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Paramore’s Hayley Williams On The Personal, The Political, and Getting “Riled Up”

The leader of the pop-rock band explains how their 2017 album “After Laughter” turned into a record with social resonance.

Paramore’s Hayley Williams On The Personal, The Political, and Getting “Riled Up”
[Photo: Lindsey Byrnes/Warner Music Group]

“For all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come,” Paramore’s frontwoman Hayley Williams sings on the first line of “Told You So,” one of the singles from the band’s critically acclaimed 2017 album After Laughter, which showed up on several best of 2017 lists.

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Though she wrote that song (and most of the other heady, dance-pop tracks on the record) in 2016, its lyrics encapsulate a certain 2017 vibe, a mix of earnest gloominess and a sincere, if a little hopeless, desire for self-awareness. For many of us, the past year has been bleak: barrages of headlines and the opinions of every person you know (or follow on Twitter) coming at you with the force of a battering ram. Tracing our way back through 2017–its mass shootings, its political upheaval, its “fake news”–feels like wading through an endless void.

It was a year when every piece of art had the potential to mean something politically—even when discussing matters of the heart. Williams, 28, experienced this firsthand when writing After Laughter. “We’ve never been a political band . . . We’re not Pussy Riot, and I know that,” she says during a recent interview with Fast Company. “I don’t even think we’re Green Day. We really enjoy talking about deep-heart matters and things people struggle with silently or alone.”

[Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images]
But in 2017, those personal musings on loss and anxiety also reflected the losses and anxieties of a nation led by a president who regularly threatens nuclear warfare in 280-character bursts. Which is how Paramore found itself writing its most political album yet. Lines from the record, like “Reality will break your heart/Survival will not be the hardest part/It’s keeping all your hopes alive/When all the rest of you has died” speak to the onslaught of breaking news alerts, each seemingly carrying worse news than the last.

Meanwhile, on “Rose-Colored Boy,” Williams sings of a male friend who claims to be optimistic about change in the world, but she just isn’t feeling it. “The wars are raging on/And I have taken my glasses off,” she proclaims. “You say ‘We gotta look on the bright side’/I say ‘Well maybe if you wanna go blind.'” She’s speaking to a specific tension between those who are directly impacted by certain political decisions (especially women and people of color) and those who are content with the way things are, or hopeful for positive change. (Whether the rose-colored boy wants to Make America Great Again or enact social justice reforms is unclear.) Here, Williams focused on a specific anecdote and zoomed out to spotlight a broader shift in how relationships work when ideological beliefs clash.

Though Williams didn’t set out to make a political album, it was almost unavoidable in the context of how we live now—and After Laughter shows how personal and political anxieties were inextricable in 2017 (and probably will be for the foreseeable future). “I think that this is the year that I’ve had to stop kidding myself that I’m exempt from being riled up about politics,” she says.

Growing up in Mississippi and Tennessee, Williams experienced a political divide right at home, brought on by male figures who were aggressive in their beliefs and frequently sparked conflict with other members of the family. “Politics were a horrible, horrible subject when I was a kid,” she says. “It was always at Christmas, I can remember, when I hated when they started to talk about politics. My mom wouldn’t, but the men around me [would]. And I wasn’t even really old enough to know what they were talking about, but I knew it felt hostile.”

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For Williams, 2016 and 2017 were also years of personal struggle and self-reckoning. She and husband Chad Gilbert announced their separation in July. Meanwhile, Paramore had public conflicts with former bandmates–founding member Josh Farro gave an interview in 2016 where he talked about tensions within the band. “I was going through my own kind of storm, at home, in my relationship, and in my friendships as well,” Williams says. “And questioning what I wanted to do with my life in general and whether I even wanted a platform at all, to be in a band and to create music.”

Those moments turned into the roots of songs that would resonate with listeners on a broader level. “We were all going through our own experiences but they’re still relatable,” she says. “[Paramore was] able to talk about mental health and politics and love in this bigger way that was more universal.”

But reflecting on the year, she acknowledges that the difference between personal and political is increasingly blurred. And that’s part of why After Laughter hits so close on lines like, “All that I want is a hole in the ground/You can tell me when it’s alright for me to come out.” Though she may not be overtly referencing political leaders, that sentiment of wanting to hide until it’s all over rings especially true if you’re enduring personal heartbreak at a time of political upheaval.

“I feel like you can write a song that has been affected by what we’re going through as a nation and as people all under the same thumb,” Williams says. “You can write about that without it being, like, me talking about the president.”

Those realizations have led Williams to feel a sense of responsibility about what Paramore writes about and how she can use her platform. She says she “doesn’t think [she’ll] ever write a political anthem,” but on After Laughter, she redefines what that means. Hers are not anthems that come with the blunt force of a fight-the-man punk song, but with a sharp spear to the heart.

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“It’s been really interesting hearing people relate our album to the year they’ve had because of the political climate and because of the social issues we’re going through and the anxiety that puts on young people and people who are minorities,” Williams says. “I don’t think that any of us [as artists] are exempt from the weight that has been put on us, the responsibility that has been put on us to help push us forward and create healthy change.

“I think it’ll trickle down into the psychology of things we talk about,” she says. “And I think that’s important too.”

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About the author

P. Claire Dodson is an assistant editor at Fast Company

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