On Twenty One Pilots & Rock’n’Roll Gimmicks

When I was little, my mom’s friend Martha would often babysit me. Her son Brian was older than I was and I looked up to him partially because of this fact but mostly because he was the first “metalhead” I ever knew. Keep in mind, this was the 1980s and thrash was still a baby – probably even unheard of in the hills of Eastern Tennessee at the time, so when we’d listen to Iron Maiden and other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands it was the hardest, fastest thing my AC/DC-soaked mind had ever heard. We’d hang out in his bedroom, listen to music and play Tetris on NES all under one condition: Brian had to keep his door open.

While this meant we had to keep the music sort-of low, it also meant I didn’t have to look at the evil, horrendous face printed on a door-height poster stapled to the back of Brian’s bedroom door. A horrible monster graced the door’s backside, blood dripping from this demon’s snake-like tongue, soaking his chest and abdomen. “He often breathes fire” Brian once told me while I studied his feet, appendages that appeared to grow into fiery silver dragons. I would look at his face and demonic imagery flowed in and out of my head for the rest of the day and night. The door simply had to remain open.

Gene Simmons, nightmare, KISS
Gene Simmons, nightmare, KISS

Years later I would find out this man’s name was Gene Simmons, bassist for famed glam band KISS, a band I would go on to fancy considerably.

The makeup that the guys in KISS wore served a few different purposes but at the core it was a marketing ploy – a gimmick to sell to the kids; “These guys are evil! They’re crazy! Your mom and dad will piss up ropes if they find you listening to these guys!” was the message and the youth ate it up, making KISS one of the biggest bands in the world. This evil imagery seemed odd to me later in life when I actually listened to them and realized their sound was anything but evil. Either way, their image still worked.

And they knew it would, because it worked for this guy a long time before they ever donned the makeup:

Alice Cooper, King of Rock Theatrics

Thanks to Alice Cooper, rock & roll became truly theatrical. And so it was for many different genres of rock, and especially metal. Mötley Crüe and Poison – two bands I grew up listening to, hardcore movers and shakers in the ’80s hair metal scene – wore makeup in a way that became more common for the male band members than the female groupies that stalked them. A favorite story of mine is how Poison brought in copies of Cosmopolitan magazine to the photographer during their shoot for their debut Look What the Cat Dragged In and said “This is what we want to look like:”. And it came to pass.

Poison, Cosmo style.
Poison, Cosmo style.
Mötley Crüe, Shout at the Hair Dresser
Mötley Crüe, Shout at the Hair Dresser

In the last year or so I’ve gotten into Black Metal – not surprisingly, it’s there, too:

The Great Mayhem, the early years
The Great Mayhem, the early years

Needless to say, I’m familiar with stage theatrics and “that look” that bands try to achieve to accompany their sound and message.

And it works. Sometimes.



A good friend of mine invited me to a Thursday night concert by a band called Twenty One Pilots at the famous Bijou Theatre in beautiful downtown Knoxville, TN. I listened to a couple of their songs before the show and knew ahead of time it wasn’t really going to be “my thing” but I’ve made my friends tough out very late, very loud concerts so attending this show and attempting to enjoy it was the least I could do for them. And I did enjoy it, actually. But a good time is not the only thing I took away from the show.

At the beginning of the show, both guys stormed the stage with ski masks pulled down over their faces.

Ski masks.

Who was this? Pussy Riot? I imagine a band wearing ski masks are going to be singing some potentially frightening, dangerous stuff. Lyrics a person could be arrested for singing.

Nope. Not these guys. But they did try really hard to be wonky by combining the ski masks with ties, sports coats and…Tights.

A little bit later in the show they got even “edgier,” connecting with the Hot Topic crowd by rocking some skeleton jackets. I couldn’t help but think I’ve seen it somewhere before…

Glenn Danzig
Glenn Danzig

At this moment I realized something it’s taken me 29 years to figure out: demonic face paint, corpse paint, eyeliner and rouge, skeleton costumes and ski masks…Are all silly.

Theatrics have always been a thing in rock’n’roll and it always will be. But it’s silly. And in the case of Twenty One Pilots and many others doesn’t add a single thing to the show.

Well…Unless you’re these guys. They’re awesome:


If you’re unfamiliar with Twenty One Pilots, much like I was, please enjoy:

From our show, courtesy of Allison:


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