This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, The Wonder Years as a band for your twenties in the post-recession era.
Like most people my age, the first Paramore song I ever heard was “Misery Business”.
“Misery Business” is a great song, but its lyrics haven’t aged well. They’re pretty nasty towards the other woman, e.g. “she’s got a body like an hourglass / it’s ticking like a clock” and other comments shaming her appearance or sexuality. That’s not terribly surprising given half the band were still minors when their sophomore album, Riot!, was released, but that hasn’t stopped people from making lead singer and lyricist Hayley Williams spend the past ten years apologising for “Misery Business”.
Except Hayley Williams won’t apologise, not because she doesn’t understand the misogyny of a lyric like “once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change”, but because she refuses at twenty-eight years old to beat up on her teenage self for being a teenager, for having ugly feelings or dumb thoughts. As she wrote in a Tumblr post two years ago: “those words were written when i was 17… admittedly, from a very narrow-minded perspective. it wasn’t really meant to be this big philosophical statement about anything. it was quite literally a page in my diary about a singular moment i experienced as a high schooler.” Even if it wasn’t a shining moment, it was a necessary step to work through the hurt she felt at the time, and she’s not about to martyr herself over not already being a mature adult when she was still in the process of growing up.
We live in a world that demands we schedule our emotions around the convenience of others. No feelings at work, at school or in polite company. We are expected to be perpetually pleasant in public and limit any displays of emotion – particularly emotions that might make other people feel uncomfortable – not just to the private sphere, but to our most private selves. We’re constantly told it’s unhealthy to bottle up our emotions, but let even a little pour out and we get strange looks. We’re told to pull it together, not because it’s harmful to express ourselves, but because it’s bad manners.
No one escapes these expectations, but teenagers get the worst of it. Their feelings are dismissed as teenage angst, as if their age makes their anger, sadness, frustration, doubt and fear less serious, or hormonal moodiness, as if emotions caused by physical stimuli aren’t real or distressing. Right as they begin to experience new emotions, or experience their emotions in new ways, all the latitude for emotional messiness they had as innocent children who didn’t know any better is taken away. All that would be unfair enough, but it’s all the worse because epidemic mental illness among teenagers is a major public health crisis all across the world. One in every four American teenagers has had an anxiety disorder, the Australian teen suicide rate hit a ten-year high last year and two-thirds of Canadian teenagers are at high risk of developing a mental illness. Teenage girls are particularly vulnerable: the number of teenage girls in the UK who received inpatient treatment for cutting themselves quadrupled over the last ten years.
Meanwhile, the politicians and civil servants and administrative officials responsible for our health services couldn’t care less. Ireland has the highest rate of suicide among teenage girls in Europe, but when the police in my city pulled an 18-year-old girl out of the river following a suicide attempt, she was refused admission to the city hospital and had to be kept in a jail cell to prevent another attempt.
In short: being a teenager is fucked up, and Hayley Williams refuses to pick on teenagers, especially teenage girls, for not being perfect. Instead of disavowing it entirely, Paramore have made their live performances of “Misery Business” into an elaborate participatory ritual:
“Where the song should lurch into its vengeful bridge, the music enters a tense loop and Williams begins to spiel. She makes a show of scanning the audience for the right fan, one who’ll know every word and would sing with a requisite zeal. When she makes her choice, she brings them onstage and hands them the mic, a spotlight, a moment ablaze. Instead of sweeping an unsavory mistake under the rug, Williams invites fans to work through their own scorn so they can unlearn it together.
“Misery Business” was a symptom, not the illness. It was the inevitable result of the noxious lies girls are fed about themselves beginning from birth. And sometimes, the only way to get rid of all that venom is to spit it back out.”
Not all our emotions are convenient or pleasant or even particularly kind, to ourselves or to others, but we can’t just choose not to feel them and feel whatever makes ourselves or others happier. If we resist these emotions instead of accepting them and working through them, we only make them worse: “the more we fear, struggle with, and try to avoid any form of distress, generally the worse that distress gets. Our fear and avoidance of the distress actually magnifies the distress.”
