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My name's Clifford Stumme, and I explain the deeper meanings of popular songs. Let's have a conversation about what you think about the songs and go deeper together. Feel free to email me at clifford@popsongprofessor.com with questions or ideas!

What does "Heathens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

What does "Heathens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

SONG MEANING: "Heathens" by Twenty One Pilots is about Tyler Joseph encouraging new TOP fans to be careful when encountering the Skeleton Clique. Keep reading for more...

[SIDE NOTE: I explained "Heathens" again with an alternate (and, I think, stronger) possible explanation. Please read that one too and let me know what you think! Thanks!}

Psst! Check out my retraction and recreation of my "Heathens" theory! You can subscribe to my podcast on iTunes!

Breaking down the lyrics...

Twenty One Pilots leaked this song on June 15th. The song is intense--very poppy--and supposedly going to be part of the soundtrack for the upcoming Suicide Squad.

It's (basically) a rule that Twenty One Pilots doesn't write in the same genre twice. And we can definitely hear that here with "Heathens." The song is part grunge, maybe part R&B, and part pop. It reminds me of "Fairly Local" more than any other song by them, but even then it's iffy. You can listen if you like and let me know what you think (unless the leaked location I've been listening to has already been removed). Alternatively, I recommend searching for it on Twitter; there seem to be many uploads of the song there. 

Chorus

“Heathens” starts off slowly with Tyler Joseph (the lead singer for Twenty One Pilots) almost crooning the chorus. He sings, “All my friend are heathens; take it slow.” Heathens can mean a lot of different things. Right here, it could refer to people on the outside of a specific group (like Twenty One Pilots’s core fan base), people who we think are morally weaker than us, or people who we don’t understand or think are odd.

Tyler explains here that all of his friends are “heathens,” suggesting that he feels camaraderie with them because he too can be considered a heathen..

One Genius.com annotator thinks the song is Joseph’s warning to the Skeleton Clique (Twenty One Pilots fans) who are rude to recent or “fake fans” who started following the band after “Stressed Out” became popular. The chorus continues with Twenty One Pilots telling us, “Wait for them to ask you who you know / Please don’t make any sudden moves.” This would fit with the annotator’s theory.

Fans will compare notes about which bands they follow and what they listen to. Joseph could be warning them not to make quick assumptions about whether the other fans are legitimate and sincere or not. He gives a warning that “[y]ou don’t know the half of the abuse.” These people may seem like fair weather fans, but there could be something deeper there. People hide their issues, and it’s hard to tell from the outside what’s going on with them.

Alternatively, the song could be about outsiders being careful with the clique and not being too quick to judge them. (You can read more about that and other “Heathens” news.) Joseph could be telling these newcomers that Clique members are special people struggling with deep issues and that they need to be careful when coming into the Clique’s “territory.”

Finally, the chorus could be telling people to be careful about judging each other in general. It’s easy after a little bit of conversation to make assumptions about somebody, but we really do not know what is going on inside of other people’s minds or why they do what they do. Joseph is calling for empathy, patience, and a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.

All-in-all, I think the last two explanations are the most likely to be accurate. This rest of this song seems to fit with the idea that Joseph is singing on behalf of the clique to people coming in from the outside; and then the principles and ideas within that theory can apply to the bigger picture idea of being careful about judging other people in general. As I continue to explain, I’ll speak from the perspective of the second while assuming the third.

[Note: Tyler M. also suggested to me that the “take it slow / Wait for them to ask you who you know” could refer to Christians witnessing to his fanbase. Essentially, these kids have problems and issues, and anyone who thinks they can come in and convince everyone to become a Christian and solve everyone’s problems is in for a rude awakening.]

Verse 1

In the first verse of “Heathens,” Twenty One Pilots welcomes outsiders to their fanbase: “Welcome to the room of people / Who have rooms of people that they loved one day / Docked away.” This seems to be a reference to mental illness or difficulty. These people–the clique–have suffered loss, terrible loss related to losing loved ones (whether to death or other issues).

Tyler continues to explain that this is a dangerous place full of dangerous people. He sings, “Just because we check the guns at the door / Doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades.” It’s a fragile place in the Clique. These people can be unstable, and they grapple with the dangerous emotions that they feel.

