Why Hayley Williams, Atlantic Records and The State of Paramore Matter

One of the biggest issues that’s come out of the current Paramore drama is the continued accusation that Paramore is a manufactured band. That a potential pop star was teamed with a group of musicians who would act as little more than her glorified back-up band.

While remaining band members Hayley Williams, Jeremy Davis and Taylor York have denied these accusations, recently departed brothers Josh and Zac Farro released an exit statement claiming that many of the rumors were true: that Paramore, or more accurately Hayley, was signed to a major label deal but toured and acted as if they were a grassroots style band that just got lucky and hit it big.

During an interview with MTV, Williams confirmed that she is the only member of the band signed to a contract, but went on to say that to her it doesn’t matter. Her insistence seems to be that she agreed to the contract as a way of getting the band through the door, even saying that she hates business and doesn’t think the contract should define the band.

Aside from all of the legal reasons that yes, it does matter who’s on a contract, I hate to say it, but that contract matters. Not likely for the reasons Hayley’s thinking of and honestly, I want to make it very clear that I’m not trying to blame her, accuse her or even “hate on” her for anything. I think, from her perspective, everything she’s saying is true and earnest and that she may have just been the victim of being a teenage girl in a music industry that preys on teenage girls.

Which is to say: Fuck the mainstream music industry. Seriously.

Let’s be really clear about something: the “norm” for a rock band is an all male ensemble. Guys make rock music. Girls are free to listen to and enjoy rock music, but they aren’t the “right” people to make it.

But that’s sort of a common thing in all industry, not just music. Jezebel recently ran a story explaining how advertisers prefer to masculinise something because while “male” products might appeal to both men and women, “female” products will only appeal to women. This makes sense in a music world where, for the most part, the rule is that male bands/artists make music for everyone, but girl bands/artists make girl music for girls slathered in an extra helping of girl-sauce. Anyone can listen to Jay-Z without having their gender identity challenged, but if you like Madonna you’d better be a girl or a stereotypical gay man, otherwise you’re going to hear about it.

So, it’s not a shock that, comparatively, so few girl-fronted bands ever make mainstream waves. It’s not marketable. But at the same time, girl pop artists, apparently, are. While you don’t see many girls fronting bands, you do see a lot of girls in front of a faceless, nameless back-up band. Sometimes they’ll get clever and let the pop star strum a guitar during a song or two, a la Katy Perry or Avril Lavigne, but in the end they’re not girls in a band.

Which is not to say there’s anything WRONG with being a pop star. But there is something wrong with trying to trick the world into believing a pop star is a girl in a band. And with Hayley Williams being the only one signed to a contract under Atlantic, it seems like that may have been the label’s (NOT HAYLEY’S) aim.

And THAT matters. Because, hopefully, girls who see Paramore don’t dream of being a pop star, girls who see Paramore dream of being the girl fronting the band. There’s a definite difference in the way the power structure is perceived: while a pop star might own the stage, she’s only really competing with herself and her dancers…who are there to be her back-up anyway. With a girl fronting a band, she is contending against her other bandmates, often all-male, to draw eyes and ears to her. And to do that requires a lot of power…or at least a lot of perceived power.

It is that kind of power that can resonate with girls in the audience. The idea of “Hey, screw you, I’m JUST AS GOOD AS THE BOYS.” In an interview I did with Marisa Meltzer, author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, she said:

Girls need to know that they don’t have to accept that, that their role in music doesn’t have to be as groupie, fan, or muse. They need to know that women can make music that’s not folky, you know? We too can make raunchy music or angry music or yearning music–the full spectrum of our lady experiences needs to be shown a little more, I think.

The idea is to empower girls who see Paramore to realize they don’t have to wait for a record exec to show up and offer them a contract. They can start a band, they can write their music, they can express themselves. Rock music doesn’t HAVE to be a boy’s club, especially with the current climate where recording and releasing your own music is even easier, with technology anyone with a MacBook and internet access can record, mix and then upload their music to somewhere like Myspace or BandCamp.

Especially in an era where they are one of a very short list of female or female-fronted bands to play the Main Stage at Warped Tour, Paramore does matter. I’m not trying to defend them as some major feminist statement in punk rock (their hit Misery Business contains more than it’s fair share of girl-on-girl hatred and Virgin/Whore complex re-enforcement), I’m certainly not trying to proclaim them the second coming of Riot Grrrl, but I am saying that, for me, they hold the same sort of power that Lady Gaga does over the second coming of art as a part of pop culture: they can’t save the scene alone, but they are one hell of a good start.

That’s why, if Atlantic’s plan was just to make Hayley an upgraded version of Avril Lavigne, one who would be less recognizable as a pop star playing punk rocker, it makes them assholes. Because, whether they like it or not, girls deserve the chance to rock.

I hope this goes without saying, but please keep comments to this blog civil. We’re looking for discussion here.