“There are no role models for young women to feel like they have the power to take an active role in this scene,” declared Jessica Hopper in Andy Greenwald’s 2003 emo bible, Nothing Feels Good—and she was troublingly right. In its quest for tear-tugging clarity, mainstream emo inherited classic rock’s resentment toward the opposite sex, but left any trace of knowing swagger behind. Thus, the painfully unaware wailing of teenage suburbia when the genre bubbled overground at the turn of the century—all of a sudden, too many white boys with salon trims and tiny voices thought it was OK to yelp their diaries verbatim. Dashboard Confessional turned MTV Unplugged into a cult. Yellowcard went double-platinum. And the only way a girl could participate was to sing along with the backstabbing barbs.
In 2003, Hayley Williams was 14 years old. Living in the Nashville suburbs, she perused websites like howtobeemo.com, listened to good-guy genre originators Sunny Day Real Estate, and started playing with the boys who would help her become emo’s first legitimate female star. As the lead singer of Paramore, Williams isn’t the outspoken rebel sort, though. She broke into the Lonely Tears Boys Club through the side, pushing self-pity as much as the dudes. She’s unabashedly Christian, treats her fans with the coddling warmth of a kindergarten teacher, and possesses more than enough aw-shucks Southern charm—not to mention soul-flecked vocal finesse and onstage stickiness—to make Randy throw up some devil’s horns on American Idol. Williams is a role model in the old-fashioned sense: polite, genuine, sans irony. Her busy Twitter is astoundingly ordinary (“watching CSI: Miami with grandparents”), except when it isn’t (“WE SOLD OUT WEMBLEY ARENA IN ONE DAY!!! WHAAATTT?!?!!?”).
On Paramore’s crunchy, pleasingly modern-rock 2005 debut, All We Know Is Falling, Williams emulated her heart-torn heroes and ended up playing the victim more often than not. Songs like “Pressure” (“I can feel the pressure/It’s getting closer now”), “Emergency” (“I think we have an emergency”), and “Conspiracy” (“Explain to me this conspiracy against me”) were as trapped as they were obvious. But even then, layers were forming: The meta “Emergency” video showed the band getting made up in Hollywood bruises and scrapes, with Williams’s cherry-top hair and goth prom dress easily dominating the frame.
So the breakout success of their follow-up, 2007’s Riot!, may not have been a complete shock to Alternative Press subscribers, but its biggest hit did mark a thematic break for the band. “Misery Business” sure sounds like cry-baby material on paper, but the song finds Williams dishing out the sadness instead of bracing for it. Aimed at a manipulative “whore” who the singer beats out in a contest for a boy’s affection, “Misery” connected with Paramore’s pin-balling, not-terribly-depressed live show while offering up some non-schmaltzy nice-girl sentiment. “It was never my intention to brag,” sings Williams, ever modest, “but, God, does it feel so good.”
The feeling was mutual—Riot! sold more than a million copies to kids who don’t really know what it means to pay for music, and launched two years of touring and robust T-shirt (and pencil set!) sales. Not bad for Williams, whose penchant for affecting high school poetry was pretty adept for someone who never actually went to a real high school. But Riot!‘s success took its toll on the group, which nearly crumbled last year partly due to strained, post-breakup issues between Williams and guitarist-songwriter Josh Farro.
Furthermore, in 2009, Paramore’s brand of emo pop is endangered. Two of the eyeliner-friendly genre’s biggest acts, My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, tried to escape the pigeonhole: MCR’s The Black Parade repositioned the band as an art-rocking, silly-uniform-wearing bunch of Queen acolytes, resulting in one of the best classic-rock homages this side of the Hold Steady, far more ambitious and theatrical than what the punk-bred genre usually allows. Fall Out Boy attempted a similarly grandiose approach, giving their last record a French name (Folie à Deux) and inviting Elvis Costello and Lil’ Wayne to lend vocals (and genre-expanding presences). Meanwhile, previous emo biggies Weezer are now peddling teen-pop, Jimmy Eat World are on the brink of becoming nostalgia land, and Panic! at the Disco are trying to still be a band after losing their chief lyricist and guitarist, Ryan Ross, to creative differences. Maybe he didn’t want to be so emo anymore.
Perhaps due to its female contingent, Paramore handle their spotlight follow-up move differently with brand new eyes. The music sounds louder, thanks to rock-radio producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, David Cook), and there are a couple of acoustic-picking ballads. But sonically, at least, most of the bristling new tracks could fit on Riot! without pause. What has changed is Williams’s attitude. Throughout the LP, she’s no longer desperately grasping onto hope or looking at satisfaction from the outside in. She’s taking action. Spurred on by intra-band tensions, she rips into her mates on several tracks, including the single “Ignorance,” in which she seethes, “I’m not the same kid from your memory/Now I can fend for myself.” (Think of it as a “Go Your Own Way” for the red-dyed set.) On “Playing God,” she threatens to snap a hypocrite’s index finger clean off, while “Feeling Sorry” is another “Misery Business”–style bait-and-switch: “No need to apologize/I’ve got no time for feeling sorry.”
Elsewhere, the singer tries out a couple of new, generally non-emo emotions: gratefulness and contentment. Both of the record’s most lasting potential hits also happen to be refreshingly cloudless: “I’ve never been happier/No one is as lucky as us,” she beams on “Where the Lines Overlap,” over major chords handed down from the pop-punk gods. (As she explained it recently, “I was so afraid of sounding like all these bands that go from being really hungry on one album to talking about paparazzi following them around on their next one”—Pete Wentz, take note.) And future wedding song “The Only Exception” is a rewrite of Coldplay’s “Yellow” that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as that karaoke classic. Reining in her hair-metal-worthy wails for a moment, Williams opts for a stool-sitting tone, spacing out each word of the titular refrain so it lasts that much longer. “I’m on my way to believing,” she concludes, faithfully. We’re already there.
Paramore play Hammerstein Ballroom October 21