Hayley Williams (Paramore)

MUSIC IS BIGGER THAN GENDER…
(AND OTHER LESSONS)

When I was a kid I wanted to be a boy. It just seemed like they had more fun. Like they were less precious…

And if there’s one thing that sounds to me like a ruffled, pastel hell – it’s being thought of as even kind of “precious”. In defiance, I wore boys’ clothes, I rode a BMX bike with all the boys in my neighborhood, and I vowed to never marry.

There wasn’t a thriving music scene in my small hometown but all I had to do was sneak a little MTV while my parents weren’t home to know that there was a whole world outside of where I was from. This was a place where art and all kinds of weirdos could present themselves as they wanted to be seen. I felt I related to those people more than anyone I went to school with. Missy Elliot in a trash bag suit had more of an effect on me than anyone I knew in real life. There was an entire universe in me that no one knew, no matter how many slumber parties I went to. If it killed me, I was going to get to the place where the Missys of the world ruled.

Fast forward to 2004. At 15 years old, I was a pretty good kid… very independent and proud of the young woman I was becoming. Puberty wasn’t all that hard on me and there were even some days I thought I was pretty. After having moved from Mississippi to a town just south of Nashville, I met some kids my age who asked me to join their band. It was the time of my life. Shortly after we’d formed what would later be called Paramore, I was plucked from the band and carted around to every major label you could think of. In the wake of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”, I was another young tomboy with a guitar. I was one of those girls who “wasn’t like the other girls”.

Again, I began to resent my own femininity. Maybe if I were actually one of the boys, I wouldn’t be in these label meetings alone. For the next couple of years, I wore mostly t-shirts and I quit wearing makeup altogether. Even after I’d managed to get my friends – my bandmates – back into the equation, I still felt a deep isolation that there didn’t seem to be a cure for.

When the band started touring, I was embarrassed that every review we got back only had to do with me. Fleeting moments of acceptance were quickly followed by bigger waves of shame. Why couldn’t people just forget I was a girl? Why did it matter if I was? I didn’t feel particularly female, nor male, when I was on stage. Deep down, I think I was beginning to realize something profound about music, which is still the truth today: Music is bigger (and better) than gender.

It took me a while to realize that my microphone was powerful. It took me even longer to realize that in my own femininity, there was also power. Never did it occur to me that seeing a female behind a microphone could be seen as a threat. The funniest part of all of it was that on the outside I had that power but on the inside, I was still figuring out how to use it… and not always gracefully.

What I wish I had known back then was how little it all had to do with me. Any sexist article or misogynistic remark thrown at me from a crowd; none of it was because of me. There was a social myopia plaguing our music scene. My problem was the way I was internalizing it as truth.

At some point, I realized that whether or not I could change the whole game, I had to change the way that I existed within it. So, I stopped apologizing for being female and started accepting all the power and responsibility that comes along with it.

It’s taken me nearly 28 years to realize that the most defiant thing we can do as individuals is not to resist others’ expectations of ourselves but to resist our own. It’s because of my unique struggles as a female in this industry that I’ve learned some of the most defining lessons of my life. I’m much stronger now. An empowered woman with more purpose than before. And I found out that that place where the Missy Elliots of the world rule is not a literal destination. It’s the gut feeling that you follow. The voice in you that you do not silence. It’s when you embrace your story and stop avoiding the most authentic parts of yourself.

So ask me what it’s like to be a girl in a band. Give me a minute to quiet all the triggered, defensive thoughts I might have and when I finally open my mouth, I’ll tell you:

I’m thankful.