Skeleton Clique

Yellow Square: The Chainsmokers, Twenty-One Pilots & Stan Culture

On July 19th, the Chainsmokers tweeted an image of a yellow square with the caption “Ready for some new music,” followed by a tiger emoji. It was a slightly obtuse way of promoting their next song, particularly for a group that had dropped its most recent singles with very little in the way of build-up, but the meaning was clear. You might expect that most of the people reading this tweet would be fans of the Chainsmokers, and would therefore respond to this announcement with enthusiasm or at least moderate interest — and if one of these people ran a blog where they wrote almost exclusively about the Chainsmokers, you might expect that they would feel a nearly spiritual sense of relief at having something new to discuss.1

If you read the responses to this tweet, however, you’ll see that the tenor of the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering what a divisive band the Chainsmokers are, but we’re not talking about generalized criticism from the public at large. There are nearly two thousand replies to this tweet, and it isn’t just that most of those people are upset, it’s that they’re all upset about the same thing.

The top reply to the tweet reads as follows: “Then they’re going to release songs named Swimsuit and Rico And The bikers, New album name is gon be called Hench [sic].” This has tweet has received 821 retweets, over 4,500 likes and 37 mostly adulatory replies. It is also completely incomprehensible to roughly 99.9% of the human population.2 To understand this tweet takes both extreme dedication and an arguably misguided sense of curiosity, but doing so brings you a step closer to understanding what might be the driving force of internet culture in 2018.

A closer look at this confusing tweet and the melange of memes and snarky replies that follow reveals that nearly everyone involved in the conversation has some reference, whether in their username or their Twitter avatar, identifying them as fans of the alternative hip-hop/indie rock group Twenty-One Pilots. Twenty-One Pilots is a group currently consisting of two members: lead singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, but the band has existed in some form for nearly ten years. They’ve been intermittently successful throughout their existence, but most people would only know them as the group behind “Stressed Out,” “Ride” and of course “Heathens”, which bears the unique honor of being the least-objectionable song on the Suicide Squad soundtrack.3

“Stressed Out” in particular was a massive hit, a song that clearly struck a chord with a wide array of people who feel besieged by the difficulties of adulthood and modern life, but maybe the most remarkable thing about it is that it’s a multi-platinum pop song that features the chorus “My name is Blurryface and I care what you think.” I can’t imagine what casual listeners made of this refrain, though it clearly didn’t bother anyone enough to stop them from buying the album. Anyone willing to use Google can confirm that “Blurryface,” aside from being the album that featured “Stressed Out” and “Ride,” is the name of a fictional character within the band’s songs that acts as a manifestation of Tyler Joseph’s fears and insecurities.

Blurryface isn’t exactly a concept album, in that there’s no real over-arching storyline or characters to follow, but the band is certainly dedicated their themes and iconography. Throughout the album’s entire release cycle (known by fans as “the Blurryface era”), Joseph and Dun wore coordinated outfits, which in Joseph’s case included bright red socks and black greasepaint that covered his hands and his neck. This is meant to be Joseph’s way of embodying the character of Blurryface, but again, there’s not a precise story being played out across the album; rather, the concepts and images surrounding the music seem designed to invite deeper investment from the listener. A song about feeling anxious and overwhelmed is one thing, but a song like that existing as part of a flesh-out world in which uncomfortable concepts can be engaged with on a semi-fictionalized level? That’s like catnip for burgeoning teenage obsessives. That’s the sort of thing that forms a lifelong bond between fan and artist.

It’s not hard to see why people, especially younger people, have become so invested in Twenty One Pilots.4 There are two reasons, one benign, one slightly more sinister. The first is their aforementioned dedication to iconography and concept: not only does this create a more exciting and involving environment in which fans can experience the group’s music, it lends them an air of artistry that is often missing in massively-successful pop groups.

