Not all repetition is vain repetition. To be sure, the sort of repetition by which a naughty child in school is given a certain number of lines to write on the board, or by which the penitent in a Roman Catholic confessional is given a certain number of prayers to read, is often vain repetition. If the object of a particular exercise is simply to get it done a certain number of times, without any other interest than repetition, than it is certainly vain. It is not for our many words that God hears our prayers, after all. That said, there are repetitions that are not vain at all, but are rather the heart pouring out its anxieties, perhaps repeating the same words, with tears and weeping if need be. When the late singer Gerry Rafferty  sang his version of the Greek mass Kyrie Elieson, he repeated the phrases of the song many times, but not vainly. He sang them with feeling, asking Jesus Christ to have mercy on him, for he knew he was a sinner, locked in a fatal battle with the alcoholism that destroyed his marriage and a great deal of the joy and happiness in his life, a losing battle with the bottle he had inherited from his abusive father. No, he was not vainly repeating his request for mercy. He meant every word with sincerity of heart, and the result is a moving performance. It is that sort of prayer that I hear in the bridge and closing of the recent single by Twenty One Pilots when Tyler, the lead singer, repeats over and over again: “I’ve been thinking too much; help me.” Such repetition is done with feeling, and is not merely trying to fill out time.
Like most people, I suppose, I had not heard of Twenty One Pilots before their most recent album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has so far spawned three successful singles on the alternative music stations I often listen to while I’m taking my time on my ride. One of the most striking aspects that unites all of those singles together is the theme of anxiety. In “Ride,” the singer is fretting over the commitment to love, with the realization that it is easy to make promises based on a certain emotional state, and then struggle to continue that commitment if and when feelings chance. This is a common problem: people will say all sorts of things to convince someone else to be with them or stay with them, but may lack the ability to perform according to those commitments, while others may feel cheated that they were sold a bill of goods that ended up being a fraud. Yet surely the greatest possible defense against defrauding other people is precisely to be very concerned about the meaning of our words and their lasting effect, and to be conscientious about our commitments and promises, whether implied or expressed. Surely there is much torment in being a sensitive soul that grieves over possible or unintentional suffering inflicted on other people, but there is a lot less torment being so than in being the soul that untroubled and unaware creates havoc in the lives of others, for that torment comes later, and with a heavier price tag.
Nor is this the only song with such anxiety taking center stage. The previous single of theirs I was aware of, “Stressed Out,” treads on similar ground, relating to the nostalgia of having thought that being an adult meant that one was no longer insecure and didn’t care what people thought, and fretting over the rules and conventions of the music world and the expectations for originality that they have as artists. One might think that such an inwardly-focused song would have limited appeal, but that was not the case at all. Despite its flaws, or maybe because of them, the song hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their first massive crossover hit, and so far is their only Top 40 hit in Great Britain as well. No, for all of the naval gazing of the band, their anxious wondering has clearly struck a nerve with listeners and with radio programmers. The same can be said of the first single from their most recent album, Blurryface, called “Tear In My Heart,” which is also a song about anxiety, about driving on potholed roads with a sleeping partner, trying to make it home safe. Again, this is a very anxiety-inducing sort of experience, and that single was a hit as well, going top ten on both the rock and alternative charts and going top 40 on the digital charts, as well as being a minor crossover hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
It is unclear whether this band, for all of its contemporary popularity, will endure in popularity in the years and decades to come. It is also impossible to say whether the oddball and quirky songs that they have released will be the sort of material that has lasting catalog value or if they will join plenty of other bands in obscurity to be trotted out for occasional features that trade on their past popularity. Whether their success is lasting or whether they are a band of passing popularity, the fact that their anxiety struck a chord is of more serious interest. After all, their anxiety is so pervasive that it forms a major aspect of the lyrics of the songs, and even the tempo of the material. And clearly this anxiety resonates with people. Whether the anxiety is about the harm to people in a relationship that is caused by the failure of governments to fulfill their obligations to keep roads free of potholes, or is in the way that people are viewed as artists and musicians or the way that adulthood is way less enjoyable than it appears from the vantage point of childhood, or the anxiety comes in wondering about the future of one’s relationships, we live in an age of anxiety. The music is popular in large part because it speaks to widespread concerns and anxieties.
What are we to do about them, though? How are we to live in an anxious age without being overwhelmed by the anxiety within us and around us? How are we to recognize the sensitivities of those around us and respond to them with the graciousness and forbearance that we want for ourselves? And where does all this anxiety come from in the first place? In many cases, the anxiety we face comes about as a result of a loss of faith. As we lack faith in the goodness of governments and authorities, we do not trust that good laws will be enacted, good decisions will be made by the courts, or even that decent and honorable people will be placed in positions of office. Certainly nothing in our contemporary world order gives us confidence in the wisdom of electorates or in the competence or goodness of our elected and appointed rulers. Similarly, our lack of trust in the received wisdom we get from others, and the fact that we make plans for the future that affect us for decades to come based on dangerously incomplete and often woefully mistaken grounds increases the possibility of disaster and difficulty. In addition to this, the widespread breakdown of unity in churches, communities, and families makes it difficult to trust either ourselves, our partners, or our parents when it comes to doing what is necessary to keep people together in honorable unity, with mutual love and respect. But merely being anxious and reflective does not help with these matters, for we only benefit from our reflection to the extent that we are led to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our being and to love others as we love ourselves. This requires, of course, that we should have a healthy love for ourselves as being children of the Most High God, worthy of honor and respect from others, a sense of regard for our God-given status that pokes and prods at the abusive and selfish tendencies of those around us, and can be a source of godly conflict in an evil world. If we repeat ourselves as we seek to better ourselves, to listen to the concerns of those around us, and to express what is in the wellspring of our hearts, let us hope that we will be forgiven for repeating ourselves often.
 See, for example: