Paramore: Red alert for teen pop's old guard

Madonna's latest album has been knocked from the top of the charts by a young American band barely into their twenties. Gillian Orr is dazzled by Paramore, and especially their striking lead singer, Hayley Williams
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The Independent Culture

Last Sunday evening, when the album chart revealed that the band Paramore had knocked Madonna's Celebration off the number one spot with their third album, brand new eyes, it left more than a few people thinking, ", who?"

If you're not familiar with this pop-punk five piece from Nashville, you can be quite forgiven. While Paramore might be on some people's radar (ie they'd heard of them, but not actually heard them), in teenland the band are a huge deal and their fanbase is as big, obsessive and hysterical as that of more immediately commercial artists, such as the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus.

Largely ignored by the more mature or serious music press, Paramore have been busy carving a niche for themselves, playing to youngsters who want something a bit more dark, engaging and honest than what is being offered up by Disney. And in the band's frontwoman, 20-year-old Hayley Williams, adolescent girls have found an alternative heroine, an antidote to the chirpy, breezy blondes wailing about the boy who never called them back (I'm looking at you, Taylor Swift). Williams and, indeed, the music, is parent-friendly but with enough nods to punk and emo for fans to view them as the real deal.

Of course, Paramore are not just for teens (they are played on Zane Lowe's radio show and they have appeared on the cover of Kerrang!), but the facts that the average age of the band is 20 and they've been around for five years have meant that they have a natural affinity with adolescents everywhere. And, while some more serious musicians would rather have a more sophisticated, mature crowd, Paramore embrace their tween following and never get embarrassed that half their audience has yet to hit puberty. And we all know that being big with the youth market equals big bucks. brand new eyes shifted 55,000 copies in the UK alone last week. In one day they sold 44,000 tickets for their UK tour in December, including selling out Wembley Arena.

Refreshingly, the band were not masterminded by some record-exec puppeteer, but came together naturally in Nashville, meeting each other through school and friends. Their fun, brash, non-threatening brand of punk rock started garnering attention immediately and they were promptly signed in 2005. Their second album, 2007's Riot!, was their big breakthrough. In 2008 they were nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist (losing out to Amy Winehouse) and their popularity has since soared.

Last year they cemented their status as teen idols by providing the lead single, "Decode", to another teen sensation, the vampire film, Twilight.

And despite winning Best Rock Group at the Teen Choice Awards for the last two years, it is only now that they are getting so big that they can't be ignored. The band and Williams are finally infiltrating their way into the mainstream consciousness.

While the four young men who make up the band are more than capable, especially their energetic drummer, Zac Farro, it is their red-haired vocalist who is arguably the most interesting of the band and their biggest card. She has been compared to a young Gwen Stefani – another charismatic, individual woman who knows about fronting an all-male, mainly anonymous band (thought they don't sound alike). Incidentally, Paramore supported No Doubt on their US tour this summer.

Rumour has it the extensive media attention that has been showered upon Williams has been a major source of contention in the band. There were even reports that they almost parted ways after a series of rows last year. However, all seems peachy now and, hopefully, the band have realised that with the lack of female-fronted rock bands around, the extra focus on Williams is something that's inevitable.

It is girls particularly who are excited to have a young role model to look up to; a girl who they feel is just one of them. Tired of other squeaky-clean pop princesses, adolescent girls are fanatical in their appreciation of Williams. Go to any of Paramore's gigs and you'll be greeted with rows of girls with dyed red locks in homage to their idol. There are blogs that obsessively discuss her outfits, latest shade of hair colour, or who she's dating.

In an age of polished outfits and perfect hair, Williams' style is decidedly non-gloss. With a wardrobe consisting mainly of jeans, T-shirts and hoodies paired with a bit of attitude, she dresses just like the teenagers who worship her. The most refreshing thing is that she gives off the impression that she couldn't give a hoot about what people make of her clothes anyway. I doubt she lost any sleep when the fash pack slammed her for wearing a mesh black dress and ankle socks to the 2008 Grammy Awards.

Along with girls like the actress Kristen Stewart, Williams has a darker aesthetic and a "couldn't care less" attitude that teenagers identify with. She is tougher and less willing to conform to the more common notions of beauty and style and she refuses to have her life ruled by boys. You only need look at some of Williams' lyrics to understand her gutsy worldview. On Riot!'s "Misery Business" Williams roars out: "Well 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, I refuse, I refuse!"

So too does Williams refuse to titillate fans by dressing sexily or posing in her underwear. Even being such a glam-free zone, she was still voted Sexiest Female at the 2009 NME Awards. Sure, she's pretty, but she's sexy because she's confident and talented.

As often happens when so-called alternative girls become mainstream idols, people like to yell "fraud". Some critics have dismissed her as some kind of faux rock-chick in the same vein as Kelly Clarkson or Avril Lavigne. Others point to the band's Christian faith and their lack of interest in partying to whinge about how this isn't a rebellious girl shaking up the order of things, it's just a goody-goody with ripped jeans and a few piercings. Others take issue with Williams's close friendship with the pop star Katy Perry, whose biggest flirtation with the dark side has been kissing a girl.

But these critics are missing the point. Williams has not been created in the office of some record label somewhere, she is just herself. As well as being a fantastic singer, she's also the main lyricist for the band. Live, she is quite the engaging performer, headbanging and belting out songs about the dreams and restrictions of youth, songs about being yourself and having self respect. Williams is a superior role model for younger girls because while she's clean-living, she's also strong, sassy and feisty. She doesn't step up to the media's expectations of a girl in music and ultimately, she's just one of the boys. The band are playing arena-sized venues and their leading lady has never had to take her clothes off, get a tabloid-friendly substance-abuse problem or be part of some high-profile power couple.

Sure, Paramore might not be making the most exciting, innovative music around, but they do make some cracking pop songs that younger people, especially teenagers, can really relate to. And in Williams they have such a captivating frontwoman that they might just transcend the youth market.