Raging Against the Rock-and-Roll Suicide

On their new album Trench, the popular rock band Twenty One Pilots questions how society deals with celebrity tragedy.

Twenty One Pilots in 2015
Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Amid rising suicide rates and a series of public figures killing themselves, what is the best way to talk about self-destruction? Experts counsel understanding for the victims of suicide and those they’ve left behind, more open conversations about mental health, and a resistance to glorifying or fixating on the act itself. But pop culture hasn’t followed those rules strictly: Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why sexed up self-harm, and Robin Williams’s death elicited a jarringly sentimental response from the Motion Picture Academy.

The music world, realm of some of the most famous suicides in history, has recently laid bare the conflicting impulses about how to approach the topic. A trend of morose rap and rock has contended with mental-health issues forthrightly but also with a sense of romance, and certain artists like to position themselves in the lineage of Kurt Cobain. But there’s been more survival-minded work being made, too. The rapper Logic’s 2017 hit, “1-800-273-8255” publicized the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and told listeners in psychic pain that they’re not alone.

The rock band Twenty One Pilots, whose 2015 record Blurryface sold an astonishing 1.5 million copies, has a new album, Trench, out Friday. Nestled in the middle of it is a potentially controversial showstopper of a ballad, one that actively rejects some of the conventional wisdom on how to address suicide and other forms of early death. Called “Neon Gravestones” and constructed on swirling piano and twitchy drums calibrated to create goosebumps, the song flirts with the idea of criticizing those who take their lives—and suggests something other than empathy as a way to address the suicide crisis.

As he often does, the vocalist Tyler Joseph swerves between singing and rap-like spoken word, but here he pitches his voice into something especially fragile, hoarse, and tentative. In the first verse, he says that we “glorify” people “when they”—and he leaves the sentence unfinished. When they what? But what he’s referring to quickly becomes clear. “My opinion: Our culture can treat a loss like it’s a win,” he sings. This cultural tendency communicates that “an earlier grave is an optional way.” He ends that thought, and the verse, on one lonely syllable: “No.”

He gets more strident as the song continues, mentioning “streams,” “extra conversation,” and “celebration” as a reward if he “gives up” and chooses to “go out with a bang.” A number of recent high-profile deaths—suicides, overdoses, and even murder—that sent the deceased’s work up the Billboard charts thus come to mind. “They say, ‘How could he go if he’s got everything?’” he sings, seeming to reference the common cognitive dissonance around celebrity tragedy. “I’ll mourn for a kid, but won’t cry for a king.”

Chillingly, Joseph’s remarks about society link up with statements about himself: In the swellingly emotional bridge, he asks for promises that “If I lose to myself / You won’t mourn a day and you’ll move on to someone else.” It’s a hard line he’s drawing, but not one without caveats. “I’m not disrespecting what was left behind / Just pleading that ‘it’ does not get glorified,” he sings. Lest he be seen as “disrespecting” the dead, he says that his problem is “with the people we praise who may have assisted.”

But it’s hard not to come away wondering if the dead have, in fact, been criticized. The song closes with a verse that’s part gut-punch and part PSA—the rhyme scheme is almost Dr. Seuss-ian—in which Joseph acknowledges that it’s good that the stigma around discussing mental health has been lessening. “But for sake of discussion … could it be true that some could be tempted to use this mistake as a form of aggression? … Thinking ‘I’ll teach them’? Well, I refuse the lesson.”

The question that arises: What might that refusal look like? No public funeral, no sharing of memories and songs in the case of untimely demise? Joseph doesn’t single out the specific ways in which the misuse of tragedy works (see, for example, how members of the public have heaped blame on the grieving loved ones of Mac Miller and Anthony Bourdain). He instead simply asks that “you won’t mourn a day.” But the loss of someone who’s touched millions of lives with their art is going to trigger a mass response inevitably, whether the cause of death is natural or not. Would denying fans the right to remember be cruel? The only alternative path of action Joseph suggests is to pay one’s respects to “grandparents or someone of age” for being “dedicated” to life.

“The reason [the] aestheticization of suicide is such a treacherous lie is it denies the reality that most people who kill themselves are trapped and desperate,” the Anglican priest Giles Fraser wrote in The Guardian in 2013. “They are commonly suffering from depression, or schizophrenia, or debt, or homelessness, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or a combination of these things.” Joseph would seem to agree with Fraser’s resistance to aestheticizing suicide, and yet in suggesting that “neon gravestones” lure famous people to their death, he comes close to presenting suicide as an act of hope rather than hopelessness: a bid for immortality. That’s a difficult argument to make, no doubt. But the song is less a coherent argument than a series of questions—tough ones about the departed, and tougher ones for those left behind.