Sincerity is the core of the pop punk ethos. Pop punk isn’t about being cool, it’s about being open and honest and not hiding what matters to you or playing down your feelings. Whether their songs are about masturbation or divorce, pop punk bands sing and play like they care about it more than anything in the world, and Paramore might be the most achingly sincere pop punk band of all. “We’ve learned to run from anything uncomfortable,” Hayley sings on “Miracle”, but Paramore’s music attempts to force a confrontation with our own most uncomfortable feelings so we can accept and move past them. There’s a strange and increasingly popular notion that every work of art must have an agenda, some sort of moral or political viewpoint it wants to convey. But although all art has moral and political content, not all art has a moral or political purpose. Some art just exists as a snapshot of a moment in time, like Zach Clark’s Little Sister or Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Though not true of all their songs, Paramore’s music mostly does with feelings what those films do with history. Hayley writes her lyrics around a sincere emotional moment, however ugly and messy it may be, and invites anyone who’s felt the same way to sing along – they don’t tell how you should feel, they just acknowledge how you already feel and give you a chance to ride out those feelings instead of running away from them.
All great pop punk bands do this to some extent, but it’s the core of what Paramore’s music is about, and because the band members are so young, it carries an extra relevance and potency you don’t find in other pop punk bands from the wave of hardcore-influenced pop punk that was particularly popular in America during the Bush administration, like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. I love both those bands, and Gerard Way is my hero, but he’s also forty years old. Pete Wentz is thirty-eight. Patrick Stump is thirty-three. Jesse Lacey is thirty-nine. Justin Pierre is forty-one. Max Bemis is thirty-three. Jim Adkins is forty-one. Adam Lazzara is thirty-five. Joel and Benji Madden are thirty-eight. Everyone in Blink-182 and Green Day is over forty.
Hayley Williams is twenty-eight, just five years older than me. She and Brendon Urie are the only major pop punk frontmen from the Bush years who were born after Green Day formed, and Brendon Urie is basically Satan, so he doesn’t count.
Sincerity is uncomfortable, not just because it involves leaning into our unpleasant emotions, but because it makes us vulnerable to the world. I think a lot about the constant raft of articles about why millennials aren’t getting married and how they just take it at face value when survey data says we’re not interested in it, when the truth is more complicated. People stress and sweat over the youth disinterest in marriage, but few of them seem to consider just how financially unstable our lives are, and why that might prevent us from settling down. Of course, lots of millennials just aren’t interested in marriage – maybe more than previous generations, maybe the same but more willing to say so because it’s become more socially acceptable – but dig under the skin and you’ll find plenty of us still want marriage and kids and a home. We just don’t believe it’s in the cards for us, and so we dismiss it in a posture of above-it-all-ness because cynicism cauterises the wounds of our amputated dreams. Millennials are the first generation who will be poorer than our parents, and decades of buck-passing has left us staring down the barrel of an imminent ecological apocalypse: “with climate change, we are the generation that will have to live with its impact… we don’t get to choose whether or not we believe that climate change is real”. Sometimes all we can do to protect ourselves from the world is put on a façade of ironic detachment that can only delay the inevitable confrontation with our own feelings.
Paramore’s self-titled album begins: “Been through the ringer a couple times / I came out calloused and cruel”. Hayley sings it with a sneer, but “Fast in My Car” is not a celebration of how we have to harden ourselves against the world, it’s just a statement of emotional truth that refuses to apologise for or defend itself. “Hollowed out and filled up with hate / all we want is you to give us a break,” she sings right before the chorus, and she’s not asking, because she knows no one is going to give it. She’s just saying what we want, and when you sing along, there’s something incredibly freeing about just being able to put the demand into words.
I was a mentally-ill teenager from 2006 to 2012 and it wasn’t exactly the time of my life. I drifted in and out of treatment for years, some of it helpful, most of it not. I had a hard time making friends and a harder time keeping them around. I spent a lot of time by myself, and that’s where I listened to pop punk. My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were my mainstays, bands fronted by soft, sensitive, scared, intelligent, witty, kinda effeminate boys who gave me the words to explain myself to myself. “I’m Not Okay” let me tell myself I wasn’t okay, and “Famous Last Words” let me tell myself that I could keep going anyway. Nothing summed up the precarious, transitional state of my life better than “The (After) Life of the Party”: “I’m a stitch away from making it / and a scar away from falling apart”.
