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Why Paramore’s Riot! Rages On 10 Years Later

The burning fire at the heart of a great band

Paramore’s second album, Riot!, which turns 10 this week, remains one of recent pop culture's truest, most potent guides for navigating teenage turbulence. It’s an album that says it’s OK to care about your life, to admit to emotions beyond apathy — even to act on them, and to shout them from towers made of your own stubbornness. Perhaps most notably, Riot! roars with the very ferocity most girls are disciplined out of. Hayley Williams sings with the sort of snarling conviction that sends us to the principal’s office at 12 and condemns us to internet harassment at 20 — the stinging sorrows we’re not allowed to name lest we be dismissed as histrionic.

Throughout their decade-plus career, Paramore have identified emotional intensity as a strength, not a liability. This is the foundation of the double-platinum Riot!: Josh Farro's fervent guitar work elevates the songs into larger-than-life anthems; Zac Farro’s drumming is bold and heartbeat-steady; and Williams’s incisive lyrics spin universes out of an inner unrest. Songs zoom in on fallouts and failings until they sound the way they feel: monumental, urgent, explosive.

Riot! is where Paramore perfected the art of crystallizing crises at their detonation point, using shrapnel from the wound to forge a sword, or a shield, or shelter. With their schoolyard origins and fierce commitment, the Paramore heard on this album sound like they’re taking on the world.

“Misery Business,” Riot!’s bitter breakout single, still features in the band’s folklore. Its central narrative — the ruthless character assassination of a girl charged with manipulating Williams’s friend turned love interest with her weaponized sexuality — and misplaced morality have aged like milk. Once the soundtrack to countless mean-girl revenge fantasies, it's been the subject of more critical inspection in recent years, as discerning listeners have taken issue with the song’s internalized misogyny.

Williams has been handling the fallout ever since. In a 2015 Tumblr post, she addressed the controversy around the song, without seeking to dodge accountability. “It wasn’t really meant to be this big philosophical statement about anything,” she wrote. “It was quite literally a page in my diary about a singular moment I experienced as a high schooler. And that’s the funny part about growing up in a band with any degree of success. People still have my diary. The past and the present. All the good AND bad and embarrassing of it! But I’m not ashamed.”

Ten years on from Riot!, Paramore have generated more than enough hits to justify striking “Misery Business” from their setlist altogether. Instead, they’ve used it to build a tradition the band’s devotees know well: Where the song should lurch into its vengeful bridge, the music enters a tense loop and Williams begins to spiel. She makes a show of scanning the audience for the right fan, one who’ll know every word and would sing with a requisite zeal. When she makes her choice, she brings them onstage and hands them the mic, a spotlight, a moment ablaze. Instead of sweeping an unsavory mistake under the rug, Williams invites fans to work through their own scorn so they can unlearn it together.

“Misery Business” was a symptom, not the illness. It was the inevitable result of the noxious lies girls are fed about themselves beginning from birth. And sometimes, the only way to get rid of all that venom is to spit it back out.

The song’s true triumph comes at the end of the second verse, when Williams snarls “It’s easy if you do it right / Well, I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!” That sentiment ultimately marks refusal — in this case, of face-saving selective amnesia, and of shame — as one of Paramore’s central missions. Even when later albums (2013’s self-titled record and last month’s After Laughter) pivot toward introspection, they maintain a crucial empathy for one's past selves. Williams learns and grows, but she understands that neither process is linear. She knows that a pristine image is a falsehood, and a story built on falsehood has no punch.

Paramore know what they believe in, beginning — always — with their own story: The whole story, with every ugly and vulnerable thing left intact.

Riot!’s most essential declaration is the “That’s What You Get” bridge from which the album takes its name: “Pain, make your way to me / And I’ll always be just so inviting / If I ever start to think straight / This heart will start a riot in me.”

It’s easy to mistake for a cautionary tale, but it’s a spitfire celebration of a life lived headstrong and heart-first. Here is Paramore’s skeleton key, serrated edge scratching a promise into everything within reach: When you stop abiding by your heart, it will always find a way to return you to your truth. It will get you into trouble, but it will always point you north.

Much of Paramore’s ensuing discography unravels Riot! until it is more string than lifeline. But in that undoing, each thread becomes braided into something bigger, something stronger. Each Paramore album is better because of the ones before it. Each album renews old commitments, even through contradiction. Within Williams’s ceaselessly self-referential lyrics, each callback acts as an expandable shorthand, telling a richer story to those who look for it.

Many recurring themes in Paramore's catalog — love, loneliness, learning, leaving, letting go — get this treatment, but none play quite the same role as fire. Where other concepts appear in occasional one-off lines, Riot!’s exhausted fight song “Let the Flames Begin” earns a dedicated reprise in Paramore’s “Part II.” The arc identifies the fire that Paramore has carried through every inch of their story, and evinces the hard, endless work necessary to protect and nurture it. Williams’s evident exhaustion is eclipsed by her belief-driven resolve. The first song’s chorus proclaims “This is how we dance / When they try to take us down / This is what will be.” All these years later, on “Part II” and beyond it, Williams is still standing, still dancing, despite everything. There’s a heretic pride to that.

That, there, is Riot!’s crux. Paramore’s ultimate allegiance isn’t to any specific beliefs so much as to the ferocity with which they believe in things. Where girls are supposed to be pliable, Paramore centers Williams’s stubbornness. Where girls are encouraged to replace instinct with detached rationalism, Williams refuses to think straight. Riot!’s invincibility comes from its proximity to fragility.

These days, I listen to Riot! and want little more than to reach backward in time and shove the album into my younger self’s hands, guide her to this place where fire-hearted girls’ turbulent stories are front and center and first-person rather than the object of a man’s intrigue. We can simplify Riot! until it provides only nostalgia: for hopping the broken fence between adolescence and adulthood, for the days we cared so much it could have consumed us. We can pretend that we don’t still need its empowerment or its empathy. But then, who wins when we erase our history to save face? What do girls lose to facilitate that victory?

If we forget our hard-won unlearning, we forfeit the ability to guide others out of the labyrinth. I think Williams knows this too. She never apologized for being a teenage girl then, and she does not now. Offered the chance to trivialize her youthful messes and mistakes to earn present-day cool points, she refuses. When Williams sang “Somewhere, weakness is a strength / And I’ll die searching for it” on “Let the Flames Begin,” she had already found it: She was building it.