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!

The Bands That Grow With Us: A Skillet Concert Review

On August 24, I walked from my parents’ house to a college performing arts center. Skillet’s buses and semi were huddled around the back of the building, and a small crowd of concert-goers in emblazoned t-shirts clustered around the front. I checked in at will call for my pass, got my camera’s settings in place, and settled in for a night watching Skillet bring their blistering live show to East Texas.

Ten years ago, I stood in that same room to see that same band. Skillet was touring the record Comatose at the time, and it was my very first rock show. Then, I had a general admission ticket which I’d kept on display in my bedroom for months in advance so I could see it whenever I was having a bad day. When the concert day finally came, I was so excited–and nervous–I couldn’t sit down. A crowd pressed against the front of the stage. I edged into the center of it, holding to the railing, ready.

I remembered this as I scoped out the photography situation. I walked past the spot where I had staked my claim ten years earlier, smiling at the memory of how hard I had to hold on once things got rowdy.

The room dropped to black, with an introductory swell of music that had the crowd screaming. Then John Cooper’s voice boomed out over the room: “I feel, I feel it: invincible.”

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The room was instantly captivated, singing along in a roar. The band was electric. Korey Cooper seemed in constant motion, practically dancing with her guitar. Seth Morrison’s guitar work, a marriage of grungy distortion and precision, won the admiration of the metal heads in the room. And Jen Ledger carried herself with effortless grace through her vocal lines despite the sheer intensity being poured into the drum kit.

Skillet followed with “Whispers in the Dark,” a familiar tune that had older Skillet fans screaming every word. I sang along quietly as I snapped pictures, remembering singing along at the top of my lungs ten years ago, when the song was new. Two songs from concept album Rise followed, “Sick of It” and the title track. “Lions” and “Back From the Dead” bridged us back to the present before cellist Tate Olsen took the stage under a single spotlight, signaled the beginning of 2009 smash hit “Awake and Alive.”

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Around this time I was standing halfway back in the room, resetting my camera, when a mom approached me. I could see her eyes bright with tears, so I moved closer to her so I could hear her.

“Are you with the band?” she asked.

“Kind of,” I answered, a little hesitant. “I know them, a little bit.”

“They saved my daughter’s life,” she said.

I dropped my camera and gave her my full attention. “I’m so glad,” I told her.

She started to tell me, through tears, that her daughter had been planning to attempt suicide when she came across Skillet’s music. The songs met her where she was, gave her hope, lifted her out of the dark. “I just want them to know that,” the mom told me. “Could you tell them, if you ever get a chance?”

I promised her I would. I told her it mattered. I asked her daughter’s name so I could hold it with me, carry the story. She pointed her out to me, dancing and singing on the front row in a white dress.

That story was the same story I’d been living in that room ten years before. I’d been the one who had been planning suicide, who had scarred up arms and a desperate spirit, who caught and held Skillet’s music as literal whispers in the dark–whispers that maybe there was more for me. Whispers that maybe I could survive into adulthood, against all odds. And when I saw my first Skillet show, with all those songs fresh and vital in my new steps into a recovering life, I stood on the front row and screamed every word in living defiance of the dark.

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The rest of Skillet’s show continued to be infectiously passionate, touching on hits like “Hero,” “Monster” and “Rebirthing.” An acoustic performance of “Stars” centered the evening on the message of hope. A special performance of Jen Ledger’s solo single “Not Dead Yet” gave Jen the chance to show her incredible growth as an artist, while rallying fans in life-giving determination. The evening ended on “The Resistance,” with plenty of firework style pyro canons.

The show had a lot more bells and whistles than that first Skillet show I saw ten years ago. I’ve seen Skillet somewhere around 25 times since, and their performances only continue to get tighter, more raucously enjoyable. But beyond the exceptional musical offering, I found myself thinking about the way music grows with us.

These songs met me in a place of deep desperation, and it would change everything about me–set me on my trajectory to work in the music industry, change the way I viewed God. Those days are long in my history now, fond memories of a time when I was a different person. Now, I get to see the story repeat itself, get to champion the life-giving cycle perpetuated. I was given what I needed, when I needed it most, through these songs. Now others are having that exact same experience. I am lucky to even get to witness it. I am gifted beyond belief when I get to be a small part of helping people connect the dots between their pain and the songs that meet them in the middle of it.

And that is a great grace in the progress we make, in the things given to us for healing: they don’t end with us. We get to turn around and give them to others as we grow. In this way, a small seed of life creates life abundant.

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For a full gallery of photos from this concert, click here. To find out when you can see Skillet in a city near you, visit skillet.com.

30 Seconds to Mars’ ‘Rescue Me’ And the Universal Cry For Help

[Content warning: suicide]

The of suicide has been painfully present in the news over the span of the past month. A few high profile losses paired with sobering news about the suicide rate from the CDC (in summary: it’s going up) have continued to open the window for questions to be asked with increasing urgency. How do we talk about depression, suicide, mental health? How do we help others? How do we help ourselves?

These are questions rock music has always been uniquely poised to speak into as a genre that builds itself on the raw, on the brutal, on the most pure passions and pain of human experience. Rock music’s “stick it to the man” ethos attracts the loners, the outcasts, the ones broken by a society that might not know what to do with them. And especially in the terrible void left by losing some of our own last year with the deaths of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, the rock community is offered a crucial opportunity.

It’s a moment 30 Seconds to Mars, the unstoppable rock force built by actor Jared Leto and his brother Shannon, has owned fully with their new music video for “Rescue Me.” The song is part of the band’s most recent album America, a project that explores different elements of this unique cultural moment in history. Part of that cultural moment is, undeniably, a desperate sense of need to be saved from ourselves. 30 Seconds to Mars tells that story by simply showing us intimate, emotional moments with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. You can watch the video below.

 

“Rescue Me is a song about pain, a song about empowerment, a song about faith, and a song about freedom,” Jared Leto shared in the video’s description. “Freedom from the wreckage of your past. Freedom from the bondage of self. And freedom to embrace all the promises that life has to offer. It’s also a song about the brutal war so many of us wage against fear, depression and anxiety in the hope that we might, one day, live a life filled with happiness and dreams. Pain does not discriminate. It can affect us all. In our bodies. Our hearts. Our minds. And often, when that pain is emotional or mental, we are afraid to speak up. None of us are ‘ok’ all the time. And there shouldn’t be a stigma when we aren’t. Both my brother and I have had our own intense personal battles and it has, and continues to be, life changing. I try to remember that just past the darkest days await the brightest and most rewarding moments. And that change is always right around the corner.”

The reality that that perspective could be voiced by someone in Leto’s position– an accomplished actor, musician, and cultural icon– speaks to the broader reality that the desire for salvation from the worst of our fears is universal. Leto has answered that desire one way. The answer for someone else might look entirely different. But the recognition that everyone is looking for it bridges divides, reminds us to be a little kinder to each other in incredibly polarizing times.

And maybe the answers to the hard questions begin with something as simple as that: an honest admission that no one is exempt, regardless of belief system or background or social status. Ownership of our own stories and the right to tell them with vulnerability. Recognition that rescue often involves reaching beyond ourselves.

If you need immediate help, you can contact the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more resources and local longterm support, you can visit twloha.com/find-help

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