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Here’s What You Missed On the Dystopian Lore Of Twenty One Pilots

EDITORIAL

Written by Liam Hansen (they/them) | @liamhanse.n | Editor-in-Chief


Illustration by Cameron McCurdy (she/her) | @leighapparently | Social Media Coordinator


Okay, alright, listen. The general idea of this whole issue is to take 1984 - as a book, a year, and a cultural phenomenon, and pull apart each of its concepts. We can talk about conspiracy, dystopia, and surveillance - how the topics in George Orwell’s classic are still relevant today. There’s a variety of dystopian pieces of media that came to my mind - or at least, should have. YA classics, video games, and graphic novels may be popping into your head. There are so many options, with such interesting themes and commentary on our current world and what it could become. Unfortunately, all I could think about was Twenty One Pilots lore, and I hate myself so much for it. 


If you’re someone who wasn’t incredibly embarrassing in the mid-late 2010’s, you might be thinking “Twenty One Pilots? That's the band that did ‘Stressed Out’, and that one song for the ‘Suicide Squad’ soundtrack, right?” You might have hated them, you might’ve loved them, you might not even be aware that they still exist - let alone have any “lore” surrounding their music. 


But I’m aware.


I have been trapped in TOP brain rot for nearly a decade, having discovered them as an edge-lord 11-year-old and deciding to frame my entire personality around being in the “skeleton clique”. If you just shuddered at the reminder of TOP fans being called “the skeleton clique”, or you’re noticing my refusal to refer to the band as “21P'' or “21 Pilots” because the fanbase randomly decided that was an offence greater than murder, then don’t worry - I understand you. We can get through this together. 


TOP has been back on my mind recently as they’ve just released “Overcompensate”. This a continuation, and supposedly the conclusion, of their concept album series which has grown from a fictional character dissection to a fully blown dystopian universe - fit with evil overlords, a claustrophobic city, and hordes of annoying teenagers obsessing over every morsel of lore singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun squeeze out. I’ve not been deep in the fanbase since their 2021 release, “Scaled and Icy” (not that good, sorry), but I’ve been dragged back in with the new single (pretty dang good, sorry). Because the new album is on it’s way, and my eleven-year-old self is bursting at the seams to info-dump, I’ll give you a brief rundown on what-the-fuck is going on here. 


The early days of TOP had less lore and more edgy alt-pop. Tyler Joseph started the band in Ohio around 2009, with Chris Salih and Nick Thomas. They released their self-titled debut, a piano driven mixture of Linkin Park, Ben Folds Five, and The Postal Service. They got a small local fanbase, Chris and Nick left, Josh joined, and the boys released their second album ‘Regional at Best’ - which used to be my favourite album of all time, despite never actually releasing in an official capacity. They took some songs off that one, re-made them, added some more tracks, and released Vessel -  their major label debut on Fueled by Ramen. People liked it, they got a pretty solid international fanbase, and then they put out ‘Blurryface’ in 2015 and twelve-year-olds everywhere lost their shit.


This record saw the band dabble in more conceptual themes, basing the record around a fictional character called “Blurryface” - a personification of all of the frontman’s struggles with mental health and self-doubt. I was a dumb baby when I heard this album for the first time. I had never heard someone scream in music like Tyler Joseph did, and I’d never consumed an album with this much substance. Yes, it’s only a deep album to fourteen-year-olds - but I was ten when this album was released, give me a break. 


In early 2018, the band started hiding cryptic messages in their merch store, leading to the dmaorg.info website where they drip fed the fanbase morsels of information about a new universe that they had created. We learned about someone named Clancy - a prisoner and attempted escapee of the dystopian city of Dema, run by nine bishops who enforce a fictional religion called Vialism - the end goal of which is to destroy oneself to the point of suicide in order to get to the ultimate paradise. The bishops then use a “miraculous power” (without context as to where it came from and why - this whole story is a mess if you couldn't tell) that allows them to possess, or as they call it, “Seize”, dead bodies for a short period of time. All of these concepts have only been made clear in recent weeks - but back in the day, the fanbase knew next to nothing. Everything led to their 2018 album Trench, a certified collection of bangers and their most conceptual album yet - this time for people in their mid-teen years, instead of early teens! 


