite anchor — and also impetus — to all this floating uncertainty and self-pity. The accompaniment gets bold, like (to use Eli Siegel’s words), “a dozen energetic lions up to something.” And then, with the repeat of the words “We’re stressed out,” things spread out once again.
In “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” Mr. Siegel writes:
If a person is unable to do something, or if he doesn’t know something, and he knows this neatly, definitely, he will not feel inferior in the morbid sense. He would feel at least he knew himself; and would be proud of that. In other words, in yielding to the facts about himself courageously, truly, there would be a self-approval.
Something approaching this happens in “Stressed Out,” because all this inferiority and self-doubt is being boldly, energetically expressed in this very rhythmic, organized structure. With all the complaining, there’s something strangely celebratory about it. In a lesson he gave to a rock musician during the 1960s, Eli Siegel explained the essence of rock and roll. He showed that rock, by its very nature, opposes the desire of a person to be hidden, by taking the inner, secret anguish of a person and putting it out there for all to see and hear with lively, energetic form. “Rock and roll does show,” he said ” that the opposites are very much in motion, and that people are trying to be proud of their pain, not be skulking about it.”
Can We Like How We’re Sure and Unsure?
I’m grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that the hope to have contempt for the world and people is what has given rise to both fake inferiority and fake superiority in me. As I have liked the world more — and instead of hoping to look down on people, as I have hoped to respect them more — I feel so much prouder of how sureness and unsureness are in me. This is a study I recommend to everyone.
In this song, sureness and unsureness are made one. In the second verse, the singer (well, you can’t really call it singing — it’s rap or hip-hop) goes on about a certain smell that reminds him of his childhood. Then he gets back to that conflict between childhood — a time, he says, when “nothing really mattered” — and the pressures of adult life, with the culminating line:
Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the ladder (latter).
The desperate whine in Joseph’s voice also has energy, rhythm, and humor that make it not just unsure but also bold, confident. Beneath this complaint, piano notes likewise sound both wandering and purposeful. Following the verse, the “Blurryface” refrain and the “stressed out” chorus both come around again in their turn.
The next section of the song takes on more urgency. With staccato synthesizer-notes accompanying the singer’s rapid-fire syllables, he tells that he and his friends “used to play pretend” that they were flying in rocket ships. But, he tells:
We used to dream of outer space, now they’re laughing at our face, saying,
“Wake up, you need to make money!”
And while that last line is sung and almost shouted by multiple voices with such ferocity, it also provides the release of humor. I think it is valuable to remember that many of the same people who care for this song and have downloaded it by the millions are people who also responded to the recent campaign of Bernie Sanders. In caring for both, there is a sense: “There must be a better, more likable means for me to conduct my life than what I’ve been presented with so far.” The humor here is good.
In the very last section of the song, Tyler Joseph’s voice is electronically altered to sound heavier, darker, more foreboding as it reiterates and hammers home some of the same complaints that came before. But with all the ferocity, the feeling of lightsome humor continues.
As I’ve been showing, I believe the success of this recording comes from the way it puts together seriousness and humor, vagueness and definition, boldness and humility. And I believe that as such it can give people hope. As Eli Siegel wrote in the sentences I quoted earlier:
Can we be both humble and bold at 3:30 PM Tuesday? — Only art shows that the answer is, Yes.
This recording, I believe, gives some of the evidence. Here’s the remainder:
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org