Hayley Williams and When Emo Music Grows Up

Hayley Williams 2018 Instagram

This week, alternative music icon Hayley Williams took to Instagram to share that we can expect social media silence from her for awhile. “If you deal with depression or any kind of PTSD, please take it seriously and try hard to remember that it’s not who you are but rather it is a very common effect of the world we are exposed to and the lives we try so hard to engage in,” Williams shared. “I know it’s very popular to say ‘it’s okay to not be okay…’ but please give me the grace to admit that as I am quickly approaching 30 I am just not okay with not being okay anymore.”

The Instagram post (which ultimately pointed towards a mental health internet break for Hayley but no end to her musical and hair dye endeavors) followed up an intimate, confessional editorial she wrote for PAPER Magazine earlier this year. In the op-ed, Hayley Williams wrote about her struggles with mental health and how the process of reaching a new rock bottom informed the band’s darkly shimmering pop masterpiece After Laughter.

Moments in the raw discourse that the Paramore singer has begun to build with fans might bring to mind lyrics written by her teenage self– bring to mind less for comparison, more for contrast. There was all the urgency of adolescence in Paramore’s early songs, the intensity born of a time of life when emotions are all as big and unnavigable as rolling tsunamis. I remember what it felt like to be 16 years old and singing “this is an emergency, so are you listening?”

But I also know what it’s like to be nearing 30 and no longer OK with not being OK.

Hayley Williams is one voice in what I believe is a growing conversation: what happens when the emo kids grow up? There is a certain rite of passage to being sad, to encountering the boisterous tragedy of the world for the first time. I don’t believe that adolescent experience, too often dismissed as “teenage angst,” is anything to be sneered at; I think it’s a necessary, borderline sacred, part of becoming. But none of us stay teenagers forever. And the bands who started as Warped Tour kids haven’t stayed there either.

The groups who sang our emo anthems of the early-to-mid-2000s have grown up with us. They’ve had other jobs. They’ve gotten married– and divorced. They’ve had a few kids. They’ve been through health problems. They’ve lived the monotony of the daily demands of bills to pay. And for the good bands, their music has begun to reflect it. A newer face, Beartooth’s 2014 album Disgusting was a scalding, almost difficult to hear journey through the throes of alcoholism. But to me, this year’s Disease was perhaps even more poignantly painful, seemingly asking: “is this the best recovery gets? Getting up and doing this again and again for the rest of my life?”

I’m getting older
Still lost as ever
Faking a smile while I bury the pressure.
Why does this happen?
I should be fine
But I can’t shake the feeling I’m living a lie.

The examples of alternative bands who have undergone similar subtle thematic shifts over years of maturation are endless. See Papa Roach’s shift from suicide anthem “Last Resort” to the message of “Face Everything and Rise.” Dig into the steady unfolding of Breaking Benjamin’s discography. Most recently, even Avril Lavigne traded the sarcasm of “My Happy Ending” for the worshipful sincerity of “Head Above Water” (and its corresponding nonprofit).

This steady progression seems to be propelled by the same slow recognition: we have to start with recognizing that we’re not OK. But we can’t stop there. We can’t be 30-somethings still mired in the same things that held us captive at 13. We who have survived owe it to everyone still in the emotional trenches to tell a truer story.

We have to talk (and sing) about what happens when getting better looks less like a straight line progression and more like a cyclical pattern through winters and summers, deaths and rebirths. We have to talk about what happens when you check off every suicide prevention box on the list and still lose someone. We have to talk about both the teenage kids struggling with self-harm and the adults awkwardly navigating their old scars through the world. We have to talk about the resolve that begins sobriety and the ongoing day-to-day ache of continuing to fight for it. We have to talk about it getting better. We have to talk about the fact that sometimes it hasn’t yet.

This means that those that once just sang about pain are now advocating for better mental health access and destigmatizing treatment for those whose brains can’t stop being sad, as Hayley Williams has done. The underdog, anti-system message that forms the core fabric of rock in all its forms is being forged into a determination to help those the system has rejected (see Silent Planet’s recent support of rejected and homeless LGBT youth). In short, social critique has matured into social change.

Those conversations are difficult and require nuance. It’s one thing to write a song about being suicidal, and we will certainly always desperately need those. But we also need the nuance of gutsy songs like twenty one pilots’ “Neon Gravestones,” which admits that maybe we do a dangerous disservice to everyone around us when we simplify, even glorify, such a life or death conversation.

The difficulty and risk of fallout from those kinds of ventures explains why some bands choose to stay in what seems like a state of musical adolescence, fixated on the same topics that were in vogue alongside side swept bangs and guyliner. And I can certainly enjoy those bands in their own right (as I said, there is nothing wrong with the rite of passage that is an “emo phase”).

But as an emo kid who grew up, I’m grateful for the bands who did too. I’m grateful for the music that hosts the hard conversations. These are the kinds of songs that give me tremendous hope for the alternative music scene in 2018, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing a lot more of it.

Listen to a few of the exceptional albums referenced in this feature:
After Laughter by Paramore
Disease by Beartooth
F.E.A.R. by Papa Roach
Ember by Breaking Benjamin
Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne
When the End Began by Silent Planet
Trench by twenty one pilots

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