In the music video for the lead single ‘Jumpsuit', we saw Clancy (played by Tyler) attempt to flee Dema, entering the vast outside world beyond the city's walls - the Trench (roll credits). He was recaptured by Nico, the leader of the bishops, but caught a glimpse of the Banditos - a rebel group aiming to overthrow Dema. Led by The Torchbearer (played by Josh), they tried to distract Nico with a whole bunch of yellow flower petals (he’s scared of yellow for some reason??) and tried to help Tyler escape. That didn’t work though, and he was brought back to Dema - but the Banditos helped Clancy properly escape in the music video for ‘Nico and The Niners’. They brought him into their group and taught him their ways, but he was recaptured - these guys have AWFUL security measures, I swear to god. This core story encapsulates the majority of Trench, with the rest of the album including extra pieces of lore drops amidst songs that are more separate from the main storyline. 


This leads us to TOP’s most recent album, ‘Scaled and Icy’. It’s a lockdown album. The band wanted to take the Trench/DEMA concept even further, but admitted that the pandemic hurt their creative flow, affecting their motivation to work on the lore and instead putting their energy towards a covid-influenced, self-described in-between record that had little to do with the world they were previously building. When it came time to promote the album, however, TOP decided to adapt the direction their lore was going into the content of Scaled and Icy.


The band presented the narrative that after Clancy was recaptured, he was made to entertain the citizens of Dema as punishment, spreading the propaganda of the bishops. This culminated in the music video for ‘Saturday’, which showed Clancy playing at a submarine expedition for the ruling class which was disrupted as one of the other bishops, Keons, betrayed the rest and possessed a dead sea dragon named Trash to break open the submarine and allow Clancy to escape to the nearby island of Voldsøy. Finally, in the music video for ‘The Outside‘, we saw Clancy and The Torchbearer (who has been by his side this whole time, somehow always playing drums) discover a small community of kinda cute, kinda terrifying creatures called Neds who originally appeared in the non-canon music video for Trench’s “Chlorine’. Clancy discovers that the Ned’s antlers can be used to seize dead bodies in the way Bishops can.


Are you still with me? Cause this shit has gotten WAY out of hand. The entirety of the ‘Scaled and Icy’ era was weird - not only because the lore was a mess, but also because many of the tracks on SAI weren’t TOP’s best. It was around this time, in late 2021, that I stopped listening to Twenty One Pilots. I was disappointed with the album, I couldn't keep track of the lore anymore, and I was about to start at uni. If anyone in my classes knew I was still a Twenty One Pilots fan, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. 


This has now all changed. In early 2024, TOP edited the album covers of all their major label releases to be partially covered with red tape and started to mail out cryptic letters to fans, featuring maps of Dema, letters from Clancy, and more. This led to the release of a short video to all of their social media platforms, entitled ‘I Am Clancy’. This saw the band decide they couldn't be fucked being cryptic anymore, and simply explaining every single piece of this confusing story in a four minute long YouTube video. Much of the lore I just explained literally wasn’t clarified until this video came out a month ago. A few days later, the music video for ‘Overcompensate’ was released - seeing Clancy continue to utilise his newfound power and crossing back from Voldsoy to Trench, Torchbearer by his side, to finally take Dema down. 


This is where we are now. Their next album, aptly titled ‘Clancy’ is set to release on the 17th of May - exactly nine years after Blurryface released. As much of a fucking mess this story is, I still kinda love it? Listening back to TOP’s discography for this piece has been so damn nostalgic, and delving back into the lore has been all I needed to hype myself up for the new release. While a dystopian setting is usually used as a metaphor for our society, TOP has used pre-existing tropes as a metaphor for our minds - slowly twisting the capabilities of what a dystopia can mean. While your brain might feel like a menacing, industrial city controlled by your negative emotions -  you can still escape. As cringe as it is, I know damn well I’ll be seeing TOP live for the fourth time when they hopefully return to Aotearoa. Thank you all for humouring me - tune in next time for when I infodump ‘Five Nights At Freddy's’ lore in the Games issue. 

Illustration by Neena Contreras (she/her) | Contributing Artist


Playlist for this issue:


Twenty One Pilots - Taxi Cab (Self-Titled)



Twenty One Pilots - Ruby (Regional at Best)


Twenty One Pilots - Fake You Out (Vessel)


Twenty One Pilots - We Don’t Believe Whats On TV (Blurryface)


Twenty One Pilots - Jumpsuit (Trench)


Twenty One Pilots - Shy Away (Scaled and Icy)


Twenty One Pilots - Overcompensate (Clancy) 


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