Hayley Williams finds strength in honesty on her solo debut

‘Petals For Armor’ takes a wide-reaching approach to its song writing, freeing Hayley from Paramore’s grasp and finally allowing her the reinvention she needed.

Anyone who was around during the MySpace era will remember Paramore’s explosion onto the punk rock music scene in 2005.

They had every quality needed to make it big during social media’s infancy, rocking coloured, straightened hair, heavily saturated album cover artwork, and an overflow of attitude, fitting neatly into the pop punk and emo trend that was dominating the alternative charts at the time. Paramore could happily line up next to My Chemical Romance, Green Day, and any other eye-liner wearing punk band that was brimming with angst.

But that gritty aesthetic and the snarling power rock chords of yesteryear feel noticeably dated in 2020. The last few years of sexual misconduct and assault allegations have torn into the reputation of the noughties rock indie wave, leaving it feeling less nostalgic in retrospect and more an uneasy and male dominated time. Many, many songwriters and stars have been publicly called out for sexual assault or abusive behaviour, including members of bands such as Pinegrove, Brand New, Nothing But Thieves, Ryan Adams, and Real Estate, to name a few. The beta male misogyny of a scene that prides itself on being progressive has only just started to become publicly clear in full force, leaving associations with old bands and songs morally muddled.

Hayley herself has distanced Paramore from one of its biggest hits ‘Misery Business’ due to lyrics she no longer endorses. The lines ‘once a whore, you’re nothing more/ I’m sorry, that will never change’ are problematic, and Hayley has protested against Spotify placing it on playlists and no longer performs the track live. She also spoke of her frustration with artists only expressing regret at their actions after allegations come to light in 2017, urging for ‘compassionate conversation’ that would help the industry move forward.

It’s clear that Hayley has been eager to evolve beyond Paramore’s early roots in the years since their rise to fame, breaking away from the toxic, masculine dominance of the noughties rock scene and instead exploring new avenues of eighties inspired synth pop on 2017’s ‘After Laughter’. This trend continues in spades on her solo debut ‘Petals For Armor’, which is more musically diverse than her main band’s work and allows Hayley to be completely confident and authentic in her song writing. It’s a huge distance away from where her band began, but that is by no means a bad thing.

A decade of change in the music industry

That distance can be felt throughout the music industry too, as we’re currently witnessing a shift in creative control for female artists not just in the punk rock scene, but in pop music as well.

Our editor Imogen recently wrote about Taylor Swift’s ongoing legal battle against Scooter Braun, a producer who was sold the rights to most of her music by Big Machine Records. The late noughties and early tens saw many young women signed to deals with the hopes of making it big, without allowing them much freedom over their sound, voice, or aesthetic.

In the years since we’ve seen artists such as Taylor and Kesha, who sued her producer for emotional distress and sexual assault, openly challenge the male hierarchy of the industry’s business practices. Although far from perfect, it seems the public are more receptive and willing to listen to the perspectives of women without dismissing them or discrediting them, which leaves the door open for new, interesting projects that discuss their stories in a genuine and meaningful way.

Leaving everything out in the open

This reinvention that’s given the space to be fully realised can be felt throughout this new record, which embraces femininity and vulnerability using a wide range of artistic influence. It’s a wholly unique project that serves as a liberating breath of fresh air, and is infinitely more interesting than some of Paramore’s past works.

Taking things on by herself also allows Hayley to air everything out in blunt fashion, offering listeners the chance to judge her as they please. The single ‘Dead Horse’ sees Hayley admit to having an affair that lead to eventual marriage, bringing her regrets and embarrassments to light in a track that’s a surprising bop. You can watch the video below.

Eighties synths flow throughout the album and feature prominently on ‘Over Yet’, a motivational track intended to inspire those struggling with depression, an experience Hayley is all too familiar with. The mixing on this track is phenomenal and boasts an intricate bass line that ties together glitzy synths and shiny vocals.

Elsewhere, ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ uses naturalistic imagery as a metaphor for Hayley’s journey with feminism and self-discovery, a delicate ensemble of self-empowerment that leaves a lasting impression. This track in particular is a significant thematic departure from Paramore’s early work and is a more tentative approach far removed from the angry punk sounds of 2005. It’s also a delight to listen to.

Not every song is a heavy undertaking to listen to, however, especially on the latter third. ‘Taken’ is a playful, minimalistic effort that incorporates breathy vocals over a scattered instrumental, while ‘Sugar On The Rim’ takes a more experimental turn as Hayley shows optimism toward her future relationships. Electronic influences and shimmery drums are present on this one, and it sounds a little like one of those cheesy workout videos from the VHS era. In a good way, though, I promise.

An album of humility, discovery, and clarity

Considering the scene in which Hayley Williams and Paramore first began, ‘Petals For Armor’ is a huge, progressive step forward. Hayley’s talent as a songwriter has blossomed in the fifteen years she’s been in the industry and it’s obvious from even the first listen that she’s eager to reinvent and change her image in an authentic, vulnerable way.

It’s not necessarily a work that looks to apologise for those early, more problematic songs, but it does make efforts to show how Hayley has grown as a feminist and as a person. The heavy, angsty exterior is gone, instead replaced with honesty and disarming humility. The record’s title is very apt – each track builds a diary of both the good and the bad, leaving regrets and mistakes out in the open for all to see.

Hayley’s strength comes from understanding her weaknesses, making ‘Petals For Armor’ a very personal and engaging listen. For many younger listeners this may be the first they’ve heard of her, and it’s the perfect time to explore an artist who has remained a big influence in popular music for over a decade.

If anything, ‘Petals For Armor’ is a product of an artist that has outgrown the troubled era she established herself in, shedding away the struggles that have plagued her for years. This is a new beginning for Hayley Williams, one that’s more transparent and hopeful than ever, and gives other women the evidence that they can be heard in an industry that has historically been overlooked and confined to male standards.

Thanks to movements such as #MeToo rightfully calling out misogynistic artists and managers, big name female musicians are finally able to release works that are authentic to their own experience, rather than manipulated by a higher up manager or executive. Could ‘Petals For Armour’ have been released fifteen years ago when Hayley was emerging onto the scene?

It’s unlikely that it would have been received with as much seriousness or weight, and I doubt that a record label would have been completely comfortable making it public. Ownership of one’s own dialogue and personal narrative is no longer only exclusive to ‘troubled’ male artists whose flaws and outwardly destructive behaviours become romanticised for entertainment’s sake.

Though we’ve still got a ways to go, Hayley’s growth as a songwriter on ‘Petals For Armour’ exists in a time where it’s possible to be vulnerable and sincere as a woman without the threat of an executive telling you otherwise, and that’s an exciting proposition. What happens next for Hayley is a mystery, but it leaves me feeling optimistic about the future for pop and punk rock music.

A more diverse and transparent industry is sorely needed, and it looks like things might finally be heading in the right direction.

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