Finding Strength in Softness Through Hayley Williams
Hayley’s rage-filled vocals used to provide an emotional outlet that gave voice to loss, anger, and confusion I couldn’t put words to yet.
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He missed my high school graduation, and the full weight of the heartache and frustration of those years hit me. Until then it had lain dormant. Many of my days at my dad’s house were spent sitting at a desktop computer watching videos of Paramore performances and interviews for hours. Hayley’s rage-filled vocals provided an emotional outlet that gave voice to loss, anger, and confusion I couldn’t put words to yet.
It’s why, when it came to my love for the genre, Paramore’s music towered above all the rest. In my adolescence, I saw myself in Paramore, and in Hayley specifically, more than any of the other bands I was listening to. Most of these bands were fronted by men, who were usually crying about how girls had fucked them over. Paramore had Hayley at the helm, and this stood out in a section of the music world even more male dominated than the rest of the industry already is.
The band is one of the few prominent musical acts from the heyday of mid-2000s pop punk to emerge gracefully, effortlessly blurring genre lines for the latter half of their career. Their music has grown with its audience. And like all of us, that growth has not come without significant challenges. Paramore has been notable for its consistent lineup changes over the years, driven by very public interpersonal conflict among members of the band, made up of childhood friends from Tennessee.
Following brothers Josh and Zac Farro’s departure from the band in 2010, the media portrayed Hayley in a deeply sexist light. Hayley experienced this on top of already being one of very few women in the “brutally misogynistic” 2000s emo scene. Hayley has described having to yell at men shouting for her to take her top off while she was onstage at only sixteen years old. Williams was made subject to so many bad behaviors, by so many, primarily older, men, at a very young age, and as such, she was forced to be tough in the face of abhorrent treatment. I grew up watching her tough-girl persona, and I was most drawn to it when I was a child myself.
When I was seventeen, I experienced the first of a number of instances of sexual violence in my life. This violence triggered the deeply rooted anxiety that had lain mostly dormant in me throughout my childhood. I had learned young to be tough, to not show just how much I’d been hurt by the people I was supposed to be able to trust. And at seventeen, I clung to that toughness as my coping mechanism. In that time, I kept turning to Paramore.
Hayley Williams, in the peak of her take-no-shit, tough-rock-girl days, was truly as present in my life as one of my best friends.
In many ways, Paramore’s music, and simultaneously what Hayley has shared with us through this music, has followed the developmental arc of much of its audience, and my life, specifically. While my middle school days were soundtracked by the angst-ridden Riot! and Brand New Eyes,Paramore released “Ain’t It Fun,” a pop rock anthem about the harsh reality of growing up, on the cusp of my high school graduation. But After Laughter, their most recent and most critically acclaimed album, was released in 2017, and it followed me through this fraught time period. The album deals with themes of depression, forgiveness, growing up, and the past catching up with you.
As the band’s music was changing, so was I. After being sexually assaulted multiple times at the end of 2018, I went to therapy. I spent days in my new therapist’s office wide-eyed, speaking a mile per minute, and telling her that I had too much on my plate to truly confront the things that had happened to me. If I really went there, I would drown. She once had me do an exercise where I planted my feet on the ground, placed one hand over my heart, inhaled deeply, and allowed myself to slow down.
With my hand on my heart, I started maniacally laughing. I physically could not allow myself to rest in that moment. I was much more comfortable with my other coping mechanisms, the tough-girl persona I’d inhabited since childhood. Yelling at men who looked at me the wrong way on the train. Cutting people off who crossed me without a second thought. Drinking. Hardness felt so much easier than succumbing to my vulnerabilities, even though that hardness was breaking me.
When After Laughter came out, it had been four years since Paramore released an album, and in my adulthood, the band that had defined my adolescence felt rather distant to me. But as I listened to Hayley doing an interview with Zane Lowe during the album cycle, I felt drawn in all over again. Lowe asked Hayley if she had ever dealt with anxiety and depression.
“Now, yeah,” she answered. “Three years ago, no.”
In that moment, it was like Hayley was speaking directly to me, much like when I was in middle and high school. And despite how long it’d been since I felt connected to Paramore’s music, there were few times I had ever felt so seen. The musician I had felt so emotionally connected to for the majority of my life could relate to some of the pains I’d experienced. Probably understood pieces of what I had gone through. Had felt the weight of depression and heartache, but hadn’t always felt that way. In the time that elapsed between the band’s self-titled album and After Laughter, we had grappled with trauma and had seen that trauma manifest new anxieties.
Hayley has been intensely honest about her experiences with depression and suicidal ideation, and how this stemmed from recent traumas forcing her to confront past traumas from her childhood. This confrontation is central to her 2020 debut solo album, Petals for Armor. In Petals for Armor, Hayley turns away from a past of emotional repression and self-loathing and moves toward radical softness and an aggressive femininity.
It’s a drastic break from her past sound and performance. The album was released in three parts between February and May, and it became the soundtrack to my early quarantine days. When Covid-19 decimated so many aspects of all of our lives overnight, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that all of the healing work I had done meant nothing. I spent many late nights and early mornings lying in bed, falling asleep to Hayley singing softly about rage, loss, and loneliness.
Hardness felt so much easier than succumbing to my vulnerabilities, even though that hardness was breaking me.
The album shows her vulnerability and attempts to navigate, confront, and break through these emotions. Hayley has fully embodied this tender space in this project, saying that the core concept driving the album is that “vulnerability is a shield.”
In “Pure Love,” Hayley sings: “If I want pure love I must stop acting so tough.” And in “Simmer,” she writes: “If my child needed protection from a fucker like that man, I’d sooner gut him.”
These lyrics show two sides of the same process. When I heard these lyrics, I thought of my childhood self. Not just the little girl who missed her dad, but the seventeen-year-old who was sexually assaulted, and even the more recent twenty-two-year-old version of me who needed to be cared for yet only knew hypervigilance as a way to survive. The rage turned me toward the pain of the worst trespasses I’d experienced, and in acknowledging it instead of hiding from it, I made way for radical vulnerability.
The lesson I desperately needed to learn was that not only was it possible to be both soft and vulnerable, as well as a survivor, but that being soft and vulnerable was one of the most powerful tools for my own survival. Seeing Hayley learn this lesson and express it in her music, after I had seen parts of myself in her over so many years, told me that this transformation was possible.
When I was a child, I didn’t have the tools to process harm. It’s hard to make sense of everything going on around you when you’re just old enough to start understanding your own big emotions, and yet your life is still controlled by a number of adults who are often making just as many mistakes as you are. Unpacking that trauma in adulthood can be a monstrous task. But the artifacts that comfort us—the way Hayley’s voice has carried me through the most confusing moments of my life, and given me permission to be scared and loud, and soft and vulnerable—those are miracles.
Olivia Pace (she/her) is Black, biracial, queer woman writer, educator and organizer from the Portland metro area. Her work focuses on capitalism, politics, racial justice, chronic illness, climate change and sexual violence.
She graduated Cum Laude from Portland State University in 2019, receiving her BA in Child and Family Studies and a minor in Black Studies.
Olivia was one of the lead organizers of the Disarm PSU campaign from 2015-2020.