Hayley Williams and When Emo Music Grows Up

This week, alternative music icon Hayley Williams took to Instagram to share that we can expect social media silence from her for awhile. “If you deal with depression or any kind of PTSD, please take it seriously and try hard to remember that it’s not who you are but rather it is a very common effect of the world we are exposed to and the lives we try so hard to engage in,” Williams shared. “I know it’s very popular to say ‘it’s okay to not be okay…’ but please give me the grace to admit that as I am quickly approaching 30 I am just not okay with not being okay anymore.”

The Instagram post (which ultimately pointed towards a mental health internet break for Hayley but no end to her musical and hair dye endeavors) followed up an intimate, confessional editorial she wrote for PAPER Magazine earlier this year. In the op-ed, Hayley Williams wrote about her struggles with mental health and how the process of reaching a new rock bottom informed the band’s darkly shimmering pop masterpiece After Laughter.

Moments in the raw discourse that the Paramore singer has begun to build with fans might bring to mind lyrics written by her teenage self– bring to mind less for comparison, more for contrast. There was all the urgency of adolescence in Paramore’s early songs, the intensity born of a time of life when emotions are all as big and unnavigable as rolling tsunamis. I remember what it felt like to be 16 years old and singing “this is an emergency, so are you listening?”

But I also know what it’s like to be nearing 30 and no longer OK with not being OK.

Hayley Williams is one voice in what I believe is a growing conversation: what happens when the emo kids grow up? There is a certain rite of passage to being sad, to encountering the boisterous tragedy of the world for the first time. I don’t believe that adolescent experience, too often dismissed as “teenage angst,” is anything to be sneered at; I think it’s a necessary, borderline sacred, part of becoming. But none of us stay teenagers forever. And the bands who started as Warped Tour kids haven’t stayed there either.

The groups who sang our emo anthems of the early-to-mid-2000s have grown up with us. They’ve had other jobs. They’ve gotten married– and divorced. They’ve had a few kids. They’ve been through health problems. They’ve lived the monotony of the daily demands of bills to pay. And for the good bands, their music has begun to reflect it. A newer face, Beartooth’s 2014 album Disgusting was a scalding, almost difficult to hear journey through the throes of alcoholism. But to me, this year’s Disease was perhaps even more poignantly painful, seemingly asking: “is this the best recovery gets? Getting up and doing this again and again for the rest of my life?”

I’m getting older
Still lost as ever
Faking a smile while I bury the pressure.
Why does this happen?
I should be fine
But I can’t shake the feeling I’m living a lie.

The examples of alternative bands who have undergone similar subtle thematic shifts over years of maturation are endless. See Papa Roach’s shift from suicide anthem “Last Resort” to the message of “Face Everything and Rise.” Dig into the steady unfolding of Breaking Benjamin’s discography. Most recently, even Avril Lavigne traded the sarcasm of “My Happy Ending” for the worshipful sincerity of “Head Above Water” (and its corresponding nonprofit).

This steady progression seems to be propelled by the same slow recognition: we have to start with recognizing that we’re not OK. But we can’t stop there. We can’t be 30-somethings still mired in the same things that held us captive at 13. We who have survived owe it to everyone still in the emotional trenches to tell a truer story.

We have to talk (and sing) about what happens when getting better looks less like a straight line progression and more like a cyclical pattern through winters and summers, deaths and rebirths. We have to talk about what happens when you check off every suicide prevention box on the list and still lose someone. We have to talk about both the teenage kids struggling with self-harm and the adults awkwardly navigating their old scars through the world. We have to talk about the resolve that begins sobriety and the ongoing day-to-day ache of continuing to fight for it. We have to talk about it getting better. We have to talk about the fact that sometimes it hasn’t yet.

This means that those that once just sang about pain are now advocating for better mental health access and destigmatizing treatment for those whose brains can’t stop being sad, as Hayley Williams has done. The underdog, anti-system message that forms the core fabric of rock in all its forms is being forged into a determination to help those the system has rejected (see Silent Planet’s recent support of rejected and homeless LGBT youth). In short, social critique has matured into social change.

Those conversations are difficult and require nuance. It’s one thing to write a song about being suicidal, and we will certainly always desperately need those. But we also need the nuance of gutsy songs like twenty one pilots’ “Neon Gravestones,” which admits that maybe we do a dangerous disservice to everyone around us when we simplify, even glorify, such a life or death conversation.

