10 Years On from Riot!: A Birthday

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I always used music to travel. I’d trawl forums for albums which, a dodgy download later, would transport me a continent across the world and to lives alien to my own. Growing up in the sweet spot between Edinburgh, West Lothian and Fife, it didn’t take much to feel gloriously consumed by things bigger than me. I never felt trapped by the confines of my small town because I was spending my formative years getting to know what was beyond, content knowing that there was plenty out there waiting for me.

So while I was a silent spectator, it was Paramore who signalled back. As an insecure preteen, it felt like going from being the seer to being the seen. I wasn’t eavesdropping on conversations any more but being reached out to and invited to the dialogue.

I remember quite vividly buying Riot! on CD (round, shiny, plays music without eating up your data). I was at the top end of twelve, maybe just thirteen, on a Saturday afternoon trip into town with friends. One of my first without parental supervision. I had birthday money to spend and, like we did back then, headed straight to HMV.

What I don’t remember is getting to know it, identifying favourite tracks early on, growing accustomed to the lulls and rises of it between pressing play over and over again. I, quite honestly, don’t remember much of myself before that album. Music is a great way of characterising chapters in life but I struggle to remember Riot! just not being there. Sometimes you’ll meet people who, when you cross paths, it’s like they walked in and switched the light on. Very quickly you forget that moments ago you were sitting alone in a dark room, and that you were ever unaware of their impending arrival. There aren’t many albums I’d apply that experience to, but Riot! is one of them.

While All We Know Is Falling lamented betrayals it didn’t understand, Riot! had found its fight. It pointed the finger with more righteousness but really earmarked a visceral kind of introspection that’s now so characteristic of Paramore. Hayley always gave herself a hard time lyrically, and gave herself a hard time for giving herself a hard time – a teen just like the rest of us, she was navigating the waters of self worth at an age when we don’t really have the means.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning today, and one in a series to which I didn’t really connect until Hayley wrote them. She demonstrated that the best of us can struggle to keep our heads above water during periods of figuring-ourselves-out, but that we can find peace in it too – that we don’t need to make it to the other side before we can see value in ourselves.

To be a young girl knee deep in a genre so saturated with men, men’s takes and men’s talents and men’s power, having Paramore in my emotional arsenal was a game changer. That Hayley became an icon for girls and women is no breaking news, and she’s already up there with the Gwen Stefanis and Shirley Mansons and Joan Jetts.

She isn’t the Patti Smith of my generation, though. She’s the Hayley Williams of my generation. Right place, right time, right message. The fact that thousands of us feel so similarly shaped by having the privilege of growing up alongside her is, on one hand, a sad indictment of the genres we grew up on and the gender imbalance of platforms held. But god, it has been a privilege.

I was young, still developing my world view and my view of myself, and I heard Hayley feeling things like I did. I also saw her as an incredible, creative, stomping and unapologetic force. That she didn’t shy away from vulnerability, championed the weird and cultivated self expression as no less than a moral stance completely set me up for adolescence.

Riot!, now, represents painful adolescent experiences that I wish I could live all over again. It’s not my favourite of theirs – if they’d stagnated over the past decade I likely wouldn’t be writing this – but it was a vehicle for my own development like no other Paramore record. You don’t realise, at that point in your life, that you’re feeling things in the most raw and earnest way you ever will.

I’m ten years older now, hopefully ten years wiser. I still turn to Paramore in the knowledge that they’ll hold a mirror up to me until I’ve had a chance to put myself back together. Next week I’ll be spending my twenty third birthday at one of their shows with my best friend, a girl who accompanied me to HMV and spent the subsequent years by my side listening to Riot!, traversing our emotional common ground. I expect those on stage will strike me as old friends, too.

