This is the inaugural “One Thing Considered,” an occasional attempt by Megan Garber and Conor Friedersdorf to talk through cultural artifacts that tickled their brains. In this edition, the artifact at hand is the song “Stressed Out,” the nostalgia-lacedhit from the Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots (also known as Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph). It is the band’s first top 10 hit, having reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
Conor Friedersdorf: Would you trade the ups-and-downs of adult life for a soothing lullaby in your childhood bedroom? That’s the comforting fantasy that Twenty One Pilots conjure in “Stressed Out.” When I first heard the song, listening to KROQ on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, I thought, watch out Taylor Swift, this is the Millennial anthem.
“I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,” it begins. “But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.” A later lyric notes, “Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the latter.” Student loans loom large: They are the single specific stress the song mentions. This line comes a bit later: “Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face / Saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’”And then that wistful chorus: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days / When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.”
The character singing all this is named Blurryface. The band’s frontman described him on MTV as a guy who “represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around me, are insecure about.” The result is a catchy, interesting song. Does it say something about this stressed-out moment in our culture?
Megan Garber: First of all: I miss KROQ. Second: Listening to “Stressed Out,” I couldn’t help but think of Skee-Lo’s “I Wish”—not just because of its upbeat pace and sing-songy raps, but also the confessional nature of its lyrics. (Skee-Lo: “I wish I was a little bit taller/ I wish I was a baller/ I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her”). Skee-Lo emphasized the connection between physical prowess and economics—the frustrating fact that, for him, being relatively short and unathletic wasn’t just an unfortunate physical condition, but also a disadvantageous social one:
I wish I had a brand-new car
So far, I got this hatchback
And everywhere I go, yo, I gets laughed at
And when I’m in my car I’m laid back
I got an 8-track and a spare tire in the backseat, but that’s flat
And do you really wanna know what’s really whack?
See I can’t even get a date, so, what do you think of that?
Status, via stuff. It’s an almost Darwinian interpretation of consumer attainment: What the narrator can buy—and more to the point, what he’s not able to buy—directly affects his social standing. And also (Darwin!) his ability to get “a girl who looks good.”
“Stressed Out” both updates and rejects “I Wish.” It is entirely about aspiration, yet it’s about, actually, aspiration’s failure: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days / When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” In the song’s video, the pair sit on a curb, drinking that ultimate beverage of disaffected youth: Capri Sun. They ride bikes down a barren suburban street. They engage in complicated high-fives. Beyond that, they don’t do much of anything.
All of which says something sad about the present moment: “Stressed Out” reads as anthemic precisely because it is, upbeat tones notwithstanding, fairly hopeless. These guys aren’t dreaming of the things they could get, were they a little bit taller, more athletic, and fit for their world. They’re beyond striving for any of that. They’re something sadder than unsatisfied: They’re reconciled. All they can do, beset with loans, unsure of how to make the money that will free them from debt, is to mourn the very thing that Skee-Lo embodied: the ability to dream for something more.
But maybe (very, very possibly) I’m reading it too pessimistically? Maybe there’s a reason for hope lurking within “Stressed Out”?
Friedersdorf: That’s just it: I see no hope in “Stressed Out.” It’s so much more bleak than other songs grounded in wistfulness for childhood. Remember “Playdoh” by the Aquabats?
When I was a little man
Playdoh came in a little can
I was Star Wars’ biggest fan
Now I’m stuck without a plan
GI Joe was an action man
Shaggy drove the mystery van
Devo was my favorite band
Take me back to my happy land
There’s ambivalence about growing older and nostalgia for childish things. But Blurryface is longing for something more basic––feeling safe (“when the Mama sang us to sleep”), having aspirations (“we used to build a rocketship and fly it far away...”).
I remember the stress I felt packing up my dorm with no clue what job I would get or how long it would take to find. My student loan payments were about to start and continue for untold years. So it isn’t that I don’t relate to being stressed out by that unnerving moment when I had to “wake up and make money,” or else, for the first time.
But I still loved being 22. At 6, I may have taken comfort in my mom singing me to sleep, but I hated having a bedtime. At 16, I didn’t have to worry about student loans.
I did, however, have a curfew.