Often, the worst part of being a mentally-ill teenager is not knowing where your mental illness ends and the normal churning of your emotions begins. You doubt your own intuition that something isn’t right because you don’t know how you’re supposed to feel or what other people feel like inside. Not all unpleasant emotions are a result of mental illness, and you don’t want to be called dramatic or oversensitive. You definitely don’t want to work up the courage to tell somebody you think you need help and not be taken seriously. You’re just a teenager, you don’t know anything about life, what could you possibly be sad about? You already know there are people in the world who’ll say that, and so you say it to yourself because you think it’ll hurt less. You say it to yourself over and over, and you think that maybe one day if you can convince yourself that your feelings actually do matter, that your pain is real and serious and valid, regardless of your age, you’ll know that’s the day you’ve finally earned the right to ask for help. Hard enough to know your own mind, but when the world is let loose inside it, it’s almost impossible. If you’ve never experienced that, it’s hard to explain the sense of relief that comes with just having words to describe how you feel. It’s like you’ve been trapped in raging waters for as long as you can remember, dragged along endlessly by currents you can’t resist or even predict. You thrash and scream and reach for something, anything you can hold on to, but everything just slips through your fingers. Then suddenly your hand finds a crack in a rock and for the first time in forever, you’re still. Even though the water is still beating against you, even though you’re not safe yet, you’ve found a moment to catch your breath and get your bearings. Whatever else happens next, at least you had a second to figure out where you are.
I’m a stitch away from making it, and a scar away from falling apart.
I will never undersell the feelings of relief and clarity and hope that I got from My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy when I was a teenager. I wouldn’t be alive without them. But there was an obvious limit to what they could do for me – those soft, sensitive, scared, intelligent, witty, kinda effeminate boys could teach me to be more comfortable and accepting of myself as a soft, sensitive, scared, intelligent, witty, kinda effeminate boy, but their music was always a salve for my wounds, or a suit of armour to guard me from future slings and arrows. They couldn’t teach me to be anything but a soft, sensitive, scared, intelligent, witty, kinda effeminate boy, and I needed more than that. When you’re a teenager, a lot of what you need is just breathing room, the time and space to figure things out for yourself, without pressure, without judgement and without the freight train of adulthood bearing down on you all the time – to be left alone for a while so you can just listen to your heart and not be given out to for “doing nothing” when you’re actually doing the most important work of all, which is figuring out how to become yourself. No one was going to give me that if I didn’t ask for it – if I didn’t demand it. But I couldn’t learn how to do that from Patrick Stump, Gerard Way or Pete Wentz. They gave me the words to accept myself, but not how to tell other people they needed to accept me.
I needed a small, loud, bratty girl called Hayley Williams to give me words like “I’m just a person, but you can’t take it” and “Next time you point a finger / I might have to bend it back and break it, break it off” and “You can’t tell me to feel”. I was never good at demanding the time and space I needed as a teenager, at asserting my right to just exist in whatever inconvenient and ugly and broken way I did and just figure out what I needed without all the constant pressure to live up to everyone else’s expectations, but however good I was, it was because Hayley Williams taught me on Paramore’s third album, Brand New Eyes.
Brand New Eyes is kind of a strange album if you expect art to tell you how you should feel and not acknowledge how you already feel and give you the chance to feel through it. “Brick by Boring Brick” is about managing your expectations in the face of a hostile world (“make sure to build our home brick by boring brick / or the world’s gonna blow it down”) and “Turn It Off” is basically an anthem to despair (“and the worst part is / before it gets any better / we’re headed for a cliff”). “Feeling Sorry” is about giving up on friends who won’t take your help, “The Only Exception” is about how maybe love isn’t complete bullshit, “Misguided Ghosts” is about feeling lost in the world with no place to call home. There are very few bright spots, but when I was a teenager, the hopelessness that pervades the lyrics of Brand New Eyes paradoxically relieved my own hopelessness by making it seem like a normal part of life that lots of people had to deal with instead of an emergency I needed to solve immediately. Once I wasn’t in a constant state of panic about my own feelings, things didn’t seem as bleak.
Like many people who loved pop punk as a teenager, I drifted away from it as I approached my twenties because it wasn’t music that adults were supposed to like. I spent a few years listening to music it was more socially acceptable for me to like (Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, The National) and pretending to like music I didn’t to fit in (Manchester Orchestra, Death Cab for Cutie, Mark Kozelek), and by the time I came back to pop punk, Paramore weren’t a pop punk band anymore. Their self-titled album is a smorgasbord of pop rock, while their most recent album, After Laughter, is full-on new wave. But in another sense, Paramore are more pop punk than they’ve ever been, more committed than ever to sincerity, with all the vulnerability and discomfort that entails.