 

 

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International Women’s Day 2017 – A Soundtrack

As each IWD comes to pass, I find myself more enamoured with the women in my life – friends, family, and acquaintances I admire from afar. They’re as reliable a support network as I could ever dream of having and my primary day to day inspiration. From friends who use their talents to promote the causes we share a passion for, to a mother who became my best friend in adulthood, my early 20s are proving to be happily woman-centric.

We are resilient, warm, and unapologetic (or working on it, if you’re me). We listen and we strive to cultivate an intersectional approach to not just our feminism but our lives – because really, they’re one and the same. We’re often too humble, admonishing our own instinctive lean towards modesty, but we are always learning to recognise our shortcomings and blind spots. To be emotional, and let that define us if we like, but also realise that it’s optional. We notice that as women we carry an innate hesitance to just say without disclaimer, to be perceived attaching authority to our opinions, and so we are driven to make a living from doing just that. Our arts and our sciences are essential, but they are not as effective a tool as our day to day solidarity.

***

I was raised by a woman, but I was also raised by music. My dad was very musical, and I’m sure I absorbed some of that, but it played a smaller role in my mum’s life. This meant that after his passing, while my mum had her favourites (The Monkees, Meatloaf, and Al Green off the top of my head) I was in the musical driver’s seat. From a very young age I sought out the sounds and thoughts of those worlds away from me, feasting on any genre I had access to. In terms of what I liked, the requirements were about as loose as they are now: whether it was a beat that facilitated the many hours I would spend self-choreographing round the living room (this also hasn’t changed), lyrics that made sense of my confused preteen feelings, or opinions that I had never been exposed to, I wanted it all.

And so, while I attempt to carve out a place for myself as a writer, the most precious form of expression to me will always be music. I’m competent in a couple of instruments, but I’ve never had the guts to put my words to them, so my respect for those who do – and who do so successfully – is boundless. It’s a privilege to be able to indulge in the arts but some genres were also borne out of necessity, an avenue for minorities and working class people to escape the confines of poverty and oppression, giving a voice to the experiences of themselves and others like them.

That’s why it seems fitting to recognise International Women’s Day with a compilation of my favourite tracks celebrating womanhood. Some I have loved my whole life, while some are more recent discoveries. Some are widely respected and critically acclaimed, while the inclusion of others could almost certainly be effectively torn apart in longform by VICE. No matter, because the flavours of womanhood are limitless.

Please do let me know if you have any tracks to add, for I’m always on the look out.

Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.

 

Starting off with a classic. Queen Latifah defiantly touches on misogyny, cat calling, domestic violence and her experiences as a black woman at the hands of men in her community.

 

Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl

 

No feminist music collection can be complete without recognising the riot grrrl movement, particularly if you grew up on punk rock. ‘When she talks, I hear the revolution/In her hips, there’s revolutions/When she walks, the revolution’s coming/In her kiss, I taste the revolution.’

 

 

Christina Aguilera – Can’t Hold Us Down

 

This was, if my memory serves me, the very first song to put feminism on my radar. I adored Christina and remember using pocket money to buy a copy of Stripped, which I kept on rotation in our living room stereo for years. At such a young age I couldn’t fully comprehend the microaggressions being referred to on this track, on-the-nose as it is, but the overall message is one that stuck with me. ‘So what am I not supposed to have an opinion?/Should I be quiet just because I’m a woman?/Call me a bitch ’cause I speak what’s on my mind/Guess it’s easier for you to swallow if I sat and smiled.’

 

 

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

 

From one of the most important punk rock albums of our time. Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as a trans woman didn’t transform the scene which likes to think of itself as more progressive than it is, but hell did she have an impact. As well as being a bloody great band, Laura’s activism for trans and feminist causes means that Against Me! is more punk than you could ever dream of being. Should be required listening for anyone claiming to be intersectional. ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made/.’

 

Jhené Aiko – Spotless Mind

 

I’m a huge fan of Jhené, and this track really speaks to me in terms of self acceptance and emotional growth. Combined with the video, it reassures me that as a woman I have the right to be whoever I want to be, in as many different ways as I like and in as many different ways as I can’t yet predict. ‘Shame on me for changing? Shame on you for staying the same.’

