Cultural commentary offered by Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens”


Twenty One Pilots draw audiences in with their streetwise, laidback style. The song, “Heathen” with its pop appeal, hip-hop swagger and rap delivery, could distract some listeners from what the group is really saying.

Introduction to Twenty One Pilots

Depending on where a person lives, his or her first introduction to Twenty One Pilots came when the duo performed as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” I watched their performances trying to figure out how to classify them. Maybe this isn’t the most important part of a band’s package, but genre classification can sometimes go a long way in figuring out how to understand a group.

At any rate, as Twenty One Pilots worked their moody, kinetic energy across the famous stage, I couldn’t help but feel that whether I ever understood them or not, they were something different that would resonate with youth culture in a significant way.

Twenty One Pilots’ social critique

There is something about a male perspective performing cultural informing (about being male), that reminds me of that moment in one of the “Scream” movies, wherein male characters tell audiences about the number of serial killers operating in America at any given time. They continue to say that those serial killers are likely to be male. The message seems to be, “be afraid.”

When Twenty One Pilots informs audiences that, “all my friends are heathens/ take it slow,” there is a level of menace found in that line not heard in radio fare for years. That the song further sounds like instructions victims would receive during a crime does not help the menace. Audiences are warned against “sudden moves.” Taken another way, modern society is yielding distrust among populations.

If the lyrics in part seem frightening, they also mock: “You’re loving on the psychopath sitting next to you/you’re loving on the murderer sitting next to you.” We don’t know as much as we think, and we’ve been warned.

Before the chorus, in which the vocalist proclaims that his friends are heathens, the group warns us about judging too quickly. The band informs the audience that “you don’t know the half of the abuse.”  Clearly, the heathens, psychopaths, and murderers have come from environments that failed them. Maybe it was the reference to “murderers” that called to mind the horror franchise.

What Twenty One Pilots and others who have frightened audiences have figured out, is that when people’s ideas are challenged, people become often uncomfortable. We don’t know who we are, and we don’t understand others around us, and it is potentially scary.

Twenty One Pilots does remind audiences not to judge. After all the warnings and descriptions of heathens, they inform listeners that they, too, have become heathens.

Effective art doesn’t just express ideas of artists. Instead, art reflects a version of reality to an audience. Twenty One Pilots has called out the potential hypocrisy that most of the public engages in when they assume they understand human nature.


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