“As the saying goes, history may not necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Long before ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll’ there was ‘wine, women and song.'”
Nashville rock band Paramore retired their song “Misery Business” and gave the last performance of the song at their Art + Friends headlining show Sept. 7.
According to Alternative Press, internet speculation on reasons for the song’s retirement arose after their final show. The song criticized vocalist Hayley Williams, a female icon who openly supports feminist values, lyric
“Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry, that will never change.”
“I don’t believe that that’s truly why they retired it, but I do believe that Hayley might not feel the same way that she did when she wrote those lyrics.” said Steven Goldberg, vocalist of Detroit band Desires. “She was 18 when she wrote them, 11 years ago. She’s grown up, become an adult, and her worldview has changed. I’m sure that I said things that were immature or not appropriate when I was younger.”
Dr. Maria Wendeln is an instructor in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at Wayne State University.
“First, one of my jobs as a historian is to examine the context in which an artifact was composed, be it a legal document, a painting, a novel, or even a song. Williams has stated that the ‘Misery Business’ line in question came from a diary entry, an entry she made when she was a teenager in the early 2000s and still in high school. If it is one thing which we have learned from the movie Mean Girls (2004) and the book that inspired it, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), teenage girls can be brutal to one another as they navigate a lot more than just the hallways.”
The song appeared on the band’s 2007 album Riot!. Since then, Williams excelled in her music career and became an icon for women in the rock industry. However, the line of the song became a tagline for critics to label her a “bad feminist.”
Dr. Wendeln further explains that women change and mature following high school.
“Williams grew as a person and discovered her own feminism. In 2015, she identified herself as ‘a proud feminist, just maybe not a perfect one?’ and perfection, particularly in the world of high school girls, can be highly subjective.”
“We are living in a different time than we were 10 years ago. We are also at a very important time for feminism where it seems that more and more women and men are joining the movement and enlightening themselves on the issues.” said songwriter Mollie Johnson. “Haley Williams may not have been in tune with her feminism at the time, but we shouldn’t push people away from a cause because of something that they may have said in the past.”
“In the speech Williams gave before Paramore performed ‘Misery Business’ for the last time, ‘for a while,’ she stated that calling someone a “whore” is “not cool.'” said Dr. Wendeln. “As a 29-year-old, she is not comfortable saying it; and yet what is questionable is that Williams has felt uncomfortable with it for some time while she and her bandmates continued to perform the song. Some of the criticism of Williams and Paramore has to be coming from the decision not to retire the song earlier, from a time closer to when the uncomfortability [sic] began.”
Feminism in the music industry highlights a growing gap between men and women. In a study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism division reported the strong lack of females in the music industry.
Females made up 11.4 percent of songwriters in 2017, according to the report. The finding that female written songs made up for only 16.8 percent of 600 popular songs highlights this.
The push for female inclusion allows for more conversation about how degrading lyrics caused a toxic environment.
Rhode Island punk rock band Makeout released their single “Secrets” in 2017 that contained lyrics such as “Your secrets, are not safe with, me anymore. You blew it, with your bullshit, you fucking whore.” The release of the music video caused the all-male band to receive criticism online regarding their sexist language and degrading attitude toward women in the song.
“’Secrets’ by Makeout had a very negative reaction, especially from other musicians in the scene.” said Goldberg. “I honestly think that that song deserves more of a backlash than ‘Misery Business’ does.”
However, other male artists still release songs that target women, and whose careers thrive from them without widespread criticism. For example, rapper Kanye West released his new song “I Love It” with rapper Lil Pump. The chorus continually states, “You’re such a fuckin’ ho, I love it (I love it).”
“There are ridiculous numbers of songs both written and performed by men that slut shame, exploit, and use women as a simple pleasure point in the piece.” said Johnson. “I think that the main reason they are not criticized is because of the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality.”
The song currently sits at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100, one spot above 6ix9ine’s song “FeFe.” The lyrics contain the following lines “All I know is that I just can’t wife that talk to her nice, so she won’t fight back, turn around and hit it from the back”.
Panic! At the Disco fronted by vocalist Brendon Urie received skepticism over their use of the word “whore” in their 2005 song “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” following the speculations of Williams retiring her song for the use of the same word. Urie sings “What a shame the poor groom’s bride is a whore” and continues to the perform the song on every night of tour to date.
“Urie’s uses the word “whore” in third person where he tells a story about someone who uses that word. In both ‘Misery Business’ and ‘Secrets’, the person who is singing is using the word.” said Goldberg. “It’s in first person. I think that the storytelling device is a big difference, so I don’t think that they should retire it.”
“Well, I think it is important to point out that the song itself has been performed by men when you consider that Williams’ bandmates are men, including fellow Paramore co-founder, Zac Farro. Also, ‘Misery Business’ itself was co-written with original band member and Farro’s brother, Josh.” explained Dr. Wendeln.
“Williams may be the only female member of the band, as well as its only consistent member; but her male bandmates have definitely played a role in the composition, recording and performance of ‘Misery Business.’ They also have played a role in the band’s determination to excise the song from their play lists, rewrite the line in question, and eventually to retire the song.”
Paramore’s retirement of “Misery Business” created a conversation about demeaning language toward women in the music industry. Although Williams has yet to confirm this is indeed the sole reason, it created a conversation within the scene.
“As the saying goes, history may not necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Long before ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll’ there was ‘wine, women and song.’ The objectification of women and demeaning of others in popular culture have been with us for a very, very long time.” said Dr. Wendeln. “These are things which feminist authors and campaigners have pushed back against for centuries, and even long before the terms ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ entered the lexicon.”
Right now, Paramore’s decision to retire “Misery Business” has been the talk of the scene. Will it be something that inspires others to reconsider retiring their work, or changing lyrics? It might be the spark that sets a standard in future songwriting.
“In the meantime, their decision has been met with both praise and criticism, including criticism from some fans who wish that they wouldn’t retire ‘Misery Business’ because they enjoy the song.” said Dr. Wendeln. “This is criticism directed at a band maturing and moving in a different direction; but that’s what all musicians, artists, writers, etc. do.”
Art is subjective. Music has the ability to be an art the reaches a wide audience. However, this makes it vulnerable to the subjectivity and criticism of many.
“Songwriting is one of the most beautiful ways that we get the opportunity to connect with people and allow people to think further than they normally would,” said Johnson. “It is a terrific art form. A lot of art is built from pain. But should it instill pain in others?”
*Photo Courtesy of Atlantic Records