 

Kimya Dawson – I Like Giants

 

A voice and style immediately recognisable to those of us who went through a Moldy Peaches phase – or saw a few minutes of Juno – this is a typically lovely track about perspective and self worth. A reassuring rub on the shoulder in sonic form. ‘I like giants, especially girl giants/’Cause all girls feel too big sometimes, regardless of their size.’

 

 

Beyoncé – ***Flawless

 

Well obviously. With feminism woven into all of her output these days, I could really pick any Yoncé track from the last two albums – but this is certainly the most blatant, with an excerpt monologue from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in case you didn’t get the message the first thousand times. It’s Bey’s world and we’re living in it. (This is also why she won’t appear on the playlist I put together alongside this post – if it’s Tidal or bust, I’m out.)

 

Paramore – Ain’t It Fun

 

This track’s message might not be overtly feminist (check out Anklebiters which definitely fits the bill), but of this list it’s probably closest to my heart for how it continues to help me embrace emotional resilience. Its dry-witted musings never grow stale or irrelevant, and I dare say that my generation (specifically girls of the alt-music persuasion) would be very different had we not grown up in Hayley’s shadow, despite her missteps along the way. It’s unfortunate that she stands relatively alone as a woman of her level of success in the genre, but she is phenomenal. ‘Ain’t it fun living in the real world? Ain’t it good being all alone?’

 

 

Salt-N-Pepa – None of Your Business

 

Another early ’90s classic, this track calls out the double standards of perceived promiscuity before ‘slut shaming’ appeared in a single think piece. It even features a message of support for sex workers, even if lacking in nuance. ‘If I want to take a guy home with me tonight, it’s none of your business/And if she wants to be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business.’

 

Sleater-Kinney – #1 Must Have

 

Another band to grow out of the riot grrrl movement, this track sees Sleater-Kinney decry the watering down of feminism in the name of capitalism and marketing – a grievance which is no less relevant today, nearly two decades after its release. ‘And I think that I sometimes might have wished/For something more than to be a size six/But now my inspiration rests/In-between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills.’

 

Lauryn Hill – Doo-Wop (That Thing)

 

A treasure of hip hop and neo-soul, it seems apt to end with Lauryn Hill and this anthem for female confidence. Detailing the difficulties of relationships and the additional burdens carried by women, Hill insists: ‘Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem, baby girl.’

 

 

My Body, Myself, and You

Let me start out by noting that this is in no way an attempt to put myself down, or cry ‘woe is me’ in search of compliments. Self deprecation is a defence mechanism I’ve perfected over the years, but something I’m trying to cut back on as I get older. This, on the other hand, is more like an elephant in the room that I feel particularly uncomfortable acknowledging. But it affects everything I do, every interaction I have, and so I probably should.

Echoing the experiences of almost every woman I know, my body and I have never been on great terms. I learned very young that my appearance was very important, and it took nearly a decade for me to begin to deconstruct that line of thinking. Sadly, its deconstruction didn’t lessen the effect, and really only produced a kind of inner conflict – my appearance doesn’t define me, yeah, to hell with your beauty standards, I have plenty to offer so it shouldn’t matter how long I had to do my hair this morning. Except that it still will matter, no matter how silly I know that to be.

I am so very hesitant to claim a divide between myself and other women, particularly regarding our shared experience of womanhood and how generally privileged I am in that respect. But being surrounded by countless beautiful women, so strong, charming and fantastic as they are, highlights that when it comes to a lot of things – ‘body positivity’ and beyond – we’re coming at it from very different places.

An overwhelming majority of my friends are conventionally very attractive women. They’re a compassionate, understanding bunch who would scold me the second I even hinted at the possibility that I’m maybe, potentially, not quite as hot as Beyonce. They couldn’t be more supportive and so it’s no fault of theirs that they don’t understand, or maybe even think about, how different certain situations are for us.