Joseph explains that those who join them may “never know the psychopath. . . . / . . . [or] murderer sitting next to you. / You’ll think, ‘How’d I get here sitting next to you?'” While Clique members may not be actual murderers, no one knows where their thoughts go. Joseph seems to be saying, “Who knows what they’re thinking or what they’re struggling with.”

The reference to “murderers” could also be a reference to various Bible verses (Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15) that suggest that someone who hates other people have already committed murder in their hearts. If this is the case, it continues to point towards Joseph’s ideas that the Clique is full of “broken people.”

He finishes the verse by prepping for the chorus: “But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget. . . .”

Verse 2

In the second verse of “Heathens,” Twenty One Pilots tells us, “We don’t deal with outsiders very well / They say newcomers have a certain smell.” The band is explaining that the Clique (or any clique) is going to be worried that outsiders are odd or not part of their group.

He continues by explaining that his people have “trust issues, not to mention / They say they can smell your intentions.” Twenty One Pilots fans tend to be rather deep and to want a lot of meaning in their music so the thought of others joining the fanbase, when those others are simply there to follow popular music or just enjoy the songs superficially, can be threatening to them.

The verse finishes with some repetition of the first verse, but changes “psychopaths” and “murderers” to “the freakshow” and “some weird people.” Just like with the first verse, Joseph leads off into the chorus: “But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget.”

Bridge

The bridge repeats lines from the chorus.

Outro

Tyler uses the outro to bring reconciliation between the deeper new fans and all of the old fans. He asks, “Why’d you come? You knew you should have stayed.” These fans know that they’ve gotten themselves into a new experience that they may not be ready for. Joseph continues, “I tried to warn you just to stay away.” He wanted to save them from getting too deep and being confronted with bigger questions and ideas.

But these people decide to stick it out, perhaps finding the depth in the lyrics. Joseph responds, “And now they’re outside ready to bust”–the event is about to begin–“It looks like you might be one of us.” This person has stuck it out, and so Twenty One Pilots accepts them into the Skeleton Clique.

My questions for the song meaning community:
Did you like “Heathens”?
What do you think about the mentality and “cliquishness” of the Skeleton Clique?
The big question: What other issues can “Heathens” apply to?

Deeper Thoughts…and Outsiders…

This song is deep, and it reminds me of two psychological terms: “in-group” and “out-group.” These refer to the way that people build communities. Any group that you’re a part of (in-group) is going to have something that unifies those people (family, interests, location, etc.), and anyone without that characteristic or quality is part of the out-group.

Oftentimes, in-groups will be suspicious of out-groups. This can strengthen the in-group, but will also make them more likely to think poorly of or dislike the out-group even if there’s no reason to do so.

It sounds like the Skeleton Clique is a very strong in-group that’s suspicious of all outsiders. This makes sense since the stereotypical Clique member struggles with deeper issues and possibly questions about mental health.

I like that Joseph not only affirms the Clique’s fear of being infiltrated by fair-weather fans but also allows a pathway for the those new fans to become part of the core fanbase if they stick around long enough (especially after being warned away). I think this shows good leadership on his part and will help to prepare the community to help more people who need the support and camaraderie.

The song ends with Twenty One Pilots telling the new fans, “It looks like you might be one of us,” finally welcoming them in and letting the Skeleton Clique know that they should accept these people too.

Of course, there are a thousand other situations in the rest of the world where the principles talked about here can be applied (politics, religion, sexuality, etc.). In some of those situations, it might be better to let people into our in-groups more easily, but in others we should be more cautious. It depends on the situation, but Tyler sets a good example here by acknowledging the in-group’s fears while still understanding that people who look like outsiders may actually be insiders and that we need to not keep cliques as absolutes.

Don’t forget to read the second explanation I did for this song. I think my second one’s better! And you can read tons of other Twenty One Pilots song explanations I’ve done too! And follow me on Facebook for updates and more discussion!

If you like Twenty One Pilots a lot, you should check out my podcast where I've explained all of Vessel and more!

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