Four years ago, Paramore made the decision to retire pop-punk classic “Misery Business” from their setlist. “Tonight, we’re playing this song for the last time for a really long time,” vocalist Hayley Williams announced in Nashville in 2018. “This is a choice that we’ve made because we feel that we should. We feel like it’s time to move away from it for a little while.”
The retirement period is now officially over: Paramore surprised fans earlier this month when they performed the track at their first show in four years.
“Misery Business,” off Paramore’s 2007 sophomore album Riot!, is considered their breakthrough hit (it reached number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100) and is still one of their biggest songs. At the same time, the song has drawn controversy because of its internalized misogyny. Most of the criticism focuses on the line, “Once a whore, you’re nothing more, I’m sorry that’ll never change,” because of the derogatory term, slut-shaming and how it reinforces the reduction of women down to that label, permanently.
Williams, then 17, initially had reservations about that line, according to producer David Bendeth, who explained in a 2017 Billboard interview how he encouraged Williams to include the problematic line. “[Williams] says, ‘I just don’t think it’s right. I think morally it’s wrong to call somebody that,’” Bendeth recounted. “I said, ‘You’re not [calling somebody that]. You’re explaining the situation,’ and she said, ‘Okay, I’m going to sing it. I’m not going to like it, but I’m going to sing it.’” Williams has since vocalized just how much she doesn’t like that line in interviews, and even refrained from singing the offending line in some performances.
But it’s not just the one line. The speaker in the song criticizes her love interest’s ex (Williams later revealed that the song was about former bandmate Josh Farro’s ex-girlfriend) using sexist language and ideas, with the music video buying into the same misogyny in its depiction of its female-presenting villain. And Williams has acknowledged the track’s issues, on multiple occasions. “The problem with the lyrics is not that I had an issue with someone I went to school with,” Williams said in a 2017 interview with Track 7. “That’s just high school and friendships and breakups. It’s the way I tried to call her out using words that didn’t belong in the conversation. It’s the fact that the story was set up inside the context of a competition that didn’t exist over some fantasy romance.”
Then there’s the lines, “There’s a million other girls who do it just like you / Looking as innocent as possible to get to who / They want and what they like, it’s easy if you do it right / Well I refuse,” in which the speaker brands herself as “not like other girls” while condemning other women’s behavior.
“What I couldn’t have known at the time was that I was feeding into a lie that I’d bought into, just like so many other teenagers—and many adults—before me,” Williams told Track 7. “The whole, ‘I’m not like the other girls’ thing … this ‘cool girl’ religion. What even is that? Who are the gatekeepers of ‘cool’ anyway? Are they all men? Are they women that we’ve put on top of an unreachable pedestal?”
In 2015, Williams expressed in a blog post how changing feelings towards “Misery Business” are byproducts of growing up—and growing in general—in a public forum, with past mistakes not only available to revisit, but also getting continuous replay. “Misery Business is not a set of lyrics that I relate to as a 26-year-old woman,” she wrote. “I haven’t related to it in a very long time. Those words were written when I was 17 … admittedly, from a very narrow-minded perspective.”
Williams’ efforts to distance herself from the song continued even after retiring the song. When Spotify included “Misery Business” on its Women in Rock playlist in 2020, Williams posted a message on her Instagram story, saying, “I know it’s one of the band’s biggest songs but it shouldn’t be used to promote anything having to do with female empowerment or solidarity. I’m so proud of Paramore’s career, it’s not about shame. It’s about growth and progression … and though it’ll always be a fan favorite, we don’t need to include it on new playlists in 2020.”
The largely straight, white and male-dominated pop-punk and emo scenes have been rife with misogyny, from slut-shaming songs to lyrics threatening violence against women to numerous sexual assault allegations. Paramore, but especially Williams, faced a lot of criticism for “Misery Business,” while their male peers have not received pushback for songs that were similarly misogynistic. Take, for example, that “poor groom’s bride” from Panic! At The Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The song contains the same derogatory term as “Misery Business,” and like the Paramore track, remains one of the band’s best-known songs even over 15 years after its release. But Panic! didn’t receive the same level of backlash for the song as Paramore did over “Misery Business,” even though fans have called out vocalist Brendon Urie for making transphobic and racist comments, and for sexual assault allegations. Misogyny rears its ugly head in all kinds of music, no matter the artist’s genre or gender, but it seems that “Misery Business” has come under particularly heavy scrutiny.
That hasn’t stopped audiences from enjoying the track. “Misery Business” is Paramore’s most-played song on Spotify, with more than half a billion streams. Fans on Twitter joke about how their love for the song outweighs their concerns over its problematic themes.
Williams spoke about the double standard at Paramore’s first show back. “Four years ago, we said we were gonna retire this song for a little while, and I guess technically we did,” Williams said. “But what we did not know was that just about five minutes after I got canceled for saying the word ‘whore’ in a song, all of TikTok decided that it was okay. Make it make sense.”
It turns out that “Misery Business” is still relevant, and in a big way. The tag #miserybusiness has over 115 million views on TikTok. The track initially went platinum in 2008 but as of this summer, it has been certified multi-platinum six times. Its influence is so strong that Olivia Rodrigo gave Williams and Farro songwriting credits on “Good 4 U.” Machine Gun Kelly covered “Misery Business” with Travis Barker in early 2020, although without an acknowledgement of the controversy (and seemingly lacking the understanding that a male-identifying artist singing a song criticized for its misogyny after the original female-identifying artist retired it might not be a good move, especially when said male artist has come under fire for misogynistic comments, particularly referring to Black women).
Billie Eilish brought Williams out to perform an acoustic version of “Misery Business” during her set at Coachella this year, the first time Williams had performed that song since 2018. Initially, Williams attempted to dissuade Eilish from playing the song, she told The Guardian, before coming to the conclusion that, “it shouldn’t be about me. People grow and learn. I’d already called myself out and done a lot of work on the misogyny I’d metabolized as a young girl.” Even then, Williams was criticized for what some interpreted as selling out by compromising on her feminist values (playing once again into the sexist stereotype of a cold, calculating woman—kind of like the young woman described in the song in question). It seems that people have less of a problem with the actual content of the song than they do with Williams singing it.
The entire experience is informing Paramore’s new music. Williams explained to The Guardian that a song on Paramore’s forthcoming album This Is Why deals with “how you can’t control someone’s perception of you. How it feels to accept there are moments in your life where you were the bad guy or you said something that you didn’t even really believe—Misery Business—and that comes to define you for some people. What can you do except continue to grow and challenge yourself?”
Aliya Chaudhry is a freelance journalist specializing in covering music and internet culture. She has written for Billboard, MTV News, VICE, Stereogum, Slate, The Daily Beast, Kerrang! and Alternative Press, among other publications. You can read her work at www.aliyaachaudhry.com.