The difficulty and risk of fallout from those kinds of ventures explains why some bands choose to stay in what seems like a state of musical adolescence, fixated on the same topics that were in vogue alongside side swept bangs and guyliner. And I can certainly enjoy those bands in their own right (as I said, there is nothing wrong with the rite of passage that is an “emo phase”).

But as an emo kid who grew up, I’m grateful for the bands who did too. I’m grateful for the music that hosts the hard conversations. These are the kinds of songs that give me tremendous hope for the alternative music scene in 2018, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing a lot more of it.

Listen to a few of the exceptional albums referenced in this feature:
After Laughter by Paramore
Disease by Beartooth
F.E.A.R. by Papa Roach
Ember by Breaking Benjamin
Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne
When the End Began by Silent Planet
Trench by twenty one pilots

Meg Hudson of Drive Thru Society

I was 15 when I picked up the bass guitar and began playing with my older brother. The following year, my parents bought me a guitar so I could play at church and start writing my own songs.

Music has always been a way to express outwardly what’s going on inside, and the feeling of creating something so raw and vulnerable was extremely liberating for me. I had always loved singing at church and performing at various talent shows, but it’s a completely different feeling when you get to perform a song that you wrote.

In college, I was heavily involved in our campus ministry and met Greg (my now husband) through playing on the praise team. We had always talked about our love for rock music and desire to take positive messages of hope and grace into the dark parts of the world. We got married in 2011, and shortly after we broke away from the praise team to create Drive Thru Society. As most young rock bands, we had no clue what we were doing when we started, but we played passionately and fumbled our way into the scene.

The longer we wrote and pursued music, the more we started to draw material for songs from the stories of people we would meet at shows or online. Our song “Ghosts” stemmed from this exact scenario. My best friend had struggled with undiagnosed depression for years, and after some time of building our relationship she finally told me her story of her attempted suicide. She was 19 and felt that she didn’t deserve to live, that she wasn’t worthy of God’s love, so she decided to overdose on a bottle of pills. She didn’t expect to wake up the next morning, but was surprised when she did and was surrounded by nurses in a hospital room. She said it was in that moment of weakness that the Lord reached down and told her that He wasn’t done with her and started to re-write the negative thoughts that were in her head telling her that she didn’t have what it took and that she wasn’t worthy of His love.

I personally had never struggled with those things, but I felt the Lord had softened my heart to empathize with her story and used my mouth to speak for her by writing the song. While I was in the studio, she actually sent me some lyrics that made it into the song. I thought it was incredibly neat that it came straight from the source.

Through writing this song and playing it live, I can’t tell you how many texts/emails we’ve received regarding the impact that her story has had on others, which made us realize the responsibility we had to encourage and steward those who shared their story with us.

Our heart to those who have personally struggled with suicide is that it is tough right now, there’s no denying that. However, it gets better. I think as teenagers and young adult its hard to see just how big the world is. We get so narrow focused on what’s right in front of us that we can’t even comprehend that we’ll ever get past this. But suicide ends the possibility that it’ll get better and doesn’t allow us to trust the Lord to use us and teach us through those dark times.

My best friend thought she was so damaged and that no one would understand her pain (after years of being rejected because of it), but because she allowed someone in (me) and received love through that, she was able to fully receive God’s grace for her decision and step into the freedom that He has for her. You are not defined or damaged by your mistakes. When you receive the healing power of Jesus, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done because He stands in for you and makes you clean.

Genesis 50:20 says “What you intended for harm, God intended for good.” This was coming from Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and endured years of feeling unworthy, but ultimately saved them through God’s sovereign plan. There are so many moments where we intend to hurt ourselves (whether through believing negative things, self-harm or self sabotage), and we intend it for harm, but God in His grace and mercy can turn it around and use it for good like He did for my friend. Joseph was wrongly imprisoned for a time, but Genesis 39:21 says “The LORD was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love.”

Sometimes when we struggle with mental illness our minds can feel like a prison and that we are trapped to feel this way forever, but commit that scripture to memory and remember that the Lord has promised “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 / Deuteronomy 31:6). It’s easy to only look at our current circumstances and think I’ll never make it past this, but even in those moments trust that the Lord has you and will get you through it. It may not be the way you planned, and you may be in that season for longer than you expected, but trusting the Lord always outweighs us taking things into our own hands and trying to solve the situation on our own.

Remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12. Remember who the real enemy is.

