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I'm Clifford Stumme, and I use literary analysis and research to explain the deeper meanings of pop songs. Feel free to leave a comment or to email me at clifford@popsongprofessor.com with questions or ideas!

What does "Smithereens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

What does "Smithereens" by Twenty One Pilots mean?

“Smithereens” Lyrics Meaning

(The following blog post is a transcript created by Xalma of the below video.)

We are going to talk about twenty one pilots’ song “Smithereens”, it’s the sixth song on the album Trench, and out of all of the songs of this record, this one is the one that made my head hurt the least with just how complicated it was.

Verse One

You know
I've always been collected, calm and chill
And you know
I never look for conflict for the thrill

basically what Tyler is saying here is that he’s trying to establish the story, or the beginning of the story, the background; he’s establishing his character’s personality, so we’ll understand within that context what to come next; so basically he’s giving the introduction to a story here in the first verse; he’s giving us the base plate or where we begin from; so we begin to continue on and tell the story further as it goes. He then continues saying,

 

But if I’m feeling
Someone stepping towards you, can't describe
Just what I'm feeling

 

now because we have that understanding of him as a very calm collected person, who doesn’t look for the conflict for the thrill of it; we know that this feeling inside of him that he can’t describe, which Spoilers Alert: it’s going to get violent; it means that this person he’s singing to brings out an unnatural side of him, a side that he can’t describe in words, he can only react to in a physical expression; the feelings are so incomprehensible to him that he act on them, and he’s just having difficulty rationalising them cognitively. So who is this person? We shall find out, but what does he do, is what we’ll talk about right now,

 

Chorus

For you, I’d go
Step to a dude much bigger than me
For you, I know

 

now if we’re talking about phrases like “I’d go” or “step to”, typically it means you would go and fight somebody. One summer I was working in a summer camp, and a lot of the guys decided that it would be really funny to prank some high-schoolers that were having their spring break nearby; the high-schoolers were driving drunk and doing a lot of marijuana, and we could smile all of that and here all of it; so the guys thought it would be funny to start shooting water balloons at them from hiding places; while the high-schoolers figured it out and as it turned out, there were like really REALLY big high-schoolers; and so they started chasing us down, and there were a lot of them; there were a similar amount of us, and it could have easily turned out to a big fight, there was this point where our biggest dude and their biggest dude were about to step to it, they were like getting in each other’s’ faces, and they were like flexing their pectorals and whatever; based on what happened there all the rest of us were ready to stand down because we could come to a peaceful resolution. And so Tyler is kind of talking about that kind of a moment here, were you would step to somebody else, or get ready to go.

I would get messed up, weigh 153
For you
I would get beat to smithereens

 

it kind of brings into context that idea of a dude that’s “much bigger than me, for reference, I’m skinny, less than 160 pounds”. He’s 153 which is 7 pounds lighter than me, and he’s shorter; and neither of us would do very well in a fight with a dude “bigger than us”. If I needed backup, I’d probably pick Josh over Tyler; and even then, no one is going to pick me as their backup. That leads us to this deeper question, what exactly is Tyler promising here? Is he promising he’d protect this person? Is he promising that he’s going to be up this person he’s going to fight? No, he’s actually promising to accept the beating for the sake of this other person, he is promising to sacrifice himself; he’s not even promising to risk of getting beat up, he is promising to accept it.

In verse two he’s singing about being close to this person,

 

Verse Two

You know
I'll be in the corner taking notes
And you know
I got your six while you're working votes
But if I'm feeling
Someone stepping towards you, can't describe
Just what I'm feeling

 

“got your six” means that he is watching this person’s back, to protect them if something goes wrong; and “taking notes” means that he’s probably watching people to make sure that the person who he cares about is okay, “working votes” is a little bit more confusing, but it could just mean like, relating to other people, I am not sure, and I’d be interested to hear about what you think.

So, who is this song to? Well, he explains it in the bridge as he says,

 

Bridge

You know I had to do one
You know I had to do one on the record (For you)
You know I had to do one on the record for her like this
You know I had to do one on the record for her

 

now there are couple of important hers in Tyler Joseph’s life; there is his sister, his mother, his grandmothers, and then there is his wife Jenna; he has already done one song for her in the record in the past, in the form of “Tear in My Heart” on Blurryface. And in the outro we hear,

 

Outro

For you, I'd go
Write a slick song just to show you the world
For you, I know
They think it’s messed up to sell out for your girl

 

so it really is about Jenna his wife; and I think that the most interesting line in there is “They think it’s messed up to sell out for your girl”, because I was like “I don’t care/mind if Tyler writes a love song about Jenna, who would?!”; but then I thought about things I have said in the past before where I kind of made fun of people who don’t have any more creativity in their minds then to just write crappy love songs; thought obviously this isn’t a crappy love song, but it feels like Tyler is saying that people who really care about the depth that he has in his music, and maybe particularly his fans want to hear more about those deeper questions of life, the philosophical ponderings, and maybe some of the existential crisis and worries; and so when you here this love song, you (or they) could be like “Oh man! What a sell-out, he is writing music about his girl just like every other artist”. I think Tyler finds a way particularly in the description of his own weight and his willingness to get absolutely pounded in “Smithereens” to be unique and interesting, in a way that other people don’t quite seem to manage. It is very impressive and interesting for him to have that level of self-awareness, where he understands that writing music about a female you love and care about in your life, for a male artist, is almost a cliché, if it weren’t such a foundational structural thing in music, art, literature, and songwriting. It’s like “So you really love her, right?! You’d step to for her, yeah?! Okay, cool”; Tyler makes it interesting and unique by saying I’d be willing to get beaten up pretty badly for you; instead of I’m going to beat up that dude. Nope, this dude is going to beat me up; and it’s all for you, my love.

So, this was “Smithereens”, the 6th song on the record Trench by twenty one pilots, a love song that isn’t like any other love song, and we love it.

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