Thirteen years ago today, Nashville pop punk outfit Paramore emerged from the underground and shook the world. The band had signed a joint deal with Atlantic Records and Fueled By Ramen two years prior, and the release of their critically-acclaimed sophomore album “RIOT!,” signaled a massive shift in the scene.
As a kid who was raised on pop punk and emo, this album has been highly influential throughout the course of my life from adolescence into early adulthood. But I never realized just how revolutionary it was for its time and what it did for women in pop punk, a scene where the representation of frontwomen on a mainstream level was incredibly sparse until Hayley Williams emerged and shattered that glass ceiling.
Pop punk has a complicated legacy. The sweaty basement shows and the summers at Warped Tour definitely provided a strong sense of community for teenage outcasts, but it also received heaps of criticism for setting back the progress of ’90s political punk and the riot grrrl movement, trading male feminist solidarity on Nirvana and Fugazi records for sappy heartbreak tunes that were dripping with male tears and thinly-veiled misogyny.
By 2003 the scene had transformed into a breeding ground for passive-aggressive fragile masculinity and songs about men wishing death on their ex-girlfriends. Fall Out Boy’s “Take This To Your Grave” was essentially musical revenge porn. Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, and New Found Glory are just few of the many all-male groups who built their whole careers off of slut-shaming and bashing young women who had the audacity to say no to sleeping with them.
In 2003, Jessica Hopper lamented how “emo [had] become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others,” in a scathing article titled “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” This felt like a signal to the universe to send something major to disrupt this nightmare, and the meteoric rise of Hayley Williams four years later felt like an answer to that call.
Williams’ killer vocals and flaming charisma made her so magnetic that it was impossible to look away, even for the most skeptical spectators. Watching her yowl and thrash around on stage with her cutoff jeans, Doc Martens, and pastel-colored hair was a revelation for kids like me who didn’t grow up adhering to conventional stereotypes of femininity.
As a kid who grew up queer and didn’t always feel safe around boys my age, it was extremely cathartic to listen to Williams belt out lyrics that mercilessly chided men for their inexcusable behavior and mistreatment of women on songs like “That’s What You Get” (“No sir/I don’t wanna be the blame, not anymore/It’s your turn to take a seat/We’re settling the final score”).
But this didn’t shield the band from criticism. Although seeing Williams smash through these barriers was huge for women in these spaces at the time, her image also received a lot of backlash for perpetuating the “not like other girls” trope. The song “Misery Business,” also had elements of internalized misogyny in the lyrics (“Once a whore, you’re nothing more/I’m sorry that will never change”) which eventually lead to Williams’ decision to stop playing the song.
Despite their faults, it cannot be denied that Paramore started highly important conversations in the pop punk/alt community. Williams was singing about mental health, anxiety, self-reflection, and depression so openly at a time when not even the World Health Organization would take it seriously.
The Paramore fanbase was also incredibly diverse. They had pop stans, metalheads, queer emo kids, and punk veterans all flocking to their shows. And everybody involved in online alt communities is aware of how intensely passionate and vocal black fans of Williams are, even penning articles and composing twitter threads about why Paramore is so beloved by their community.
“RIOT!” also contains so many timeless records. The grating guitar riffs and the alternation of William’s earth-shattering range and controlled drawbacks on the opener “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” are so emotionally jarring that it’s impossible to finish that track without feeling haunted by her palpable anger (“I put my faith in you, so much faith/And then you just threw it away”). The infectious drum strikes on “crushcrushcrush,” the gritty bassline on “Fences,” the rumbling percussion on “Born for This,” and Hayley’s towering vocals on “Hallelujah” and “Let the Flames Begin,” are all tracks that transcend space and time.
In many ways Paramore was pop punk’s lifeline, because they brought a fresh perspective to a genre that was getting stale and overwrought with male aggression. They brought new life to a scene that was dying and gave it a blood transfusion.
We needed a woman in that particular scene to take the world by storm and unapologetically let the girls know that they don’t owe it to anybody to constantly put on a happy face and abide by societal norms, and there’s no shame in being angry or depressed. Hayley Williams paved the way for the onslaught of women who would rise to prominence in her respective scene such as Lynn Gunn of PVRIS, Sofia Verbilla from Harmony Woods, and Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast. And the most incredible part is that people are finally listening.