At the end of the Blurryface era — which was mostly wrapped up with the video for the album’s final single, “Heavydirtysoul”, memorably featuring a flaming car driving down a highway, but didn’t officially end until the final stop of their tour — the band went completely silent on social media for the better part of a year. Imagine what that must be like for a teenager in 2018, someone who had Instagram when they were eight years old. The idea of your favorite artist — hell, any artist — voluntarily shutting themselves off from the world like that? It would seem massive. It would really feel like the end of an era, not just in a band’s promotional cycle, but in your own life. This flair for the dramatic doesn’t quite reach the levels of someone like David Bowie or even Coheed & Cambria (get back to me when Joseph teams up with Peter David to write the Blurryface graphic novel), but it’s just enough to make the group stand out. As a fan, you’re no longer just listening passively listening to music, you’re going on a journey with a group of artists who are giving you work to actively interpret.

That’s the nice reason. The second reason is a little less pleasant, but it requires a lot less explanation: Blurryface is the first full-length album to have every track on it certified gold for the same reason that Eminem is the most successful rapper of all time. Twenty-One Pilots’ music is more stylistically diverse than Eminem’s, but at their core they’re a rap group made up of two upper-middle-class white guys from the Ohio suburbs. They make hip-hop music that is more palatable to racially-anxious white listeners, thereby opening themselves up to a level of success that no black artist could ever reach.

On a certain level, this is not their fault — it would certainly be ridiculous to hold Twenty-One Pilots to account for the deep-seated racism that permeates every facet of American life, and to be fair, they’re not claiming any sort of lived cultural experience outside of their own. But even this honesty can sometimes veer into unpleasant territory: on the song “Lane Boy,” a song about not having your artistic expression limited by the opinions of others, Joseph raps “I wasn’t raised in the hood/but I know a thing or two about pain and darkness,” a skin-crawlingly defensive sentiment that I think is meant to be read as defiant of industry trends5 but mostly has the effect of classifying pain of marginalized people as a subset of the more universal kind of human suffering that can affect anyone, regardless of their background.

In this moment, Joseph has appropriated an art form from another culture as his own and used it to implicitly minimize the very reasons for its existence, and this is to say nothing of the fact that this dude raps this line while walking around in black face-paint that comes up to his fucking chin. I don’t want to think that any of this is intentional — it’s most likely just born of the ignorance that is an inherent product of white privilege — but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.

And but so all this is to say that for a variety of reasons, the Twenty-One Pilots fandom (also known as the Skeleton Clique) is enormous, passionate, and from the beginning of the band’s hiatus in July 2017, exceptionally bored. There are certainly many things that a group of internet-savvy young adults could do with the free time they suddenly had, now that the objection of their obsession had temporarily vanished; perhaps some would even suggest that they try listening to a different band. Well, when the Chainsmokers released “Sick Boy” in January of this year, it became clear the that the Clique was listening, and they did not like what they heard.

Almost as soon as “Sick Boy” was released, the Clique accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off Twenty-One Pilots, and to their credit, it’s not much a reach; both “Sick Boy” and Twenty-One Pilots’ “Heathens” are dark and piano-driven, with distorted vocal harmonies and a thumping beat. We know that the Chainsmokers were looking for a new direction after Memories…Do Not Open, and “Sick Boy” was released nearly eighteen months after “Heathens,” so the timeline certainly checks out, and the fact that the Chainsmokers have never explicitly mentioned Twenty-One Pilots as an influence is certainly suspect.

Also, on a few occasions (most notably in The Chainsmokers: Memories), Andrew Taggart has made reference to the Sick Boy as a character of sorts, one that embodies the many anxieties he was feeling at this point in his career. It’s not enough for a lawsuit — you can’t copyright a vibe — but considering the Chainsmokers have borrowed ideas from other artist before (both openly and not-so-openly), there’s certainly enough evidence to convict them in the dreaded court of public opinion.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Two months later, when the music video for “Everybody Hates Me” was released, featuring scenes of the Taggart and Pall riding down the road and standing in front of a burning car, the Skeleton Clique once more made their displeasure known. Taking to Twitter in droves, Twenty-One Pilot fans accused the Chainsmokers of ripping off the video for “Heavydirtysoul”, and while you can certainly see where they’re coming from, the evidence is much weaker than it was in the case of “Sick Boy.” Twenty-One Pilots are far from the first band to make a music video featuring a combination of moving cars and flames — off the top of my head, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” both use this same imagery to greater effect than either artist — and while both videos were meant to represent the end of an era, the Chainsmokers blowing up a Range Rover, a vehicle they elevated to mythic status in the chorus of “Closer”, is still more clever than Twenty-One Pilots standing near a burning car, the model of which has no significance within their music.