I remember being a teenager with a crush and nowhere more private to make out than a parked car. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long,” the Beach Boys sang. “You know its gonna make it that much better / When we can say goodnight and stay together.” At 16, I figured they were right.
At 22, I knew they were.
After graduation, I hung out in L.A. for a couple days with a woman I liked, sleeping on the hard floor of an apartment where a mutual friend had just moved. I wanted no more than to sit around drinking cheap beer and listening to music and talking all night. That was allowed! My friends and I could afford dollar tacos and beach camping. If we split gas we could drive anywhere we wanted. It was glorious.
Some years ago, when my Millennial cousin turned 16, I recall that she and a bunch of her friends were just uninterested in getting a driver's license. I couldn't fathom it. How could a freedom that generations had prized so zealously just lose its appeal? A part of me identifies with the anxieties so powerfully expressed in “Stressed Out.” But when Blurryface moves beyond nostalgia to an outright preference for treehouse homes over any adulthood that includes student loans, I don’t relate.
Garber: I hear that!
Given how obsessed the culture is with youth, I keep expecting to resent getting older—but so far, I never have. I love getting older! That said, one thing that strikes me about “Stressed Out”—one thing that makes it relatable, I think, even to non-Millennials and those blissfully free of student debt—is how easily it works as, yes, A Metaphor.
And not just for young people.
To backtrack a tiny bit: I’ve recently gotten interested in the idea of age as a social construct as opposed to a biological fact. Phases of life regulated by the cold, hard math of time’s passage are being challenged by a whole host of cultural shifts, from the rise of emerging adulthood to the availability of plastic surgery to the influence of the Kardashians to the collapsing of generations to the general death of adulthood. What does it mean to be “an adult,” right now? The answers used to be pretty easy: home ownership, marriage, kids, turning 21. They are no longer easy. People may still be turning 21, but otherwise: Home ownership is declining. Marriage and kids, if they come at all, are coming in general later than they used to.
And while that is wonderfully liberating on an individual level—if I have kids, I want it to be because I truly want them, not because I’m unlocking a Life Achievement merit-badge—it leaves many in a state of confusion about what growing up, or “coming of age,” actually entails. (Our colleague Julie recently wrote awesomely about all that.)
I think “Stressed Out” is tapping into all of that Adulthood Anxiety. Its narrator is doing what so many of us do now, which is to define adulthood by way of childhood. (Did you read all those stories about Adult Preschool in Brooklyn? I mean: #Brooklyn, yes, but also: They were on to something, I think!) And “Blurryface,” a synonym for “Anyone,” is also talking about really common anxieties that transcend age and generation. “Student loans,” after all, is fundamentally that most pervasive of things: “debt.” And many, many of us, whether we’re students or car-owners or parents whose kids have an annoying tendency to outgrow their clothes, know what the omnipresent baggage of debt can feel like.
Same, too, with the treehouse: It’s a structure of nostalgic youth, definitely, but you could also read it as an invocation of Escapism more broadly: the basic-cable procedural the 60-year-old woman watches to unwind after work; the beer the 70-year-old man looks forward to during an overtime shift at the factory. The ways people find to deal with the fact that they can’t retire, that adulthood’s responsibilities—responsibilities that, it used to be promised, have an expiration date—keep going well into the years formerly known as “golden.”
Who knows, non-Millennials might hear “Stressed Out” and dismiss it as a protest of over-indulged youth, or the whining of kids who haven’t yet learned, and perhaps never will learn, the quiet dignity of hard work. I’d wager, though, that they’d hear something familiar in the song’s despair, something resonant in its desire to return to a time that is simpler, easier, and more hopeful. A time when youth could afford to be young—and when age, just as importantly, could afford to be old.
Friedersdorf: You’re right that the desire to return to a simpler, easier, more hopeful time is close to universal. And when you wager that “Stressed Out” appeals to many when it taps into that––when you say that even older people would “hear something familiar in the song’s despair,”––I wouldn’t bet against you. But I’d wager that when they do yearn for simpler times, they aren’t thinking of being sung to sleep.
They don’t want to go quite that far back.
That factory worker is nostalgic for the “Summer of ’69,” before the band broke up, when he met the love of his life at the drive-in. Or the “Glory Days” that Bruce Springsteen sang about. Or days when the rain came, when he went down in the hollow. Or even just sneaking out mother’s backdoor with those hoodlum friends of his.