Through our understanding of scripture and listening to the stories of people that have been moved by our music, it encourages us to continue writing about difficult topics that our culture is facing. We know that music has a power that’s difficult to explain in words, but is more something you feel. We want to continue to write and create in a space that uses our platform to ultimately glorify the Lord and then encourage our listeners towards His goodness.

In April 2017, Greg and I experienced one of the lowest points in our music career and really had to re-evaluate why we were pursuing this in the first place. We had aligned ourselves with people in the industry that we trusted, and after a few months of working with them we realized that we were not on the same page and did not have the same convictions. I personally had felt attacked on a level I had never experienced, and my once confident demeanor was whittled to practically nothing. Self-doubt ran rampant, and I second guessed every decision I made because I was belittled in almost every sense of the word working with those people.

We stepped back and were now faced with a huge ok God, now what? moment. Everything we had been working towards since college had just been ripped out from under us, and we had to decide how we were going to proceed forward. I was given a book during that time called Follow the Cloud by John Stickl, and I had no idea how much it was going to impact me during the lowest point of my self-esteem. John talks about how God leads us one small step at a time to prune us along the way and to deepen our obedience to Him. It would be nice if the Lord gave us a giant roadmap and we could just move through it, but then it wouldn’t develop perseverance, plus taking one small step at a time refines our character and increases our trust in the Lord.

In a time where I wanted nothing to do with the music industry and felt completely disabled to write music, I felt the Lord telling me “it’s not over yet, just keep following me one small step at a time. It will make sense eventually.” It was all I could do to take those small steps day by day and slowly allow my heart to forgive and heal from the beating it had just taken.

Through that season of healing and restoration, the Lord showed me that it didn’t matter where I was or what the end game would be, but that I am making a difference even in the daily routine of life. I didn’t have to sell a ton of records, I didn’t have to have a top radio single, I didn’t have to look perfect all the time or meet certain weight expectations in order to be effective for the Kingdom, but that an open heart towards those God loves and obedience in the small steps were what God honored. It seems so simple now, but at the time it was revolutionary for me.

My encouragement to you is that you don’t have to know the big picture, you don’t have to have all the answers, and you don’t have to compromise in your personal convictions to be used by the Lord. We took almost a year off of music and finally felt we could start writing and creating again because the Lord realigned our focus with His kingdom in mind, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since!

You are enough, and in those times when you don’t feel that way, God provides grace to make up the difference. Don’t let fear hold you back from being obedient in the small things and trusting God through the small steps. 1 John 4:18 says “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. the one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Step into the freedom that God has granted you through Jesus and set your fear aside because the Lord is with you!

A few months ago with this renewed heart the Lord has provided multiple opportunities for Drive Thru Society, including our song “Ghosts” being featured in an upcoming movie called Worthy. We’ve talked with Bruce Snyder (head of the project), and our hearts towards ministry and art are definitely in alignment. He’s been encouraging from the beginning and affirming that we are where we’re supposed to be. We’re very excited to be working with him and the rest of the Worthy crew on this project!

Greg and I have one more single to release, most likely in early 2019, and then we will record a full length record. We started writing a few months ago and are excited to tell more stories and share more art with everyone. We’ve talked about playing a few shows here and there, but have no immediate plans.

I hope you’ve felt encouraged to stay the course and be persistent even in moments when it doesn’t make sense and you can’t see what’s around the corner. Remember that you are loved and that you never know where the Lord will lead you next. You matter and you’re making a difference!

Rock and Roll Helps My Family Overcome

In the Bible, James 1 reminds us to be slow to speak and quick to listen. These words are a lifetime challenge, one that I’ve been wrestling with since growing up in a Christian conservative household.

As I grow in age and gain wisdom, these words have taught me that by taking time to listen to others, it turns out everyone has a story of struggling through difficult seasons. Not everyone has an addiction to overcome, or actionable suicidal thoughts, but everyone– if we’re honest– has struggled with some form of anxiety or depression.

This is the story that has been written so far about my family, our shared struggles with depression and anxiety, and how rock and roll has been therapeutic in bringing us together.

As with most true stories, this story has a beginning. The term “beginning” might be misleading, because I don’t believe anyone just wakes up one day and starts to experience depression or anxiety. These mental health challenges are deeply rooted and creep up on us over the course of time. Often we don’t even realize it’s on us until we are at a crossroads, which is where this story begins.

