"We can all kind of relate to wanting to have more of those simpler days."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Producer Mike Elizondo remembers having but one grievance about Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” which went on to win a pop Grammy and topped multiple Billboard charts in the process.
“At the time I heard the song, I had no idea what Blurryface was, [and I was] kind of scratching my head going, 'Dude, uh, what's Blurryface?'” Elizondo recalls telling Twenty One Pilots frontman and principal songwriter Tyler Joseph during the song’s mid-2010s recording.
Half a decade later, the identity of Blurryface might remain a mystery to any non- or even casual fans who haven’t attempted a dive into the Blurryface album’s thematic elements. On “Stressed Out” in particular, that identity surfaces in the pre-chorus refrain of “My name’s Blurryface, and I care what you think.”
“I was thinking big picture,” Elizondo says. “So I had a good conversation with him trying to say, 'Hey, maybe you should change that; it's a great melody, it's a big hook of the song, but I just don't know what it means.’” He quickly softened following Joseph’s explanation of the larger album concept, and as it eventually turned out, the average listener didn’t mind much at all.
The duo, which had been slowly gaining a following that eventually stretched well outside its Columbus, Ohio, digs, found occasional alternative radio success with 2013’s Vessel, and lead Blurryface single “Tear in My Heart” launched the band to new heights on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, peaking at No. 2 in July 2015.
But during the initial radio run of “Tear in My Heart” came the digital release of “Stressed Out.” Unlike its predecessor’s sunnier, uptempo setup, the song was midtempo, punctuated by brief string-and-synth blasts and eerie theremin-like sounds underlying Joseph’s vocals, which almost sounded conversational rather than rapped on the verses, like a confessional, an airing of one’s anxieties to a close friend sitting next to you.
And, frankly, it kind of was. If any one song captures the millennial/gen Z experience of the mid-2010s, it’s a song whose chorus pines for the “good old days” of carefree youth and whose bridge describes the pressures of external voices telling one to “wake up; you need to make money.”
Who of a certain demographic couldn’t relate, after all? “Stressed Out” is full of one- or two-liners that practically define a generation – “I was told when I get older, all my fears would shrink/ But now I’m insecure, and I care what people think,” “Out of student loans and treehouse homes, we all would take the latter,” the list goes on. He’s speaking to a generation — of which Joseph, in his mid-20s at the song’s release, is a part — that was not only drowning in college loan debt but was also sharing those anxieties and more all over social media, perhaps feigning apathy when in reality they craved peer acceptance more than ever.
It’s an even more impressive accomplishment when you remember that the song is from the standpoint of the character Blurryface (who “cares what you think” – same, buddy), not some impersonal third-person narrator. Joseph’s specificity somehow ends up engulfing a much larger populace — the exact thing Elizondo was worried it’d limit.
Boy, did it work. “Stressed Out” first quietly rose to No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart, holding the lead for 12 weeks and setting off a streak in which the band ruled the tally for 30 combined weeks between November 2015 and November 2016 with three different songs. To boot, in March 2016, Twenty One Pilots found itself atop Pop Songs, the first act to do so on both Alternative and Pop Songs since Lorde’s “Royals,” a song that spoke to both a similar mentality and demographic two-and-a-half years before.
Later, the duo became the first band since The Beatles with two songs simultaneously in the Hot 100’s top five, not accomplished with “Stressed Out” but with subsequent singles “Ride” and “Heathens.” All were done with the duo neglecting perhaps the most traditional rock instrument of them all: the electric guitar.
Even at the end of the decade, long after the initial chart run of “Stressed Out,” the song still manages to find an audience not just on radio in between new hits but also routinely pulls between 3 and 4 million streams a week, according to Nielsen Music — numbers many alternative bands snagging No. 1s these days would kill for.
“We can all kind of relate to wanting to have more of those simpler days,” Elizondo says, looking back. “I think he nailed it; though the lyrical content is very specific to him, the listener is able to impose their own story onto it. That type of feeling will never go away.”