We’re all well aware that as women, our appearances carry a lot more weight (and thus our personalities carry less) than if we weren’t. We can never escape being looked at before we are listened to, and that’s a truth I wouldn’t dream of denying to any woman. But as someone who doesn’t really reach that bar of ‘conventionally attractive’, I’ve grown accustomed to feeling a few steps behind them at all times.

I constantly feel that I have something to prove. I feel that I must be so funny, so insightful, so understanding, so confident that people forget what I look like – as if with every witty remark, another piece of this cursed outer shell which I can’t detach myself from falls away to reveal more of who I am. Most of the time I have to try twice as hard as my gorgeous sisters to convince someone to find me interesting (and I’m generally someone you need to know for a little while before I’m confident enough to really be myself, so this is especially frustrating). As I search for a post-uni job, I’m more often overcome by visions of walking into an interview and being written off before I even sit down than I am by worries that I’m not competent (I’m backed by the statistics here, too).

In social situations, I often feel I have to fight to avoid periods of time spent not really being talked to by anyone, while people flock to my attractive friends (and I’m not talking romantically here. That is a whole ‘nother ballgame). This is a bit of a catch-22, of course, as being so uncomfortable in the body I inhabit impedes my confidence chronically, so I sometimes struggle to put myself out there in the first place. And if I let my dry sense of humour show too much, I know that I’m more likely to be viewed as, well, just a bit of a sarcastic cow rather than feisty or forward in a *hot* way.

Women all have a hyper-awareness of the physical space they exist in, but that’s heightened if you’re not attractive. The thing is: with the way our society functions, being conventionally attractive gives you a clean slate. If you’re funny, you’re funny, you’re not ugly but funny. You can walk into a room of strangers and know that they’re unlikely to have compartmentalised you in their minds before you even introduce yourself. It’s only human to judge others, absolutely, but if you’re not attractive you’re far less likely to even have the privilege of being judged as a whole person.

I worry that to someone who can’t empathise, this may seem melodramatic, so I feel it worth pointing out that despite the pages and pages of detail I could go into – this dimension of my identity has become something so omnipresent that I often go periods of time without noticing it. I don’t live a sexless, isolated life sitting in a corner and wishing someone would notice me. I still believe I’m of value, I still know I have a lot to contribute to the lives intertwined with my own, and I actually like myself more than ever. But in all the cool things I’m able to spend my days doing, I can’t help but feel I’m viewed as inherently lesser than attractive women.

There’s a lot of self-doubt involved, sure, but this has become less an insecurity and more a bitter acceptance of where I stand. I can acknowledge it or I can be in denial, but this will be the reality of myself and many others no matter what I think of it. Some days I have the energy to propel myself forward those few steps, but some days I don’t.

I’m of the opinion that there’s an inherent shame attached to less attractive women asserting that they’re as valuable as any other, and that’s something I’m not immune to, so even publishing this leaves me feeling a bit exposed. I could easily natter away about mental health, my childhood, anything else so personal without much worry, yet voicing that I feel I’m sometimes treated as ‘unattractive woman’ rather than ‘woman I know nothing about’ (or even ‘Hannah’) makes me very uncomfortable.

It ties back in with my avoidance of self deprecation, too. If someone is going to think about your flaws, they’re going to do so regardless, and you pointing your own flaws out for them won’t do you many favours. I don’t want someone with only a half-formed opinion of me to think of only my appearance from now on, because I placed such a spotlight on it in this instance. And I wouldn’t want a potential suitor to read this (James McAvoy, if you’re out there…) and write me off because I sit here and explain to them in detail why I am an unattractive prospect. Like I mentioned previously: it is so difficult for women to transcend their appearance, and even writing about mine feels like risking erasing myself for good.

This is, perhaps, why writing about it feels so necessary, and why writing is so important to me in general – this way, I can only be measured by syntax and font.