A few years ago on one of the last hazy days of summer vacation, my wife and our four kids were visiting my mother-in-law and swimming in the pool. At the time our oldest son was about 7 or 8, and our youngest was an infant. I was working about a 3 hour drive away from where they were for the day. It was a routine kind of day, nothing out of the ordinary– until I got a phone call from my frantic mother-in-law. My wife had passed out while swimming. Emergency help was on the way.

By the time I arrived at Hershey Medical Center, my wife had been flown there by helicopter and was awake and seemed well at the time. She would have a type of pacemaker installed when a heart condition was determined to be the root cause. Later, lab testing would reveal that three of our kids also share this genetic heart condition. Our story, and our battles with anxiety and depression, began on that hazy, routine summer day.

My oldest son had the composure to go ahead and call 911 when my wife passed out in the pool, then sat with our younger kids watching the scene unfold. He didn’t know how to process this emotionally at the time, so I suspect there was a lot of buildup that festered over time.

Fast forward to February 2017 on Super Bowl Sunday.

I’d recently had battles with my own depression, to the point where I had contemplated and even researched suicide. At that time, I chose not to seek help for myself .

Our oldest son came home from church that day, rabid to play video games. I shut that down because of concerns I had with behavior that morning. His response was unexpected, to say the least: he went to his room and covered himself with his blanket in a fit of rage. He made what we assumed to be empty, unknowing threats of self-harm and suicide. As parents, we took the first step of discussing it with him, hoping he’d understand that those are not words to speak lightly. He doubled down, so we took him to the Emergency Room, hoping to prove that what he was saying was serious and that we care so much about him that we will seek medical attention.

What they don’t tell you in the parenting handbook is that mental health is not to be messed with. I think he got so nervous at the hospital that things escalated to the point that he simply didn’t know how to respond, and we wound up staying two nights in the ER. After that, my son would be graciously admitted to an outpatient psychological center for further counseling and evaluation– about 3 months of outpatient, daily counseling for him. During the ER stay, I really connected and felt I fully understood “Love Feels Like” by Toby Mac (featuring dc Talk). I truly was “poured out, used up, still giving; stretching me out to the end of my limits.”

Later that summer, we had to say a very hard goodbye to our dog, who was 12 years old when we put him down. That was particularly hard on my oldest son, who had become attached to our dog while going through counseling. It was at this time that I started to introduce my kids to Skillet songs like “Invincible,” and my older boys used the Echo Dot to find more and more songs by Skillet.

Shortly after these traumatic events in 2017, my wife and I had the privilege to set sail on the Jesus Freak Cruise. This cruise was much needed for us after a difficult season. It also connected me with my roots as a Disc Jockey and writer in the CCM industry, and even more so my passion for positive rock and roll (dc Talk was one of the original Christian grunge rock bands I listened to).

Earlier this year I experienced another season of extreme thoughts and high anxiety. Life has taught me that this will be a lifelong ongoing battle, and the best thing to do is find a community to be a part of (enter the influence of the rock and roll community). Getting involved again in the music industry last fall (first with NewReleaseToday, and now with Rock On Purpose) has helped me to connect with my family in so many ways.

One of those was a shared interest in Skillet. Turns out, boys really enjoy banging their heads and screaming lyrics about feeling “like a monster.”

We went to Uprise 2017 together to see Skillet live, which ignited a passion for singing and rock and roll in my boys that help us to relate well together. Matt Baird, lead singer of Spoken, took time to take a picture with my boys and I and to sign posters for them. He was genuinely interested in chatting with us. I think those moments can have a lasting impact for our children.

My son is doing better now, and music is still a very important thing in his life.  He listens to Imagine Dragons and Skillet, both bands having a big impact with a positive message.

As for me, after walking through a very dark time in December and into winter of 2018,
rock and roll music has kept me alive and fighting on many days. Lacey Sturm, Skillet, Seventh Day Slumber and the community of fellow rockheads and the various rock shows I’ve attended this year help to be a reminder to me that life is worth the pain, and we’re not in this thing alone.

I stand here to say this: the struggle with depression and anxiety is real, but positive and deeply meaningful music with an edge to it has been a therapeutic escape. It’s also OK to seek professional help.

Our community that is rock and roll is an example of the best medicine: love each other well, remind those around you that tomorrow needs them. Remain so tightly connected, pray for one another and make sure absolutely nothing is off limits in our conversations with each other.

The best part of it is that our fellow rockers have James 1 figured out: listen well, speak slowly.

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