1, A No. 23 debut for "Level of Concern" already marks a significantly higher peak than any of the hits off TØP's Trench album ever reached. Do you think that the song is just that much more accessible than the singles pulled from the duo's last album, or is their timing just right for this one?
Katie Atkinson: Both. While they've obviously had hits since, I would say this is Twenty One Pilots' most accessible single since "Ride." Their other biggest songs ("Stressed Out," "Heathens") were weirder and took a minute to digest before they really struck a chord with pop radio, whereas "Level of Concern" can be dropped into a top 40 lineup today without anyone batting an eye. And then there's the song's theme of being comforted during a very anxious time that instantly drew in listeners, for obvious reasons -- whereas the Trench rollout seemed purposefully esoteric, delivering hidden messages to the duo's die-hard fans as opposed to speaking to a broader audience.
Anna Chan: I think it's the timing. Granted, it hasn't been that long since Trench dropped, but with the coronavirus pandemic keeping us all at home and eager for something fresh and different, well, hey, look! Here's a catchy new tune that's also very timely in its subject matter. (Maybe a little too timely for some? I, personally, need an escape from all the virus and quarantine talk.)
Stephen Daw: "Level of Concern" definitely hits on a much more pop-focused sound for TØP, but I don't know that it's such a huge departure from their Trench sonics. Look at songs like "My Blood" or "Legend" off of their last record -- both definitely dabble in this more disco-infused sound. I think that the duo is seeing a lot bigger gains with this thanks to the way they really capitalized on the moment that we're all currently living in. The lyrics are instantly relatable, and the music is the kind of escapist pop that a lot of people are turning to during a crisis.
Jason Lipshutz: “Level of Concern” has been knowingly positioned as a return to the mainstream after Twenty One Pilots made a hard pivot toward a heavier guitar sound, but the funny thing about Trench was that it did possess a pretty great radio single in “The Hype,” which soared to the top of the Hot Rock Songs and Alternative Songs chart but curiously never cracked the Hot 100. The duo’s new single lends itself even more to the dance floor (or it will, someday), but it’s not like the guys turned into Tool on their previous full-length.
Andrew Unterberger: Compared with the exhilarating but pummeling "Jumpsuit," it's certainly a 180 -- though subsequent Trench singles "My Blood" and "The Hype" might've had more chart success if they were released first off the album. For that reason, it seemed like the duo's pivot away from the pop world was purposeful. But they're certainly back now with "Level of Concern," and the timing is undoubtedly right, both in terms of the song's topicality and the (somewhat ironically) upbeat sound of pop radio in 2020. It's the best of all worlds for TØP, basically.
2. This is arguably the first true hit single to come out since the days of self-quarantining started that was both created during and designed for this cultural moment. Do you see it being the first of many such hits, or do you think they'll still be much more the exception than the rule?
Katie Atkinson: It feels like there will be plenty more hits born in quarantine, given the now-abundant free time of our biggest pop stars, but maybe not ones that speak quite so literally to this moment. The fact that the words "quarantine" and "bunker" are right there in the lyrics means we'll be able to pinpoint this song to April 2020 for decades to come, which could also mean that It will feel dated more quickly once we're out of lockdown. But given the song's bouncy energy and catchy chorus, it feels like this one has a shelf life -- I just don't think "coronacore" is going to be a trendy genre anyone is jumping on just to climb the Hot 100.
Anna Chan: I'd wager there are more quarantine-themed hits to come. Artists write about what they know, what they're experiencing, and everyone is experiencing the stress, anxiety and depression of self-quarantine right now. It's a topic that's top of mind and everyone can relate to, so has a good chance of connecting with listeners -- especially with a solid hook. Look at 9/11 and the songs it inspired across genres, and even years after: Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)"; Paul McCartney's "Freedom"; Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising"; Beastie Boys' "Open Letter to NYC"; and Evanescence's "My Last Breath," for example.
Stephen Daw: The truth definitely lies in the middle here. Artists like Troye Sivan and Charli XCX have been working on new music from quarantine and keeping their fans updated on the process, which is definitely working for both of them. However, I don't know how many songs written during quarantine and about quarantine are actually going to break through to become massive hits — people love being able to relate to music, but are also likely looking for music that takes them out of the self-isolated mindset.
Jason Lipshutz: My guess is that we’ll see more artists release songs that reference this moment in world history if not dwell upon it. Aside from the line “Would you be my little quarantine,” “Level of Concern” could mostly be about any panicked moment and quest for reassurance amidst personal anxiety. Twenty One Pilots didn’t put the coronavirus pandemic in the foreground here, and I think that’ll be how this moment is treated in popular music, and maybe popular culture in general.
Andrew Unterberger: I think we'll see a number of artists at least try -- the SEO possibilities are too potentially lucrative, if nothing else -- though many more of them will fail than succeed, I'd imagine. Those that do manage to actually impact the top 40 world (and I imagine we'll see a handful more do so) will likely be strong enough songs apart from their quarantine connections to be popular on their own merits.
3. We've seen songs with a disco pulse and energy enjoy a staggering comeback in 2020, from Dua Lipa to Lady Gaga to Doja Cat and now to Twenty One Pilots. Are you starting to get sick of it yet, or do you want the disco ball to just keep spinning?
