When I first played twenty one pilots‘ new album, Blurryface, I was not looking to be falcon-punched in the feels, nor stabbed in the precise sliver of brain that panics about dying, never amounting to anything, and eternal damnation — but these Columbus kids are all about plunging the soul. The salty drum-and-synth combo of their songs is satisfying enough to delude the unsuspecting listener into thinking he can bob his head without facing his demons. But right from the first song — where God, who haunts the whole work, is asked “Can you save my heavydirtysoul?” — Tyler (keys, vocals) gives us a clue to the urgency and anxiety of the album: “Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.”
This work of art is driven by the fear of death. Not death in the weak sense — a mere physical catastrophe freaking us out on highways and rooftops — but death as the ultimate judge of the content of our lives, in the face of which our whole existence seems paltry, insignificant, and we sing with Tyler: “I don’t know why, I just feel better off / Staying in the room I was born in / I look outside, and see a whole world better off / Without me in it trying to transform it.”
Nothing is worse, of course, than “lyric analysis” of an artist unveiling the darkest corners of his life, but what’s marvelous about Blurryface is its capacity to express the singular, unrepeatable experience of the artist in universal, “damn, that’s me!” terms. This is is the noblest possibility of all this silly indie-rock stuff — by singing from the broken core of modern existence, the artist finds, as his audience’s eyes spark and ears perk, that he is not alone. His audience finds, out of what they thought was a mere crowd of listeners, a community. Through art, we are united in the common experience of “yes! that’s the way it is!” which the novelist Walker Percy called “the cognitive dimension in fiction…the shock of recognition…the “verification” of a sector of reality that [the listener] had known but not known that he had known.” So I hope to find forgiveness for ripping these words from the musical context that gave birth to them, my only defense being that, after the music fades, the words remain as true experiences shared by every human heart.
The album is a rap-battle between Tyler and his demonic alter-ego, Blurryface. In the song “Stressed Out,” a lurching, break-beat lament over the death of that unreflective and impossibly hopeful existence we call “childhood,” Tyler says “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink / But now I’m insecure and I care what people think / My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.” Blurryface is born, not with the child, but with the adult. The person becomes aware of himself as existing, not just for himself, but in the gaze of others, with all their expectations, demands, hopes. It becomes possible to say with Tyler, though probably without the Lil Wayne-esque slur that, by some freak of nature, he manages to pull off as a white kid: “Scared of my own image.”
This is the existential source of having two faces — we are seen by others, and what they see is not always what we are. There is a split in the human person between the face that could “build a rocket ship and then fly it far away” and the face that others see — “now they’re laughing at our face / Saying ‘wake up, you need to make money!'”
This, by the way, is fundamentally connected to the death-inspired nature of Blurryface. When we die, we still have a face. Go to a funeral, stare at the corpse — there it is. The difference is that this face, the mask of death, is totally “what others think.” There is no living face left, no interior life that can protest against being seen in the wrong way, only the object — that which others see. So there is a profound connection between the fear of not amounting to anything in other people’s eyes and the fear of death — in both cases, we fear our second face being “all that people see.” To finish being a child for whom “nothing really mattered” is our first inkling of death.
So Blurryface shows the birth of our other self in the death of childhood. Then it shows how these two selves go to war. I’ve given up on figuring it all out. Sometimes the “good me” inside wants to be the “bad me” that others expect. Sometimes the “bad me” inside me wants to live up to the “good me” others hope for. Sometimes people see on my “outer face” all manner of good qualities I cannot see with my “inner face,” wherein I am “a pro at imperfections and best friends with my doubt.” Sometimes my neighbors cannot see the good I know is in me. In the midst of this obscurity Tyler can say “You don’t know my brain the way you know my name / And you don’t know my heart the way you know my face,” as well as “[I] don’t know what’s inside of me.” It would be wrong to identify Blurryface with just “the self other people see” or with “the evil self I really am.” Rather, Blurryface is the false self, wherever it arises — whether in our false estimation of ourselves, or the false estimation of others. The split between being-for-ourselves and being-for-others is what makes Blurryface possible.
Christianity has known this for quite some time, much in the way a grandmother, to your profound dismay, has already been through the existential crises you thought were all hip and modern. St. Paul bemoans his blurryface when he says: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:15). And Tyler echoes this same thought in “Fairly Local,” when he sings “I’m evil to the core / What I shouldn’t do I will / They say I’m emotional / What I want to save I’ll kill.” Christianity is the radical attempt to kill the false self.
It’s preaching, at the end of the day, comes to this: We cannot defeat Blurryface alone. We cannot know our true selves any more than our neighbors can. It is, quite simply, impossible to make ourselves whole — we are composed of an outer and an inner that war with themselves and come to no resolution. Even if we became authentically “us,” as many people proclaim to have become on Twitter, and as so many cosmetic companies promise to help us achieve — by what standard could we ever know this fact? By the vague feeling of contentment? But let one glance of disappointment or resentment from some one we esteem penetrate our cozy armor of “self-actualized fulfillment” and we’ll crumble like it’s high-school depression all over again.
The only solution is to be known by a gaze that knows us “inside and out.” In the last lines of the album, Tyler expressed this shock of recognition: “I’ve got two faces, blurry’s the one I’m not / I need your help to take him out.” This cry for help, far from weakness, rings out with all the strength of the honest word. We will not be saved by some Promethean self-expression, by which we simply adopt the right attitude, put on the right clothes, and “live authentically” — whole, united beings, ready for our filterless instagram portraits. We cannot know ourselves. We can only “know even as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). When Tyler sings, “you’re the judge, oh no, set me free,” he places his hope for freedom from this grotesque cage match of self vs. self in a person who is capable of judging us, of saying what we ourselves can never say — who we are. The only person who can judge us totally is one who knows us totally — neither us, nor our neighbors, but our God. So when Tyler follows this up with, “I know my soul’s freezing / Hell’s hot for good reason, so please, take me,” he unites his hope for freedom, via the judgment of the only Just Judge, to his hope for salvation. Salvation is the death of Blurryface. To be one, free of the false self, and who we were created to be — this is what Christ offers. When Tyler sings “I want to be known by you,” with all the ache of the last words of a eulogy, he gives lips to the cry of every human heart, to be known by a God who created us, a God for whom knowing and loving are one in the same.
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