I’d wager that most older listeners better know what they’re stressed out about too. Whereas I don’t think Blurryface knows the real source of his stress. Notice his fantasy is a lullaby in a world where nothing matters, not a windfall to pay off his debt. He’s unsure, I think, of what matters in life. And not knowing is what has him stressed out, because he cares what others think and worries that they’re judging him.
You mentioned that the markers of adulthood are changing: “The answers used to be pretty easy: home ownership, marriage, kids, turning 21. They are no longer easy. People may still be turning 21, but otherwise: Home ownership is declining. Marriage and kids, if they come at all, are coming in general later than they used to.”
So many decisions! Of course I relate to feeling stressed about which ones to make. But, devil’s advocate: Surely the generation that was married with kids and a mortgage at 25 (or off fighting in World War II or Korea or Vietnam) had a lot more to be stressed out about than the one with more student debt but also a whole extra decade when they’re not responsible for anyone else’s life beyond their own. The answers used to be easier because there was no option but living a harder life.
I’m not criticizing the younger cohort. I am them. I spent my 20s responsible for no one but myself. And there were stretches where I was every bit as anxious as Blurryface. I just wish I could go back and tell myself to chill out; to keep things in perspective by remembering the cosmic joke that sooner or later, we’ll all die, as will everyone we know and love (yikes!); that even before that, life will give all of us terribly concrete problems; that failing to navigate one’s 20s optimally is not among them, even though for many there’s self-imposed pressure to excel or not disappoint.
Now, existential dread about what to make of one’s life isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve read my Anna Karenina and Sons and Lovers and Middlemarch. I’ve listened to Pet Sounds and seen The Graduate. And struggling to find one’s place isn’t a bad thing, in moderation. Still, I worry that people who spend their 20s stressing over inchoate, existential fears will look back, when they have marital strife or a special-needs kid or an overdue mortgage or an arthritic knee, and realize they let awesome years pass them by and don’t have a “Summer of ’69” to look back on wistfully.
This is my theory of “Stressed Out.” Blurryface doesn’t need to wake up and make money. He needs to wake up and realize that he needn’t stress about what others think, because they’re not judging him so much as quietly sharing the very same anxieties. This is the song’s contribution. It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in our insecurities, even if it isn’t fleshed out enough to offer more than implicit commiseration.
Garber: I love that takeaway! Life brings many stresses, but we also have a sneaky way of compounding—and creating—the pressures that life puts on us. That’s the heart of this all, I guess—a kind of pseudo-Buddhist message in song that contains the line “wake up, you need to make money”: Caring can hurt. Keeping up—or not keeping up—with the Joneses can hurt. Living our lives with constant reference to other people is both supremely human and, often, supremely sucky.
I was just reading about Adolphe Quetelet, “the Isaac Newton of social physics,” and the rise of the concept of the “average person.” Its upshot is that normalcy, like so many things we take for granted, had to be, essentially, invented. And Quetelet’s attempts to define what made a person average—and, by extension, above and below average—were ultimately (and totally unsurprisingly) as confining as they were liberating. Defining what’s “normal” almost demands that you define what’s abnormal. And treating averageness as a scientific fact encourages people not just to strive to be exceptional, but also to strive toward conformity.
Your theory of “Stressed Out” taps into all that. Blurryface is reacting not just to very real social and economic circumstances, but also to perceived cultural pressures that are, frustratingly, as blurry as they are broad: in this case, “success,” “adulthood,” “manliness,” etc. To make matters worse, those pressures are transforming very quickly right now. What does success even look like anymore? What does adulthood look like? How does one become a man, or a woman?
We used to be able to understand our status through rituals (religious ceremonies, graduations), purchases (cars, homes), and relationships (spouses, kids). We still do, to some extent, but much less so than before. So we look to our peers, and to things we might call micro-attainments—buying a couch, becoming a godparent, taking a really awesome Instagram at a really nice restaurant—to mark our progress. We measure those tiny attainments against our friends in a Sisyphean effort to be normal and exceptional at the same time. We care what other people think—because that’s the glue that holds society together, and also because other people are, at this point, the last best gauge of our own status.