Even With Their New Pop Sound, Paramore Are Still an Emo Band at Heart
The Greek Theatre
Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017
“The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun.” So sings Shania Twain during the preshow music before Tennessee's Paramore come out onstage. “I wanna be free and feel the way I feel,” she continues. “Man, I feel like a woman.”
Wielding that prerogative to have a little fun in Los Angeles, Paramore's 28-year-old frontwoman, Hayley Williams, does something she does at every show. During their hit "Misery Business," she pulls a fan up from the crowd and tells the audience to count to four. “Then we're gonna let her fly!” she instructs, handing over the microphone. Williams has pipes that would scare Pavarotti (R.I.P.), so thankfully this fan exercise is not about technical ability. This is about that fun. This is a Shania Twain karaoke moment at a bachelorette party, if everyone at that party had their septum pierced.
Here's what happens. The fan gets up there in her two-piece red suit, dolled up to the nines. She gives the chorus everything she has. Like, everything she has. Then she joins Williams in a bouncing mosh-off around the stage. The two women scream in each other's faces with reckless abandon. The fact that one of those women is a rock star doesn't seem to matter at all. Two girlfriends behind me offer their critique. “She has no tone, she's so pitchy,” says one. “She's feeling it, though,” says the other. “She's so involved.”
She is. There is no hierarchy here between fan and heroine. That's what matters. Williams knows all about hierarchies. She's been crushing them since day one.
This might sound insane to you, but Williams is in many ways the pop-punk version of Shania Twain. Not only is she — like the Canadian country superstar — one of the hardest-working women in her field, a woman who keeps making a comeback against all odds (legal disputes, band fallouts, her own turmoil), she also changed what rock can represent. A lot of that she did by, well, being a woman. By sticking with Paramore — in which she has been the sole constant member — and not breaking off and becoming Hayley Williams: The Solo Star, she has endured as an example to young girls who dream of leading punk bands. That's her quiet act of defiance beneath her shrieking, limitless vocal power.
Moreover, just as Shania mingled country with pop and rock, so too has Williams decided "to hell with it" and built a platform for emo and pop-punk that can traverse all genres seamlessly. That sonic diversity is the real treat for the fans here — the '80s twang of "Fake Happy," the calypso swagger of "Told You So," the obligatory Fleetwood Mac cover ("Everywhere" off Tango in the Night — because every pop artist from Lorde to Haim sounds like Tango in the Night in 2017). Paramore clearly want to dance on this tour. “Let's boogie!” shouts Williams before launching into their biggest crossover hit, the Grammy-winning "Ain't It Fun."
At the Greek, it has never felt so good to be so fucking sad. “It’s been too long, we missed your faces. We have a lot of lost time to make up for. Please raise a toast with me to us,” says Williams, meaning all of us. “And more importantly to misery,” she adds. During several speeches amid their two-hour, career-spanning set, Williams often tells the crowd that this is not about her, or her six-piece live band, the lineup of which has seen more than its fair amount of changes (Williams calls it the “soap opera” of Paramore). This is about our community here. All the talk of whether or not a band built on teen angst could grow with their audience and become an adult concern is battered to a pulp by this live outing. Even though Williams admits to some nerves, there is no sign among the fans that the new-wave sound of Paramore's career-best fifth album, After Laughter, is a disappointment.
The soft MOR of "Forgiveness," the acoustic confessions of "26" and the disco funk of "Rose-Colored Boy" are met with as big a reaction as the old, reliable, jagged-edged hits. Paramore enter into a drum-off as Williams has her back to the audience conducting the other musicians onstage, leading them into Blondie-ish single "Hard Times." Waving a tambourine and doing the running man, she fires up the entire amphitheater. Their energy levels never wane. “And I still don’t know how I even survive,” she sings, punching the sky. "I'm not gonna hit rock bottom.”
Not hitting rock bottom has been the narrative behind After Laughter, a record that saw the band almost throw in the towel. Onstage, Williams fights for Paramore's endurance, propelling her siren of a voice, molding her diminutive frame around her mic stand in a gold miniskirt with fishnet stockings and a denim shirt. She moves her body like a boxer, dancing around the outskirts of a ring, ready to win a fight. You dare not bet against her. If you do, you'll be outnumbered. The reaction to her every word and pivot could only be matched by the crowd noise at a One Direction concert. The fans know every word. Every other song is designed for mammoth sing-alongs. On "Ignorance," Williams wields a loudspeaker, which only makes the fans roar louder. Spitting the line “Ignorance is your new best friend” feels inherently political and alive with new purpose.
It's not surprising that emo has experienced a resurgence recently. The genre rose to prominence after 9/11 and is back with a vengeance. You could argue that's because people are furious. As Williams says here, we need a “safe space” to scream together. The fact that Paramore's sound has become brighter and shinier isn't a problem for a fan base of largely emo kids, because emo kids stay the course. The crowd here are the same ones who line up outside the Echoplex on the first Tuesday of every month, ready to sell out the club evening Emo Nite. I make a new pal in my neighbor Dan, who tells me he goes on the Paramore cruise every year and met every one of his best friends because they stood next to him at Paramore shows. These are loyal followers for whom rock shows aren't just rock shows — they're inclusive gatherings.
Respectful of their own role to play in this emo ecosystem, Paramore front-load the set with trusted crowd pleasers. “I should be over all the butterflies but ... I'm still into you,” Williams sings on "Still Into You," elated to be providing such a service more than a decade into her band's life. When original member and drummer Zac Farro takes the mic during the encore to play a song by his other band, HalfNoise ("Scooby's in the Back"), it feels like a trying-too-hard attempt to prove that Williams is not Paramore's dictator, as past controversies suggest. The crowd don't want this song and they didn't come here for an apology. They want Paramore exactly as Williams has built it.
“Oh boy, lotta feelings,” she says while intro-ing a couple of slower numbers, including "Hate to See Your Heart Break." Sitting down, she confesses some of her current anxieties about maturing this outfit. “It’s amazing that we’re still a band,” she says. “Hopefully as we get older and continue to make songs, we can still write about being vulnerable. Right now it seems like it’s important to try and connect, to not use anger to express yourself. Let’s gather and celebrate the fact we’ve survived.” In a country-esque drawl recalling her Southern roots, she sings the lyrics: “I hate to see your eyes get darker as they close. … Let the pain remind you hearts can heal.” The whole place lights up with iPhones and a brief moment of hope-filled respite.
“We try to warm you up to the sadness, slow you down, then kick you off the ledge,” she jokes before moving into "26," a song about the worst year of her life. She tells the crowd that it doesn't matter what age you are, you must remain optimistic that things will improve. Perhaps Paramore's punch is extra pertinent because America has regressed to its teenage self. It has the same hangups 14-year-olds do. It doesn't trust its authorities; it doesn't know what to believe; it needs some reassurance.
“I’m Hayley. Miss Williams if you’re nasty,” she concludes during the encore. Her hair is knotted, her limbs are exhausted, her smile is wider than ever. On After Laughter, Williams weaponized the dark times in her life once again. She took her oppression and turned it into a joy ride. Now she's inviting you to do the same.
Set list below.
Still Into You
Brick by Boring Brick
That's What You Get
I Caught Myself
Hate to See Your Heart Break
Told You So
Everywhere (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Ain't It Fun
Caught in the Middle
Scooby's in the Back (HalfNoise song)
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