After Laughter is about Hayley Williams’ on-going struggle with depression and anxiety, and it’s both the band’s darkest album lyrically and their brightest musically. Whimsical xylophone sits side-by-side with lyrics like “for all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come”. “Idle Worship” features the most powerful vocal performance of Hayley’s career as she screams out her frustration at the expectation that she as an artist be responsible for saving anyone else when she’s just a human being who needs saving herself: “we all got problems, don’t we? / we all need heroes, don’t we? / well rest assured there’s not a single person here who’s worthy!” She’s not shy about suicide references (“you got me nervous / I’m right at the end of my rope / a half-empty girl / don’t make me laugh, I’ll choke”) or blunt disclosures of her mental state (“I can’t think of getting old / it only makes me want to die”). After Laughter is Hayley at her most defeated and exhausted, and as a former mentally-ill teenager, current mentally-ill young adult, After Laughter hit me in ways I didn’t expect. Lots of art captures the stress and suffering of mental illness, but I think After Laughter might be the first time I felt like an artist really understood the tedium of it, the awful grinding boredom of it, day after day, week after week, year after year. How hopelessness becomes habit and almost stops hurting because nothing so banal could be all that painful. The casual way Hayley sings a line like “all that I want is to wake up fine / tell me that I’m alright, that I ain’t gonna die”, as if such low expectations didn’t imply a horrifying mental state and quality of life, feels more like the lived reality of mental illness than any prestige drama or sad-com or Oscar-bait biopic about a troubled genius. I didn’t realise until After Laughter that anyone else understood just how dull it is to be mentally ill.
If that was all that After Laughter did, it would be an extraordinary album. But even here, at her lowest point, Hayley demands the time and space to feel her emotions on her own schedule. “Just let me cry a little bit longer / I ain’t gonna smile if I don’t want to,” she sings in “Rose-Colored Boy”, addressed to a well-meaning friend who thinks he can talk her healthy. “And I want you to stop / insisting that I’m not / a lost cause / because I’ve been through a lot / and all I’ve really got is just to stay pissed off”. “Fake Happy” expresses her frustration at having to pretend to be okay for other people’s peace of mind (“Oh please, don’t ask me how I’ve been / don’t make me play pretend”) and “Forgiveness” is about her refusal to forgive someone who hurt her until she’s ready – which may never happen, and if not, that’s her prerogative. I’m still not very good at demanding the time and space I need to process my own feelings at my own pace, but ten years since I first heard “Misery Business” and thought it was just about the coolest thing in the world, Hayley Williams is still making it easier by giving me the words to refuse the world’s expectation that I make my emotional health comply with its schedule.
Paramore aren’t my favourite pop punk band, but I decided to make them my first contribution to the series because they were one of the greatest pop punk bands ever, and I worry they’ll be written out of the genre’s history. We began this series as a corrective to the shallow and listicle-dominated state of writing about pop punk, and Paramore are a frequent casualty of such writing. Articles like “36 Pop Punk Albums You Need to Hear Before You F—ing Die” almost always act like their first two albums, All We Know Is Falling and Riot!, are their only pop punk albums, consistently skip right over Brand New Eyes, and then refers to their most recent albums, Paramore and After Laughter, as not being pop punk albums. While the last part is true, the rest is so wrong that it makes my blood boil: All We Know Is Falling and Riot! each have their share of great songs, but as albums they’re very much the work of a band still figuring itself out.
Brand New Eyes is where Paramore really found their voice. It’s one of the greatest pop punk albums of all time, but never gets recognised as such, and Paramore are rarely mentioned as an all-time great pop punk band. That’s partially due to drifting out of the genre on their past two albums, but Fall Out Boy did that too – it just hasn’t affected them as much because they were already recognised as an important pop punk band in the first place, and had their biggest mainstream hits (e.g. “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” and “Thnks fr th Mmrs”) when they were more overtly pop punk. Paramore are at no risk of being forgotten: they’ve been one of the most consistently successful bands of the post-millennial pop punk boom, and “The Only Exception” is maybe the biggest crossover hit by any pop punk band ever, a bona fide pop standard that will outlast all of us. But there’s a difference between being forgotten and being misremembered and it would kill me to think their contribution to pop punk’s legacy – and pop punk’s continuing influence on their music – wasn’t sufficiently appreciated.
Paramore aren’t the most important band in my life. I couldn’t honestly credit them with keeping me alive the way I could credit My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. But there’s more to life than staying alive. You need to be able to face the world with your heart on your sleeve, even if it leaves you vulnerable, and Paramore’s music lets me feel my way through my fear of that vulnerability.
Reality will break your heart
Survival will not be the hardest part
It’s keeping all your hopes alive
When all the rest of you has died
So let it break your heart
Life’s not worth living otherwise.