Paramore + Kitten
Better Than: Anything J.J. Abrams has done in 2013
Before seeing Paramore tonight, I went to the movies with my best friend. We’re both huge sci-fi/fantasy dweebs, so we, of course, had seen the new Star Trek movie on its opening day. The movie was decent, not great, but of course, we loved it anyway; I suspect most audiences will feel the same. At dinner afterwards, we got to talking about all these superhero/sci-fi reboot flicks, the ones that keep making a bazillion dollars despite so many blatantly cornball situations that would’ve never flown a few years ago. The reason movies like the Star Trek reboots (as well as other over-the-top adaptations like Watchmen, The Avengers and even the ludicrous Thor) are doing so well, I suggested, is that outside the theatres, everything is shit: for women and their bodies, for immigrants and their families, for gays and their partners, for the 99% and their savings — the list goes on, and on, and on. People are miserable, and when the world feels at its most hopeless, we are at our most willing to suspend our disbelief (and open our wallets) for a few hours of saccharine, studio-slick entertainment. This, in my opinion, is a bittersweet blessing.
Hope you’ll excuse the extended metaphor, but that’s all I could think about last night while watching Paramore and their labelmate opener, Kitten, lay waste to a beatific, never-say-die crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Over the past eight years, Hayley Williams (and whatever set of band members she’s rolling with) has been gaining a curious momentum, one that has defied most expectations of the world in which she’s grown. The band has skip-hopped its way from pop punk’s precious embrace to mainstream pop stardom in a way most (read: everyone except maybe Fall Out Boy) artists from that scene could only dream: with the financial backing of a major label, a consistently expanding fan base, and their cool image still fully intact, despite multiple shakeups that, within the past two years, have literally redefined them. Their new, eponymous fourth record is an unabashedly candid pop confessional. Its cast of characters (Williams, jilted ex-Paramore bandmates Zac and Josh Farro, Williams’ long-time boyfriend/New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert) is cozily familiar, its melodies their catchiest yet, and a veritable truckload of money was poured into its production, which makes it — much like The Avengers, et al. — an utterly irresistible, if a little exploitative, masterpiece.
Oh, right, the actual show. Kitten’s is a weird opening set to behold. The Los Angeles quintet’s performance is polished and built to blow minds; frontwoman Chloe Chaidez’s energy knows no boundaries as she springs and headbangs and handstands her way back and forth across the stage, scaling crowd barricades and amp towers alike in ostentatious rebellion as she howls and sighs. (This girl is 18 years old, by the way.) Still, they’re oddly too good. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the new-wave-y outfit has been over-nurtured by a major label, and it shows. Atlantic had to have had the Paramore blueprint in mind when they found and signed Kitten — a powerhouse female vocalist backed by a handful of decent (and likely disposable) male instrumentalists — but the difference is that when they signed Paramore, they were getting something they didn’t know they wanted as much as they did. There was nothing like Paramore in 2005; Kitten fits a predetermined bill now, and thus has been provided too many means to fulfill that expectation.
This is how it works. It’s hardly the band’s fault, but their 110% effort, paired with the kind of obscenely orchestrated light show usually reserved for headliners who’ve at least broken the Top 10, while entertaining, also seems inorganic and stagnant. There’s something of that over-the-top, glossy-yet-cornball superhero movie air about them, too. Kitten’s songs are not fantastic, despite Chaidez’s herculean delivery, but boy, do they sound fantastic in the HD IMAX theatre that is the Hammerstein Ballroom. (For the same reason a hokey adaptation like Thor is way less fun on a small screen, though, I have a hard time grasping their distinctiveness beyond the arena.) Can a band find anything to strive for when its glory is handed to them at the gate? When they howl, can they mean it? Have they had the time and the space to figure out what, for Kitten, “it” even is?
I say this because when Paramore was touring their debut, they, too, must have been afforded some luxury — at least Hayley, signed solo to Atlantic for two years prior, must have — yet there was something more honest and mobile about their performances, even then. Maybe it was thanks to the “authenticity” provided by Fueled by Ramen, Atlantic’s “indie” label-slash-superstar breeder, or maybe it was just a simpler time: when Williams hopped around onstage at Warped Tour, you got the impression she was out-of-her-mind excited and also a little in disbelief of her growing fame. At 16, she was one of us, not a rock goddess.
Look at her now, though! The band has spent — or rather, Hayley has, considering melodramatic lineup changes — the past eight years building up to the glorious pageantry they trotted out last night with a collected confidence that’s at once brazen beyond belief and also totally badass. Her recently adopted strip of black war paint slathered across her eyes, Williams coolly dominates her crowd with few, if any, tricks: like all great, vetted pop stars, she’s got this routine down to a science. Even her stage banter sounds like something I’ve heard before, in a live video posted to YouTube. It’s still deadly effective; the crowd is apoplectic in its joy, bouncing and screaming so that it’s hard to tell whether this is a pop punk or a Katy Perry concert. Audience members bet on the band’s next song while maintaining steady smartphone coverage of the event, and scream along to all of them, from early classics like “Pressure” to mid-career stalwarts like “Let the Flames Begin” and even brand-new jams like ” Fast in My Car.”
A note on the crowd: in 2005, Paramore fans were a band of scrappy, ear-to-the-ground MySpace scene kids who would spend $60 of their parents’ money on three T-shirts beneath the blistering sun of an un-shaded Warped Tour blacktop. In 2013, Paramore fans are actually the same. There are more of them now, they’ve moved onto Instagram, they’re paying $30 per shirt, and their parents are now listening to Paramore, too (see: “Overheard” at the end of this review), but the fact that Paramore can still draw the same audience — with the same wallets — despite a drastically evolved sound is a feat in itself.
Williams plays their joy like a pro; the set is perfectly balanced to give her cords a rest at songs like “The Only Exception” and, as any extreme vocalist ought to, she offers the mic to the floor when she needs to regroup. “Ain’t It Fun,” proving to be one of the most inspired pop songs of the year with its extended gospel callback/clap element, was easily one of the night’s strong points, as was the Disneyesque move to bring 10 or so fans onstage to shout the words to “Anklebiters.” “New” members bassist Jeremy Davis and guitarist Taylor York are obviously up to the challenge too; any notes they don’t barrel into are hardly noticed and if they are, the futzed notes only add to the melee of a highly impressive, unbesmirchedly fun rock show. Paramore is now, if a little lacking in the excited 16-year-old department, a well-oiled Rapture Machine.
And although that might sound like the death knell of most rock bands’ authenticity in 2013 (many an indie quartet has crashed and burned by introducing a glossy, expensive production), in actuality it’s quite the reverse. There’s something unusually comforting in their blow-up, and, I guess then, by proxy, in a $30 t-shirt. There’s something safe about a room full of Warped Tour tanks and sandals, tween girl confabs, and couples with their arms conspicuously wrapped around one another. Paramore’s ultimate grandiosity, like an over-budgeted superhero flick, is a bittersweet blessing, because in a world where skepticism is almost a requirement, sometimes it’s nice to just sing along to a big ol’ rock and roll band.
Critical Bias: At the Warped Tour stop in Chula Vista, California, seven years ago, a female-fronted pop-punk band unintentionally changed my life
Overheard: Three confusingly cool middle-aged dudes, double-fisting beers they were failing to deliver to their wives at the front of the audience: [Cheerily] “We’re totally aging this crowd by at least a third.” Then, a few minutes later: “You’ve seen them how many times?” “Eight.”
Random Notebook Dump I: Do Jeremy Davis and Taylor York feel weird playing old Paramore songs?
Random Notebook Dump II: CONFETTI!!!!!!