From Paramore To Guns ‘N’ Roses, How Musicians Are Dealing With Their Past Problematic Lyrics

Getty Image

Over the weekend, Nashville pop-punk luminaries Paramore closed out their announced dates behind 2017’s After Laughter with their own hometown event, Paramore Art + Friends festival. The concert featured acts like Coin and Bully opening for a headlining Paramore set, but perhaps the most noteworthy moment came ahead of the performance of one of Paramore’s most beloved songs.

As Altpress reported, Paramore leader Haley Williams prefaced the 2007 hit “Misery Business” by announcing “Tonight we’re playing this song for the last time for a really long time. 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.”

The song features the line, “Once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change,” a blow written by the young Williams that hasn’t aged well as conversations around “slut shaming” have grown more common. And for now, this looks to be the last word on a topic that Williams has had plenty to say in the past, including tweets, interviews, and a blog post from 2015 that finds an older Williams reflecting on the lyrics written by a teenage self and seeing how they don’t align with her more feminist, adult views. Williams wrote:

“’Misery Business’ is not a set of lyrics that I relate to as a 26-year-old woman. 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. It wasn’t really meant to be this big philosophical statement about anything. It was quite literally a page in my diary about a singular moment I experienced as a high schooler.”

As Stereogum points out, Williams has even opted to just skip over the lyrics in the past during live performances of the song, but it seems the time has come where she wants to move away from the song completely. And while anyone who’s seen Paramore live knows that the track, which often features a fan onstage performing the lyrics with Williams, is a high point of the set, it’s also ubiquitous enough that putting it on the shelf for a few years won’t likely upset any of the diehards.

Just a couple days later, a very different converation about problematic song lyrics took place. In a recent interview between Yahoo and Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Slash, the top-hatted shredder seemed surprised that issues of the band’s sexist lyrics would even come up. A question about how their catalog has aged, with some songs now more than 30 years old, allowed Slash to give the following response:

“I’ve never thought of that. It’s never crossed my mind. I mean, I think when the #MeToo thing really blew up, the thought crossed my mind of a bunch of musicians, not particular ones, but just musicians [who might be implicated]. But for the most part, as far as all the ones I know, it wasn’t like that. We didn’t have that particular [predatory] relationship with girls. It was a lot more the other way around, in some cases! Anyway, so some of the songs and all that were sort of sexist in their own way, but not to be taken that seriously. I don’t think they were malicious or anything.”

The “sort of sexist in their own way” admission feels like a gross understatment when considering the subject matter of songs like “Used To Love Her,” which is a pretty direct (even if not neccesarily serious) tale of a man murdering his lover because of how much she complained, or “Rocket Queen,” which includes actual sex recordings of lead singer Axl Rose having intercourse with drummer Steven Adler’s girlfriend. “It’s So Easy” offers up the line, “Turn around b*tch I got a use for you / Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do / And I’m bored.”

And this tepid response is even more surprising when considering that when GNR released a reissue of Appetite For Destruction earlier this year, all of the songs from G N’ R Lies were included except the most controversial one, “One In A Million.” Featuring homophobic and racist slurs that are unbelievable with modern ears, the song was rightfully shelved. This is a band that clearly knows that their past way of thinking has aged badly, and that shouldn’t be a surprise when it extends to the way their lyrics treat women.

But both Paramore and Guns ‘N’ Roses’ predicaments come at a very interesting time. Wokeness is at an all-time high and artists are held to a greater standard than ever, not to the point where these past errors of judement are unforgivable, but at least to the extent that many fans require acknowledgment, contrition, and amends. Is the answer to simply remove the songs from a setlist or exclude them from further editions of the album? Perhaps, but there might be a better way that is in better service to fans.

During his rollout for The Life Of Pablo, the often innovative Kanye West tried something that didn’t really have a precedent in the music world. After dropping the album on streaming services, he still tinkered with it, adding whole songs, changing the tracklisting, and editing verses and production elements of entire songs. It took the old adage that “art is never finished, it’s just abandoned” to the next level. Unfortunately, it didn’t mean changing some of the record’s most unfortunate lyrics, but Kanye’s video game and app-inspired update model opened new doors for how an album is experienced.

Why not make other albums open for tweaks years, even decades, after their release? Sure, you can’t really alter the physical copies that are already out there, but in the contemporary world where so much of music is listened to via streaming, that seems to matter less and less. If Paramore is serious about their regretful lyrics, why not just rerecord a line, update their album, and move on with their lives? It might be harder for someone like Axl Rose — who has entire songs of unfortunate words — but this seems like a model that could work for many artists as the times change on their lyrics.

Within the past couple of weeks, there was even an example of Eminem launching a homophobic slur the direction of Tyler, The Creator on track “Fall,” in a situation that saw his own collaborators distance themselves from the song. Obviously, the ideal situation would be for Em to retire words like that from his vocabulary permanently, but even after the blowback from it, how easy would it be for Em to just listen to good reason and change the track. Examples like this, of artists swallowing their pride and admitting when they are wrong, might be rare, but Paramore and, to a lesser extent, Guns ‘N’ Roses show that people do change and grow. Why not allow their songs to grow with them?