Hayley Williams: The Complicated Queen We Still Need

Like any good emo tween, I had an all-consuming obsession with Hayley Williams throughout my entire middle and high school experience. Hearing “Misery Business” on the bus one clammy afternoon after a grueling day of eighth grade was a revelation: what was this visceral, supersonic girl-power I was experiencing? After googling “wooooah, I never meant to brag” upon getting home, Paramore was officially my new favorite band.

When my best friend and I ran into Hayley in the concessions line during Paramore’s 2009 stadium tour with No Doubt, I soaked in every detail of her being— her perfect eyeliner, her 5’3” stature…she was a goddess, as far as I was concerned. I spewed at her about how she was my inspiration for being in a band with my gal pal, that I played guitar and sang, and my BFF played bass. She was courteous and took a photo with us before high-tailing it backstage. I left the venue shaking. It was quite literally the highlight of my life up until that point.

This isn’t a unique story: in fact, I would guess that there are hundreds of girls all around the world that feel and have felt the same way about Hayley Williams as I do: that she’s always been a rose-gold forged statue of courageousness and optimism, in spite of having been in the public eye for over ten years. But Hayley doesn’t want that to deal with our expectations anymore, and it’s resulted in some totally rad music.

While listening to Paramore’s highly-anticipated After Laughter, a tonally chipper, but lyrically morose odyssey through Hayley’s psyche, it is beyond apparent that her years in the spotlight – and the type of interaction I had with her at the No Doubt concert—have taken their toll. Alex Frank, in an in-depth interview for The Fader, documents Hayley’s struggle to discuss the content of After Laughter. In the interview, Hayley boldly asks Alex what she owes people and explains how irritated she becomes when she’s asked to spill legitimate tea about the drama behind the band’s music. Alex described Hayley almost like one would the most popular girl in school— sunny, enticing, but with an intent that’s hard to decipher.

As a longtime Hayley stan, this was obviously jarring to read, but I couldn’t blame her for standing her ground. It’s intense to imagine how much pressure she’s been under, not only as an individual living in the world, but as a symbol for the female presence in punk-pop and alternative music— a scene that definitely bears its own problems when it comes to the inclusion of women. She’s been characterized as the embodiment of musical lightning, an unstoppable voice and persona in the scene since the mid-2000s. How could she possibly be all of these things all the time?

Well, she’s not, and she’s not pretending like she is anymore. It’s clear on After Laughter’s “Idle Worship” that she’s fed up with having to deal with pressure from fans, with scorching lyrics about how she can’t be everyone’s hero anymore:

“Standing there like I’m supposed to say something, don’t hold your breath, I never said I’d save you honey, and I don’t want your money…Just be sure to put your faith in something more, I’m just a girl and you’re not as alone as you feel.”

A little bit stinging for the diehards? Maybe, but we’d never admit it. Because that’s the thing: for all us young women who have idolized Hayley from middle school onward, it’s extremely meaningful to see her evolve over time, both as an artist and a person, even if that means leveling with the fans in an extremely direct way. She’s taking what’s hers, and she’s had lots of life challenges to warrant that sort of directness— from lineup drama to her divorce from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert announced this summer. I doubt she ever thought she’d have to write and perform another song in the vein of Paramore’s "Last Hope," a song about forcing oneself to go on in spite of feeling horrendous about life, but here we are, blessed with the beautiful and heartbreaking "26" four years later.

The honesty and clarity with which she talks about the harder parts of life is necessary work, especially for someone who’s built her legendary status around seeming unbreakable. Even heroes falter, and seeing our queen take a few Ls makes us all feel less alone. She’s taking the space to be true to herself— in interviews, in her lyrics, and in her performances, as messy as that can be. As much as positivity and invincibility are impressive traits to aspire to, that’s not real life, and that’s not Hayley Williams. She’s not apologetic for being self-preserving in her Fader interview. She doesn’t feel that she owes anything to anyone. And truly, that’s even more inspiring than her supercharged persona of the orange-haired era.