More bands should be willing to retire the music they no longer identify with
This weekend, Paramore played a homecoming show to remember. It was the last in a marathon promo run in Nashville, Tennessee for their fifth studio album After Laughter – the much-acclaimed 2017 LP, a fizzing reflection on unraveling identity, mental health, and relationships curdling under neon lights. It marked a new era for the band, and propelled them into a curious new realm of pop and introspective lyricism unlike anything else Hayley Williams has written before.
Many Paramore fans will know that the band’s performances reach a sweaty, soul-eviscerating peak with “Misery Business”, the ferocious pop punk tune that put the band on every teen’s angsty, torrented CD comps in the mid-00s. Over the years, it has become a known skit – the cloak of suspense thrown over the crowd by Williams, an electrifying, energetic conductor, as she enters a monologue to ask any serious fans in the crowd to volunteer and sing the song’s biggest hook, and dance to the ravaging breakdown. People bring placards that beg to be pulled onto the stage for this moment.
But “Misery Business”, as of this weekend, is no longer a part of Paramore’s sets. “Tonight we’re playing this song for the last time for a really long time,” Williams told the Nashville crowd on Saturday. “This is a choice that we’ve made because we feel that we should, we feel like it's time to move away from it for a little while.”
Making the decision to retire “Misery Business” is a big one – outside of the fandom, it’s the tune everyone knows – and it’s a move we can assume was made with careful, considerate thought by the four-piece band. “This is to every bad decision that led us here, this is to all the embarrassing things we might have said, but we owned up to it and we grew,” Williams added onstage, before launching into the song that made the band into emo-pop legends.
The “embarrassing thing” in question is a lyric in the song that pits Williams against another girl in her high school: “Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry, that will never change.” Williams wrote the song aged 17, and it appeared on the RIOT! album, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. It’s a banger – buzzing guitar lines that run you ragged, a massive chorus with lung-obliterating vocals. It’s a song screamed in the sweat-slicked faces of friends in Manic Panic-technicoloured mosh pits, written across school binders and Redbubble t-shirts. But the “Misery Business” lyric is strange and jarring, an anachronistic relic of slut-shaming pop punk. Then again, it has never fit in with the Paramore back catalogue, which is largely inclusive and liberating.
People have been calling Williams’ decision a ‘snowflake’ move – giving into a post-woke rewriting of art that’s too problematic for contemporary audiences. But re-evaluating your canonical works is vital for personal and artistic growth, and it’s owed to fans who grow up with their beloved bands too. After all, this is the young fandom that once called itself the ‘Parawhores’, a cringy artefact of problematic scene and emo kid rhetoric – something that Williams herself asked her followers to stop doing. An artist should have the ability to archive a song that they no longer agree or identify with – for years now, Williams has described “Misery Business” at shows as “my problem child”, and taken great care to assert to those present that its sentiment hasn’t been something she’s identified with since her teens. Would anyone of us out there be happy with vocalising pages from our angsty teen journals?
Though she’s now approaching 30, Williams has been made to repeatedly apologise and reevaluate the line. “It’s not a set of lyrics that I relate to,” she wrote in a 2015 Tumblr post. “I haven’t related to it in a very long time. Those words were written when I was 17… admittedly, from a very narrow-minded perspective.”
Across continent-spanning tours and five albums, she’s still addressed it and given reflective analysis: “The problem with the lyrics is not that I had an issue with someone I went to school with. That’s just high school and friendships and break-ups,” Williams told Track7 just last year. “It’s the way I tried to call her out using words that didn’t belong in the conversation. It’s the fact that the story was set up inside the context of a competition that didn’t exist over some fantasy romance.”
Williams acknowledged the “cool girl” trope she fed into – one which makes men the gatekeepers of gender and sex, while women are either on a virginal, Madonna-esque pedestal or relentlessly slut-shamed. In retiring the song, Paramore put a fleeting inclination to shame woman for her sexuality permanently to bed.
Though criticism for such songwriting is warranted, it’s not something that’s ever been levelled with as much intensity at any of Williams’ pop punk, emo, or hardcore (male) peers. “Is a whore’s lies worth dying for? I'll just take my time,” A Day to Remember rage on “You Should Have Killed Me When You Had The Chance”, a song that descends into threats of a gory murder-suicide.
Retiring problematic songs is a radical act, and it isn’t done enough by active bands and performers. In Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, he recalls 2006, flooded with emo albums like The Same Old Blood Rush with a New Touch by Cute Is What We Aim For. He describes the bizarre money-grab gig that was the band’s 2016 tenth anniversary tour for the record. Seeing the band singing lyrics about nameless women’s bodies (“Curse of Curves”), underage girls (the horrifically named “The Fourth Drink Instinct”), and their superior male intellect to a crowd of 25 adults was, Abdurraqib writes, “comically uncomfortable”: “weaponising decade-old bitterness doesn’t exactly echo to the corner of nostalgia that I thought it would”.
“I think I was hoping for the band to come out and play revised versions of their old songs,” Abdurraqib writes. “Less bitter, less explicit in their hatred of the women they’ve built out of thin air and been broken by.”
“I’m just a notch in your bedpost, but you’re just a line in a song,” Patrick Stump crooned out on Fall Out Boy’s 2005 hit “Dance Dance”. Taking Back Sunday’s back catalogue is rich with revenge fantasy stories, while Brendon Urie, back in 2008, conceded that Panic! at the Disco’s most classic songs “are demeaning, in a way”. The lyrics of men in pop punk and emo bands too often cast women “on a pedestal or on our backs. Muses at best. Cum rags or invisible at worst,” as Jessica Hopper wrote in The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
This was the music that soundtracked the era of explicit American Apparel adverts, worshipping disgraced photographer Terry Richardson, and arena-filling bands who romanticised teenagers on MySpace. Years later, these adolescent, heartbroken temper tantrums are now stale and embarrassing. We’re still confronting the intense misogyny of the reverberating emo wave.
Since “Miz Biz”, Paramore have had a wild, stratospheric, totally exhausting trajectory – multiple line-up changes, personal disputes, genre-spanning projects. After Laughter is a culmination of lessons learned on that journey, expressed with maturity and radical vulnerability, through explorative avant-garde pop. “You’re wasting all your faith on me,” Williams spits on “Idle Worship”, a ravaging take on the hero image projected onto her. “Tell Me How” is Williams at her most painfully personal, exploring inner demons and relationship pitfalls from the inside out, rather than projecting elsewhere. There’s plenty of other Paramore bangers fans want to hear live (bring back “Pressure”! Do “Emergency” again! Give us “Born for This” and get me on stage for that perfect back and forth!) But more to the point, we’ve grown up with Hayley Williams, and as she does on After Laughter, she’s showing us that she’s grown up too.