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As a teen taught to suppress emotions, Paramore’s Hayley Williams showed me self-expression was invaluable

With Paramore's Hayley Williams releasing her debut solo work, Zoya Raza-Sheikh considers how the artist helped her find self-expression in the face of suppressed teenage emotions.

10 Apr 2020

“Nobody should hear you crying” was a line of advice I was fed growing up. It was an off the cuff remark steeped in religious and cultural ideas around suppressing feelings. My family was not particularly strict, but religion was a big part of my home life. From that point onwards, I became cautious in how I displayed any kind of emotion. It was all about getting it right.

Music quickly became a comfort blanket in a way that the people around me weren’t. I still didn’t know how to navigate the borders of emotion – and it showed. Through no fault of my own, my repressed feelings often manifested in ill-mannered explosions of frustration and anger. It was seething anger embedded in self-hate and cultural tension. Almost naturally, music became a cathartic channel which reflected my feelings without causing a scene. A CD stuffed into a chunky, half-broken radio player was my go-to, the volume turned up loud enough until my tiny box room drowned in the lyrics while I pensively stared back at the band posters hanging on my walls. I had quickly latched onto the alternative music scene which spilled over from my adoration of Avril Lavigne’s debut album Let Go. Soon I was listening to the likes of My Chemical Romance, Bring Me The Horizon and Architects, but one band stood out in particular. That band was Paramore. 

“So often I was told not to be bold, brash or noisy, yet here there was an unapologetic woman artist creating music which burst with unfiltered emotion and angst”

On the cusp of becoming a grimy teenager, watching a musician like Hayley Williams lead the way was a big deal to me. So often I was told not to be bold, brash or noisy, yet here there was an unapologetic woman artist creating music which burst with unfiltered emotion and angst. I’d always looked up to killer acts like Janis Joplin, Joan Jett and Whitney Houston who were also unforgettably themselves. But, for me, Hayley Williams became a contemporary beacon of self-expression. From the relentless music she crafted with her bandmates to her frequently vibrant hair colour choices, she felt like something of a cultural trailblazer. 

Trawling through albums like Riot! in my teens was a gratifying experience. Shamelessly yelling lines like “that’s what you get when you let your heart win” soon became a part of my process in reclaiming my emotional identity. Music wasn’t something that was wholly accepted by my family growing up. My mum was worried I would become “addicted” and proclaimed it was anti-Islamic to become too invested in it. Attempts at taking away my albums or stereo were trialled until, over time, it was something my parents learned to compromise with. I wasn’t going to change and neither was the music. 

Soon enough, Paramore’s discography became my fallback and something I knew inside-out. At times it got difficult to separate my own emotions from what the album presented, and it wasn’t until I started therapy during my undergrad that I learned my unhinged anger stemmed from an explainable source – depression. I came to the realisation that music had become my default way of “fixing” myself, so I continued to do it. 

It was in 2017 when my year of self-reflection came and, coincidentally, so did After Laughter, Paramore’s fifth studio album. Following consecutive years of counselling, 2017 was when I took it upon myself to unpack what was going on between the music and my mental health. As a whole, this record served my own selfish purpose – I used it as a crutch while continuing on with my life, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across the opening lines of ‘Idle Worship’, a song I usually skipped, that I was caught in the act and called out. The words, “Standing here like I’m supposed to say something / Don’t hold your breath, I never said I’d save you, honey” quickly escalated into a ticking, synth-pop chorus which offered a harsh look at reality; “Hey, baby I’m not your superhuman / And if that’s what you want / I hate to let you down”. What was masked as an up-tempo ‘80s-inspired track soon began to feel like a painfully embarrassing lecture. How many people must have leaned on the band and projected onto the singer for her to pen a song with lyrics like this? Guilt soon passed into a constructive process. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with relying on music – but building an entire coping mechanism out of it was a huge red flag. Lines were undeniably blurred, and you could say I was ‘Caught In The Middle’. 

“Finding confidence in your emotions and strength in your words is something Hayley taught me”

Since then, a few years have passed. Hayley Williams has recently released her first project as a solo artist. Her debut EP is called Petals For Armor 1the album lands in May. It’s ambitious, experimentally creative and celebrates what she does best; the release repackages her emotional state as a trade-off for art. Whether as a part of Paramore or by herself, Williams’ music has been transparent about the highs and lows in her life. Experiences that noticeably fed back into her work. Tracks like ‘Simmer’ are particularly poignant with her self-awareness of rage and anger, or in her latest release ‘Over Yet’, which takes an upbeat direction offering a more survivalist-meets-optimism approach, singing; “If there’s resistance / It makes you stronger / Make it your friend”. 

Although I no longer lean on Hayley’s music for relatability, there’s still a feeling of familiarity. Finding confidence in your emotions and strength in your words is something she taught me. And, yes, ‘Hello Cold World’ continues to be my emo anthem – until I turn 23, anyway (lines like “Twenty-two was like, the worst idea that I have ever had” have a certain expiration date). Hayley Williams has always been the soundtrack to my life, but now she stands as a lesson of growth and self-expression.