On Twenty One Pilots

I can plot the course of my maturation in Twenty One Pilots concerts. Twenty One Pilots: a rock band that sounds like it would live in the same cage as Blink 182 or Matchbox Twenty, if only because they all have numbers in their names. The band’s lead singer, Tyler Joseph, is small, plays the ukulele, doesn’t swear, and frequently covers his hands in ash or paint, some sort of chalky black substance, for performances. I am not of the breed to be attracted by Joseph alone, not among his tweenaged fans who dye their hair purple with Kool-Aid. His manager was my neighbor growing up, the only neighbor my family had within our mile of Ohio farmland, and he gets me tickets every time Twenty One Pilots (TOP, usually written with a line through the O by loyal fans), comes to town. Which is often. They’re hometown boys, Columbus, Ohio boys, the kind of famous people who attribute their success to kith and kin, to the treehouse they pretended was a music studio for the first ten years of their lives. I assume, anyway, from what I’ve seen in interviews and in their fated Grammy acceptance speech. My father claims the Josephs once came over for Thanksgiving dinner when I was young, but I don’t believe it. I’ve never met TOP’s lead singer.

September 16th, 2013

Newport Musical Hall

Tyler Joseph has appeared to shrink to me as he gains fame, if only because my seats have gotten farther and farther away with each tour. I brought a friend to my first TOP experience, a girl who is now pregnant and dating her personal trainer. We both slicked our hair with red paint, even though we swore we weren’t those kinds of fans, didn’t even know the words to the goofy rap-punk Joseph was quickly making famous. I felt like an imposter, surrounded by his beaming family members.

This concert was my first experience watching crowd surfing, watching the teeming mass beneath me and wondering if they knew I was sitting with the lead singer’s family. If they could even see me at all, with all the lights pointing in their direction. I shook my water bottle out over the crowd once and a hundred faces turned up to find the source, mouths open like gaping fish.

October 21st, 2015

Life Center Music Pavilion

My father told me I could not leave the house in that outfit, black denim and a black tank top I cut across the stomach, even though I had strung my grandmother’s pearls around my neck in an attempt to class up the whole ensemble, make it quirky and demure. My mother told him that I could, that I should wear it while I had my youth and beauty. Even agreeable parents disagree about their daughter’s body, as long as the body belongs to anyone but the daughter.

Onstage, Tyler Joseph got a tattoo, which he dedicated to his mother. What was a cute idea in theory, allowing his fans to be included in the permanent alteration of his body, ended up taking half of a sweaty, silent hour in which we, the unmarked crowd, jostled for air in the pit. Someone broke my prescription eyeglasses in half, my friend threw up into the fur-lined hood of the girl in front of her, and the boy whose ticket I bought when he didn’t have enough money at the door told me I had the body of a virgin. Offended, I at least told him it was a very poetic insult.

August 11th, 2016

Scottenstein Arena

Twenty One Pilots, at this point, was steadily gaining recognition. This particular concert was the first of their worldwide tour to promote their newest album, Blurryface. Tear In My Heart was being played on both local and national radio stations and Ohio fandom was staring to call for big industry blood. I invited a different friend, a tall boy who helped me with my chemistry homework and sold me medicinal edibles he bought from his sister in Canada. He liked the band to an embarrassing degree and I hoped by bringing him, I would look less weird by default.

I had just graduated high school, a life of girls’ school uniforms and papers on Marx. The crowd’s reaction to Tyler Joseph struck me as painfully similar to how the girls at my single sex high school treated any boy. Joseph, not particularly handsome, with a voice that was not particularly pleasant sounding, made his hometown fans swoon the same way subpar boys got laid by flaunting their masculinity as special. The rest of the world liked TOP for what they were, unabashedly strange, but Columbus liked TOP for the sense of personal achievement it gave us, this idiosyncratic rapper gearing up to receive a Grammy nomination in our stead.

The concert was excellent. Raucous and personal, Joseph would appear in different parts of the arena to serenade less fortunate fans. The boy I brought tried to lift me onto his shoulders but couldn’t, his sharp lats diggings into the inside of my thighs. We both laughed uncomfortably when I dismounted. He blamed his legs, thin as drumsticks; I blamed my hips. We accepted the swell of the tide as the pit rushed forward greedily to touch Joseph’s hands and face, his body draped over the first few rows of fans. He rose above them, strung up by cables, and hung like a rotisserie chicken, spinning slowly to face every audience member. I sat in the passenger seat of my date’s car afterward, burning my fingers on dripping French fries in the nearby McDonald’s parking lot.

June 24th, 2017

Nationwide Stadium

Finished with a worldwide tour, TOP came home for six days of sold-out performances in Columbus. My sister, mother, and father had all met Joseph by this point. My mother and father attended his cousin’s wedding, our childhood neighbor, and my sister had sat backstage at their Prague show and chatted with their manager. She had been studying abroad for six months and, not a lick of Czech in her tongue, appreciated the Midwestern conversation. She said Joseph didn’t seem to see her even as he was being introduced, black bags under his eyes. She wondered if they were from exhaustion or if he wiped his eyes, his hands covered in that black ash he performed in. She made a joke about sackcloth and ashes, a mourning joke, and he appeared not to have heard her.

They were famous by this point. Real famous, not Ohio famous. Heathens and Heavydirtysoul topped the iTunes charts, played on radios. They sang on SNL and Conan. They appeared just as skinny and disengaged on TV as in real life.

I brought the same boy along as the concert before, now both of us a year into college. He was at Ohio State University and talked about fourlokos and a collection of thongs he kept in a shoebox by his bed. We sat farther away from the stage than usual, swallowed by the massive stadium humming with fans. I ate half a pot brownie and experienced the performance as a hallucination while he texted his girlfriend and made sure I didn’t jump over the railing that kept us penned into our balcony. At one point, Tyler Joseph got into a human-sized plastic hamster ball and ran across the mosh pit. I spent the entire night trying to prove it happened, transfixed by lights, convinced that everyone in the audience was staring right at me.

I have yet to meet the famed Joseph boy, despite four concerts and an apparent Thanksgiving dinner. I saw his wife at my parents’ church once. She was so beautiful I dropped my communion wafer between pews and kept my eyes on her even as I knelt to retrieve it. I don’t know if she doesn’t think he’s handsome or if she sees something in him that I don’t, something in his effeminate features and soft-boiled singing voice, his stormy lyrics. A coworker of mine had a line of his song tattooed on her ribcage: You don’t know my brain/ the way you know my name/ and you don’t know my heart/ the way you know my fame.

Our hometown hero stands before his Colosseum with a thundering heart, his skinny arms and huge eyes. There is he who rises onstage, who spits rhymes and spins lyrics about feeling disconnected while a swarming mass ache with a feeling of mutual sympathy, and there is he who walks off and scrubs at his eyes with his blackened hands, a ghost and a prophet. We in the crowd feel exposed for him, shedding his skin, yet backstage he reminds us it was just a cardigan he removed, his tongue still tied beneath his breast pocket. Maybe one day I’ll meet him. I’ll get to ask how he does that, how he tricks us into believing its him in the light as we auction our own insecurities.

Maddie Woda is a sophomore in Columbia College, studying English. She is from Columbus, Ohio, and listens to Twenty One Pilots as an act of state pride.


  1. You are so fine. Mouths open like gaping fish. Ohio fandom was calling for for big industry blood. Write on.

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