Saturday, July 02, 2016

My Name's Blurryface -- a cultural-textual analysis

For those who don't keep up with contemporary music, the band Twenty One Pilots has a song titled "Stressed Out" that is well worth analyzing and understanding.

Here are the lyrics:
I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

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
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
We're stressed out

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it
Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I’d probably only sell one

It’d be to my brother, 'cause we have the same nose
Same clothes homegrown a stone’s throw from a creek we used to roam
But it would remind us of when nothing really mattered
Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we'd fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they're laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money
Used to play pretend, used to play pretend, bunny
We used to play pretend, wake up, you need the money

We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"

Yeah
The song, overall, is not simply about adults missing the simplicity of childhood; no, it's more about adults missing their childhood dreams of adulthood. This is emphasized in the repeated refrain:
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, "Wake up, you need to make money"
 The dream of being an astronaut is much like, say, my dream of being a fiction writer I have had since I was at least 12, when I penned (literally) my first novel manuscript. I abandoned the idea to major in something sensible in college (recombinant gene technology), only to return to it my senior year and truly follow it after dropping out of my Master's program in molecular biology. Yet, after graduating with my Ph.D. in the humanities from UTD (which I attended for the creative writing program), I was faced with the reality of student loans.

Indeed, the song mentions student loans:
Out of student loans and tree-house homes we all would take the latter
 Little did we know that by going to college to achieve our dreams, we would rack up so many student loans that we would have to settle for some job well outside our dreams just to pay off the loans. The songwriter recognizes the trap that's been set, the (inadvertent) lies we've been told about adulthood. We were told that student loans were an investment in our future, yet what they in fact turn into is a weight that discourages us from taking risks and living our dreams. With debt, we are too afraid to live the dream life we imagined for ourselves, instead settling for a safe corporate reality to pay off those debts. And after so many years doing just that, how many of us just settle in and continue that life, even after those loans are paid off? How many end up with credit card debt, car payments, and mortgages to replace them? Debt piles up, we get safe jobs with safe incomes to pay those debts, and we never live those dreams.

That is, fundamentally, what the song is about.

 We can see this even in the opening lyrics:
I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think
 Modernism was founded on the cult of the new. We are told even now that everything has to be original. It's one of the lies we're told, and the songwriter calls us out on it. Our brains are structures to only like certain sounds, chords, etc. We are restricted in our vocabularies, and people prefer rhymes in their songs (though the violation in that very line is an ironic reference to the fact that rhyming is a convention that has in fact been violated in popular songs just as it has been in much poetry).

Why does he care? Well. caring what other people think is human all too human. As children we don't care what too many people think---our parents, primarily, but certainly not too many others--but as adults, we care more and more about what more and more people think of us. We care what our neighbors think of us, what our co-workers think of us, certainly what our bosses think of us. As he points out, it matters for success. If he came up with sounds no one's ever heard, chords in a new order, and unrhymed songs, how popular  would the band be?

Indeed, we are bolder when we are younger. We take more risks. We become less risky as we get older. Our fears and insecurities multiply. We find ourselves responsible to more and more people (those to whom we owe debts, which only multiply as we get older, and include far more than the lending companies).

What does this do to us?
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
What is a "Blurryface"? A face that's out of focus and becomes indistinguishable from other faces. That is, a Blurryface is someone who is perfectly interchangeable with just about anyone else. Those who care what others think and live their lives according to what others think. Those who live their lives in response to all of those people who say "Wake up, you need to make money!" Your dreams must die, you have to wake up and be responsible and live the corporate/bureaucratic reality. You cannot be what you once dreamed, whether it be an astronaut or an artist. Because those aren't responsible aspirations.

The rest of the song emphasizes this "going back in time" to the dreams of childhood. There was a safety there, of course, but there was also a realm of possibilities that we seem to go out of our ways to destroy. Perhaps it's a romanticization of the Modernist period (and the Romantic period before that) where artists seemed able to live their dreams, but at the same time, there were people clearly doing that, where it's less clear that those possibilities are as available now as then.

The songwriter here has thus identified a pervasive feeling in our culture. Many of us feel that there is something not quite right. And Twenty One Pilots has given that feeling a voice. Growing up, we were told many things that have turned out to not be true. They were perhaps believed by our parents and the other adults who sold those things to us, but the fact of the matter is that perhaps most of us are terribly disappointed that the reality has completely failed to live up to the hype. There are those who will use facts to point out that we are living in the best of times materially, but we simply cannot dismiss the pervasive feeling that something's just not quite right.

And what happens when an entire culture feels this level of discontent? Can that culture long survive?
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