It’s impossible to talk about Paramore without talking about Hayley Williams. When founding members Zac and Josh Farro left the band in 2010 following a nasty public fallout, they issued a statement complaining it had become “all about Hayley”. You can see where they were coming from. If you look at every magazine cover shoot, every interview, every music video, she is the focal point; the other members blur into the background or are simply not there at all. Still, it’s undeniable that, for many, Williams continues to be the most inspirational aspect of the band - but for reasons far greater than her Pantone colour chart of hair dyes.
She's more than just a frontwoman. Ever since she began singing in Paramore at age 15 she commanded a level of attention that has since snowballed into unexpected global adoration. Appealing to everyone, from kids in need of an idol to adults with enough disposable income to toss at shit like this, Paramore have quickly become one of the biggest alternative bands on the planet. Somewhere between being the youngest band to play the Warped Tour and selling out Wembley Arena in ten minutes, she stopped being just a vocalist in a band and became a one-woman powerhouse on a scale alternative music hasn’t seen since Gwen Stefani first stepped out in baggy trousers and braces. Confirming what we already knew, this month she was announced as the first recipient of the new Trailblazer Award at this year’s Billboard’s Women in Music Awards. But how exactly did a pop-punk kid with Myspace hair get to a stage in her career where she's picking up awards alongside Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande?
Initially, Hayley Williams represented the weird and the awkward; the kids who wear band tees on non-uniform days, shave off sections of their hair at random and spend their weekends crying on deviantART. She’s basically the Avril Lavigne of the Angry Birds generation, but instead of freefalling spectacularly into endless disappointment as she grew older, Hayley evolved with her audience and began to appeal to demographics beyond the core group of pop-punk defenders.
With the release of Paramore, their fourth record, Williams planted a fresh foot in commercial pop but left the other firmly rooted in commercial punk, and she has straddled the fence between the two in a way no woman has really done before - at least not as successfully. On the rare occasion a rock band that happens to be female-fronted makes it big, they struggle to do so in a male dominated arena and tend to better if they emulate the conventions of that arena. Think The Distillers or - to an extent - Hole, where both Brody Dalle and Courtney Love were (and still are) considered inherently “masculine” because they fuck shit up on stage, get drunk and act assertive. Y’know, like men are supposed to.
The rock industry is still pretty two-faced, with one side saying “this is how you have to be to succeed” and the other quantifying it with “but we will also judge you massively for it if you're a woman." And in spite of how well they do, both Brody and Courtney will usually be painted as "crazy bitches" where someone like Billie Joel Armstrong or Patrick Stump would be considered cool for acting the same way. And maybe that is both because and why there are so few women in the alternative music industry at all. Despite women dominating the charts in pop, hip-hop and R&B this year, rock and all it’s sub-genres still have a massive women problem - the problem being that there aren’t any, and those who are holding down the fort are doing so under a great deal of pressure and stigmatisation.
The entertainment industry will always cherry pick people it likes and try to turn them into entertainment figures. So regardless of whether you’re a Courtney Love or a Nicki Minaj or a Hayley Williams, the chances are, because you’re a prominent female figure in music, you’ll end up on the cover of a women's magazine surrounded by headlines about exactly how far you need to bend over to please your man.
As much as you try to avoid it and as legitimate as the interview may have seemed at the time, it will always be cut and spun in the most conformative, easily-digested (and therefore easily sold) way that often acts as an aside to their actual careers as artists. But for the most part, Hayley has managed to navigate the industry in a way where she is the one pulling the strings. She even managed to pre-empt the inevitable by making jokes about her own boobs before a hacker leaked topless pictures of her, whilst also handling the misfortune of being the only woman in alternative rock who has ever had to deal with that aspect of fame in the first place.
Because Hayley has, to some extent, bought into the part of celebrity culture that involves cover shoots and red carpet events, she has also become embroiled in an arena of mass exposure typically occupied by people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton; people for whom cover shoots and red carpet events are the whole reason for being, rather than the stuff that happens on the side out of necessity. The fact that she has been subject to the same horrendous invasion of personal privacy usually reserved for someone with a Hollywood star is incredibly weird (and obviously sad) but also speaks volumes about where she sits on the scale of public interest.
Self-defeating as it seems to make a meal of the fact that she’s a female singer in a male-dominated arena, it’s also unfair to underplay her achievement of making it as a female singer in a male-dominated arena. For a massive tour that sold over half a million tickets over the US and Canada alone last year and has a massive female fanbase, you would think the percentage of female representation on stage at Warped Tour would exceed 6 per cent, but in reality alternative music is still overwhelmingly male - and that can create a difficult environment for young women hoping to cross the crowd barriers and be considered a legitimate musician.In the beginning of her career, Hayley had to stand up to harassment from male musicians ten years older than her, write blog posts correcting cover articles that focused on her lack of curves and suggested the other members of Paramore were “her bitches”. She struggled to be taken seriously by crowd members who were so unaccustomed to seeing a woman on stage that they didn’t know what else to do but yell “take off your shirt!” at her ten times. She’s been dealing with all of that since she was sixteen and continues to open up about sexism in music now.
Basically, her entire commercial prominence is one enormous fuck you to convention. In a scene where women are expected to take up as little space as possible, she’s shouting louder than everyone in it with a vocal range that spans three octaves. She’s the person who said, fuck it, I am going to be the only person in the world to have played Warped Tour and also have their own line of cosmetics, because putting women in boxes is stupid and caring about fashion and liking heavy music are not mutually exclusive. I am going to walk onto a video shoot wearing neon pastels and a t-shirt with DWEEB written across the front and somehow look whatever the opposite of a DWEEB is, because it inspires young people to have the confidence to wear whatever they want even if it’s ridiculous tights with fake yellow paint dripping down them. And I don’t care if former band members call Paramore a “manufactured product”, because we’re going to put out a self-titled album and it’s going to go gold in three countries and we're going to tour it on a fucking cruise liner. And then I’ll win a Trailblazer award, because of all that stuff I did.
Against all odds, Hayley Williams has managed to navigate an industry that has tried it's best to turn her into a vehicle to sell things, whether it's magazines, makeup or music. And she may have sold all those things at some point, but she has done so in a way that has created a voice for young people who feel like they don’t fit in. Greater still, she has carved a path for young women to enter an alternative music scene that has typically kept them at arms length, watching from the sidelines.
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