Even still, you could forgive the Clique for being a little over-eager; after all, without any new Twenty-One Pilots content to occupy them, they needed to amuse themselves. But then, on July 11th, Twenty-One Pilots officially ended their hiatus, returning with two new songs (“Jumpsuit” and “Nico & The Niners”), the announcement of a upcoming album, and a first look at the imagery that would be the center of this new era. Whereas red and black were the primary colors of the “Blurryface” era, the iconography of the “Trench” era would be centered around the color yellow — a color which, when it appeared on the Chainsmokers twitter feed one week later would, ironically, make the Clique see red.

We have now, perhaps, come to a place of something close to understanding; understanding why hundreds of terminally-online fans of the band Twenty-One Pilots all descended on a single tweet by the Chainsmokers, accusing them of ripping off their idols simply on the basis of a single yellow block. Primed by one arguably legitimate critique, fueled by a second, less convincing incident, and stirred into a renewed fervor by the return of their favorite band, they all sought to call out a pair of (alleged) imitators for the (probably) imagined crime of wave-riding.

And yet, greater understanding eludes us still — or, I guess I should say, it eludes me. I understand what it is to be a fan of something. I even understand what it is to build a large portion of your identity around your fandom, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have to look far for examples: gamers who spend all of their free time attempting to perfect the fastest route through a particular game, cosplayers who devote untold hours to stitching together costumes so they can pose for pictures in convention halls. These are not things that I myself would ever participate in, but I can see how they bring joy and meaning to the people who do.

What I cannot understand is the drive that some people have to act as foot soldiers in an endless war, defending their idols from anyone who would dare question their perfection. I’m not just talking about the Skeleton Clique; I’m not even just talking about pop music fandom in general, though you don’t have to dig deep to find examples of how destructive those groups can be. I’m talking about anyone who spends a single moment of their precious and finite life trying to clear Woody Allen’s tarnished name, or anyone who decides that a negative review of a comic book movie that they haven’t even seen is cause enough to end a person’s life. I’m talking about the poor, lost souls who troll through Elon Musk’s mentions looking for a chance to defend their billionaire idol. And while I’m at it, I guess I’m also talking about the unbelievable amount of Americans who still support Donald Trump despite there being no reason to do so.

This is Stan6 Culture, idol worship in the 21st century. You can’t hand-wave it away by saying that “fandom has always existed” — as if the internet and social media have not fundamentally changed the way humans interact with one another. You can’t downplay it because “they’re just kids and they’ll grow out of it,” because there is a whole generation of people coming of age online and this is going to be the only world they’ve ever known. And you certainly can’t argue with it, because one day after the Chainsmokers posted the infamous yellow image, they posted a fleshed-out image of their new single’s album art, this one featuring the date ‘7/27’, clearly indicating the song’s release date, and this time they were inundated with attacks by fans of the defunct pop group Fifth Harmony for having the audacity to release a song on the same day that the band was formed.

Because Fifth Harmony once released an album entitled ‘7/27’, one fan claimed that “Fifth harmony invented 7/27 [sic]”, and yes, they were probably joking to some extent, but probably not as much as you think, and even then, it’s not the kind of joke that’s funny.

1. You would be right.

2. This is a rough estimate.

3. “Sucker For Pain” does deserve special mention here for managing to capture the aggressively misbegotten and overstuffed spirit of the movie itself.

4. I’m not just saying this, by the way: no less an authority than the Alternate Press Music Awards (Fueled By Monster) awarded them Most Dedicated Fans in 2017.

5. Even this interpretation is pretty disingenuous: Joseph doesn’t seem to have any problem with the industry trend towards melodic rap groups fronted by white men, but he’s got a problem with the genre’s focus on inner-city distress and urban oppression?

6. For anyone who doesn’t know, “stanning” is the act of being overly obsessed with an artist, person or character. It’s usually self-applied with either a small degree of self-deprecation or a disturbing amount of un-ironic pride.

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