Katie Atkinson: Keep. It. Spinning. I have no explanation as to why 2020 ushered in a new era of disco, but I'm very here for it. It makes sense that people would gravitate to more upbeat music in this exact moment, to escape the realities of lockdown life, but Dua's "Don't Start Now" was released in November and peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in early March, so it's not just a response to a darker climate. Whatever the reason, I want more, and anyone who predicted that Twenty One Pilots would be the next act to jump on the sound deserves some sort of cash prize.
Anna Chan: Count me in the tired-of-it camp. But to be fair, disco beats aren't usually my jam either. But if we're talking Twenty One Pilots -- which, obviously, we are -- I much prefer the harder stuff: "Jumpsuit" from Trench, for example. Then they've got the groovier stuff I dig, like "Heathens" from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, or "Nico and the Niners," again from Trench.
Stephen Daw: I've got my platform shoes, my bell bottoms and my spandex ready to go, because I am here for the disco revolution, honey. There's something so sleek and simultaneously uncool about disco that makes it irresistible to listen to. Especially as I'm trapped in my apartment, I am going to be getting my boogie on without a doubt.
Jason Lipshutz: More quarantined dance music, please! While it’s frustrating to not yet experience these uptempo tracks in a live setting yet, a lot of them have had a sort of effervescent effect on my psyche in lockdown, be it through spontaneous dance breaks to jump-start a workday or providing a kicky soundtrack for weekend house cleaning. We’ve got at least a dozen more of these disco-influenced singles to go before I’m going to feel any fatigue.
Andrew Unterberger: If the disco isn't still thumping by the time we're able to rejoin the real world in any meaningful way, I'll be furious.
4. "Would you be my little quarantine" -- cute or cringe?
Katie Atkinson: I'm going cute, just given the sweetness of the rest of the lyrics about leaning on a partner for comfort in a very disconcerting time. But does it make sense? Like, is Tyler Joseph asking his intended to be his safe place, or is it supposed to be a cheeky play on words, like quaran-teen? Maybe it's best to just let it stand and not dissect it. (Also, speaking of the lyrics, I have to call out the song's very first line: "Panic on the brain." I know this is about the current state of our world, but can we at Billboard just pretend that Tyler and Josh knew they were going to put a stop to Panic! at the Disco's seemingly ceaseless 76-week run at No. 1 on the Hot Rock Songs chart with this track?)
Anna Chan: It's a bit cringe for me, especially right now, when one: It's not February and this feels a little bit like a forced rhyme/reference with "valentines" (which I despise); and two: Finding someone to quarantine with doesn't seem like it should be high on the list of concerns, considering everything else that's happening. (My two cats are fine quarantine mates, thanks!) That said, "Level of Concern" is a full-on earworm. After listening to it twice, I found myself humming it while making dinner -- and then could not stop muttering the lyrics to myself. So there you go: Cringe or not, it's stuck in my head.
Stephen Daw: This absolutely made me cringe. I appreciate that they went for the light-hearted approach, which is what we all need right now, but that line in particular felt so forced and strange to me that it immediately took me out of the groove I was getting into.
Jason Lipshutz: Cute! At the very least, we will likely exit this devastating pandemic with “quarantine” as a popular new pet name for a significant other. I’m choosing to believe that this is okay.
Andrew Unterberger: Criiiiiiiiinge. It's a credit to the strength of the song's melody and groove that some of its lyrical clunkers are as forgivable as they are, but this one in particular was a pretty major stumbling block for me. To be fair, though, it could very well be one of those pop lyrics that just needs to hit a certain level of overexposure to be properly accepted into our hearts and minds, and then it'll seem ridiculous that it ever seemed ridiculous.
5. Getting a little real for a second: On a scale from 1-10 (with 1 being a state of complete chill and 10 a ceaseless state of total panic), how would you assess your own level of concern about the state of the world at this moment?
Katie Atkinson: Oh my. I guess I'll go 6, because I'm definitely leaning more toward the panic than the chill, but just barely. The phrase "this too shall pass" definitely pops into my brain on a daily basis.
Anna Chan: Not gonna lie, I'm pretty concerned, especially with people now protesting shelter-in-place orders and various states considering re-opening soon. I'm probably around a 7, depending on whether I'm watching Trump's briefings. If I am, make it eleventy billion, because we are doomed.
Stephen Daw: It depends on the day for me, because being sealed up in my apartment has definitely begun to take its toll on my mental well-being. As of today, I'd say my level of concern is at a strong 7: things are really bad right now, and they're going to continue to be bad for a longer time than I think any of us are actually willing to accept. But I refuse to let myself go higher than an 8, because eventually we are going to come out of this pandemic and start moving forward. Hope is an important tool right now, and we should all be trying to use it as often as we can.
Jason Lipshutz: 8. I believe that we will collectively get through this and that there are a countless amount of selfless, helpful acts happening daily around the globe, but it’s hard not to look at that growing death toll and not constantly hyperventilate or break down in perpetual mourning. Music, and talking about it, has been invaluable in this time, and is one of the things -- also including family, FaceTime, Parks & Recreation and my dog -- that’s prevented me from answering this with a 10.
Andrew Unterberger: I'll say 6.5 -- though I'm inching closer to a 7 or higher every time I see a photo of social-distancing protestors fighting for their right to get haircuts or what have you. Generally speaking, though, the health trends appear to be moving in the right direction (in my home state anyway), giving me faith that we're at least headed in the right direction, even if the road there is gonna be longer and more winding than any of us would hope for.