From the moment Hayley Williams founded Paramore with three Christian boys in Nashville, she was consumed by Biblical levels of conflict. Williams signed as a solo artist with Atlantic on the heels of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” Her male bandmates performed and recorded without a contract. To counteract the narrative that a major label had engineered Williams, Atlantic released Paramore’s 2005 debut album, All We Know Is Falling, through the “sub-label” Fueled by Ramen. Critics caught onto the ruse, with Gigwise writing, “The band are an A&R man’s fantasy.” But Williams connected with angsty teens partially because the critics seemed to be bullying her.
The bullying continued when Paramore changed their lineup and released the 2007 sophomore album Riot! “A crunching, flashlight-white amalgamation of Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson,” panned Drowned in Sound. Emo purists said Paramore appropriated the movement. But instead of silencing Williams, the backlash seemed to fuel her (and her fans). Lead single “Misery Business” played in heavy rotation on MTV. 2008’s “Decode” was included on the Twilight soundtrack and introduced Williams’s neon-red hair to a wider audience — it was a generation-defining look for teens. But snobbish music critics never accepted the group.
Following the commercial success of “Decode,” Paramore recorded a third album, Brand New Eyes, which mixed radio-friendly ballads like “The Only Exception,” with the seething rage of “Playing God,” a brutal critique of self-righteous preachers. But for some band members, the album became a rallying cry against Williams. Josh and Zac Farro left the band, accusing Williams of being “a manufactured product of a major label.” Josh complained the album betrayed the band’s Christian roots. Williams became the villain.
Williams channeled the betrayal into Paramore’s fourth album, 2013’s Self-Titled, which consisted of hit singles like “Ain’t It Fun,” which pulled from Williams’s southern roots. With Paramore climbing the Billboard Hot 100, VICE’s influential music blog Noisey declared Paramore “the world’s best rock band.” It was a stunning reversal for America’s reigning hipsters to embrace America’s most derided emo villains.
But then bassist and co-founder Jeremy Davis quit, suing Williams over songwriting credits and royalties. Drummer Zac Farro rejoined the band. With Farro and guitarist Taylor York, Williams wrote a pack of Eighties-style dance songs tied to emotional lyrics for 2017’s After Laughter. Williams turned her angst into dance music that connected with a certain subset of fans. But After Laughter was a commercial disappointment.
This month, Paramore returns with their first album in six years: This Is Why. Between After Laughter and This Is Why — including a solo album in 2020 — Williams became one of the most influential (and beloved) voices in music. Her influence was everywhere, from Taylor Swift’s Reputation to rapper XXXTentacion, who filmed himself listening to Williams. Billie Eilish invited Williams to Coachella to sing “Misery Business.” She stopped being the villain. Nobody acknowledged the reversal, except Williams. She paused during the band’s When We Were Young festival set to deliver a speech on the torment of her emo years. “We’ve been around for almost twenty years, and I’ve had my fill of letting older people — especially older men — tell me what punk rock is.” During the Riot! era, the emo purists in the crowd would have thrown stones at her. Today, they applaud.
What happens when someone who was cool because they were hated is suddenly accepted? Paramore’s new sound contrasts dramatically with the band’s controversy-fueled peak. Written during Covid lockdowns, the lead single feels sparse and underproduced. It’s possible the feeling comes from the uninspired lyrics: In “This Is Why,” Williams ponders why she refused to leave her house: “If you have an opinion / Maybe you should shove it / Or maybe you could scream it / Might be best to keep it / To yourself.” The song lacks the emotional honesty of “Playing God”; here, Hayley Williams sounds a little preachy.
Maybe she’s overcompensating for growing up in the South. Williams said in an interview with podcaster Zane Lowe that she disagreed with her relatives during the lockdowns, and she wanted the world to know. The girl who once threatened to break preachers’ fingers sounded pretty didactic herself. (As anyone who grew up in the South knows, the only thing worse than a Baptist preacher is a self-righteous Southerner who preaches another kind of dogma.)
In 2018, when Paramore retired “Misery Business” from their live set, it seemed like Williams was giving in to her critics. “We feel like it’s time to move away from it for a little while,” she told Alternative Press. Why? It wasn’t clear if Williams felt it was time or the critics had told her it was. When she performed the song again in 2022, she gave a little speech: “This song is about misogyny…” Williams was rejecting how she felt in the aughts. It felt like she was rewriting her own history. She had joined her critics.
With the first two singles for This Is Why mostly bombing, a rarity for Paramore, it could inspire Hayley Williams to find her voice again. It could force her to rediscover her scream as a fire-breathing emo villain, instead of a self-righteous preacher. Amen to that.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2023 World edition.