Paramore is for the Blacks. Argue with the wall

Photo+of+Hayley+Williams

Photo: Creative Commons

Photo of Hayley Williams

By Hadera McKay, Opinion Editor

On Sept. 28, punk rock band Paramore released its new single “This is Why,” after a five-year hiatus, ultimately signaling its reigning return with a quirky, upbeat and instant classic. Social media was immediately flooded with memes and commentary from Black Paramore fans praising the return of the Grammy award-winning band. 

One user tweeted—over a picture of the recent single cover—“Finally some BLACK music!” Others chimed in, thanking the band for delivering more “gospel anthems” and comparing the single’s release to Beyoncé’s recently released album, saying, “First Beyoncé, now Paramore. We up this year!” 

In 2005, a collection of teens making music after school in Franklin, T.N., became Paramore, a Christian rock band. Paramore’s roots in gospel music are definite draws for Black American communities who operate with lasting remnants of the value of Christianity and negro spirituals in promoting community and hope during times of enslavement. Paramore’s lyrics mirror these themes of hope, from 2009’s  “The Only Exception” to 2017’s “Hard Times.” The climbing musical cadence of classics like “Misery Business” and “Brick by Boring Brick” is adjacent to organ-led spiritual breakdowns during a church service. There’s a literal gospel choir at the end of “Ain’t it Fun,” arguably the Black Paramore fan anthem. 

The band has been upfront about not only the Christian influences on their music but the inherently Black artistic influences as well. In an interview with okayplayer, Williams cited influences like Erykah Badu, Janet Jackson, Outkast, and Solange on her own solo music, but also as a point of reference in writing with Paramore band members. 

Williams honored the distinct significance some of these artists have for the Black community from a place of education and appreciation, saying, It would appear to me as—I’m a white woman speaking on this, so forgive my ignorance—that [Erykah Badu’s] been hugely, hugely influential on Black culture and people’s recognition of their roots. Again, it’s one of those things when I listen to her, I’m like, ‘Oh, I know that I don’t get this, but I’ll still appreciate it.’”

As a Black woman and an avid fan of Paramore since the iPod touch days, I felt so seen by the community of social media users celebrating the return of a shared love: the intense emotion, glorious sound, and evergreen lyrics of Taylor York, Zac Farro, and lead vocalist Hayley Williams—the current members of Paramore. More than anything, I found myself wondering where this community was when I was alone in my bedroom, blasting “crushcrushcrush” in my headphones and praying my mom didn’t beat my ass for jumping up and down upstairs. 

In my adolescence, I was ashamed of my connection with Paramore’s supposedly “white” music. Now, as Black Paramore fans reveal their own emotional experiences with the band, I am filled with gratitude and closeness to my community that no uninformed white person can take away. Black people love Paramore; it is an indisputable fact. 

Though whites have done everything in their power to erase the influence of Black people on rock music, Black Paramore fans have found a way to foster a genuine relationship with rock that promotes catharsis, community, and soul. But why did it take so long for this truth to come to light, and how can Black people have a connection to something that society has spent so long defining as inherently white? 

Since 2018, social media has been permeated with discourse from Black social media users, declaring not only their abiding love for Paramore but also the loneliness they experienced as a result of their passion for the emo rock band. Some users described being called “Oreos” for liking what their peers considered to be “white music.” 

Black people who have lived most of their lives in predominantly white spaces are familiar with this term, which implies some cultural inauthenticity or disloyal nature to the Black community and an internal subservience or pandering to white people. To reference popular YouTube video essayist Madisyn Brown’s video titled “why do Black people love Paramore,” how can rock music be white when Black people created it? 

Like most genres of music, dances, fashion styles, slang, and damn near everything else, Rock and Roll was a foundationally Black cultural staple appropriated by whites. Before there was Elvis Presley, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe with her strong, captivating vocals and her revolutionary use of the electric guitar. Before Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, there was the stage presence and lyricism of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. And before Rock and Roll became synonymous with sweaty white people with stringy hair breaking guitars on stage, it was characterized by the back rooms of Southern Black clubs and churches. 

Rock and Roll began with a seamless combination of rhythm-led negro spirituals, inspired use of the drums, standup bass, and electric guitar, and the soaring and lamenting lyrics and voice of the Blues. White teens in the 1950s and ‘60s connected with the rhythmic, self-expressive, and rebellious nature of Blues and early Rock and Roll, opening the door for a genre initially labeled as “race music” to be accessible and shaped for white audiences. 

Whites were so successful at wiping Black people from the narrative of Rock and Roll that we, in turn, perpetuated our own form of racial delineation in music, ultimately ostracizing members of our own communities for liking what we came to define, at the behest of white people, as “white” music. 

A prime example of this is three-time Grammy winner and late ‘60s psychedelic rock legend Jimi Hendrix who Jack Hamilton describes in his article, “How Rock and Roll became white,” as an artist “judged by many as a fraud or sellout, his blackness rendering his music as inauthentically rock at the same time that his music rendered his person as inauthentically Black.” 

Some of us were also rock artists, playing in garage bands with our friends, or emo loners, or just eighth graders blasting Fall Out Boy and Paramore in our headphones and praying no one on the bus would ask us what we were listening to for fear of immediate ridicule. 

The truth is, Rock and Roll and its various branches—from punk to screamo to indie rock—is at its core a genre seeped in the importance of authenticity, a cathartic reflection of the pain of oppression, emotional turmoil, and hopelessness, and the almost-reverent experience of communing with people who understand those elements intimately. If we use that definition, rock music is not “white” music; in fact, it might be the most quintessentially Black thing there is.

These themes of community and the ingrained influence of soul and Blues are the very things that have contributed to the genuine relationship Paramore fostered with the bleeding hearts of Black people. 

So much of Paramore’s deep appreciation for Black music comes out in the music, particularly  in Williams’ vocal performance and stage presence. Williams exhibits a vocal range and control that firmly plants her as one of the standout vocalists of the last 20 years. Her strong belting and vocal riffs are parrots of Black soul and R&B artists. She is even able to maintain these strengths while delivering high-energy performances and encouraging audience participation, creating an unforgettable live music experience. Countless videos have gone viral of concert moments where Williams belts ending notes, adds controlled runs to a verse, or explodes in a fit of fun dancing that’s not just on beat but actually good. 

Paramore’s themes, musicality, and performances all point to the band’s true, untainted relationship with its Black audience. From 2007’s “Riot!” to 2013’s self-titled album and the many iterations of the band with shifting members and styles, Paramore has found a way to both maintain and diversify its fanbase. No matter what changes the band faces, I can always expect to connect with their honest and raw emotional lyrics, creative drum patterns, all-encompassing melody, and gut-wrenching vocals. Paramore has consistently demonstrated its dedication to pure, unadulterated raging, and that, more than anything, is a point of connection and healing among their Black listeners. 

In a time when BIPOC people are tired of asking for representation in diverse, authentic, non-stereotypical roles in all forms of media, I am excited and grateful that Black people are reclaiming spaces that have long been perpetuated as exclusively white. I honor the many activists, Black rock artists, and creatives that have paved the way for me to love what I love unapologetically, even if white people can’t catch up enough to see it. In the meantime, I’ll be bumping “This is Why” on repeat, waiting for Paramore’s release of their next album in February (Black History Month. Coincidence? I think not.), and biding my time until the upcoming tour.