Should Emo Artists Apologize For Sexist Lyricism?

Kellie Warren/Getty Images
Kellie Warren/Getty Images

At the turn of the millennium, emo and pop-punk became viewed as sister genres predicated on similar gendered power imbalances—both involving 20-something dudes who wrote songs of unrequited crushes and performed them for crowds of mostly adolescent women, in a space where, like the soon-to-be defunct Warped Tour, sexual misconduct and assault is often forgiven and forgotten. That’s changing, now, as more and more abusers are being held accountable. It’s a welcomed change, but progress in emo and pop-punk is in its infancy.


A quick look back at the records that canonized the genre in the early-to-late ‘00s (Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends, Fall Out Boy’s Take This To Your Grave, throw a rock and you’ll hit several) reveals lyrical language that is overwhelmingly cringe-worthy, often violently misogynist, not to mention, challenging to listen to—unless you possess the ability to distill “art” from “artist,” where “art” is calling some silent female antagonist a “whore.” There are many, many, unendingly-many, examples.

So do the acts responsible for this music—which was made during a time when listeners blindly accepted its faults, perhaps due to a combination of self-doubt and internationalized misogyny—have a responsibility to apologize for past lyrical indiscretions?

In the summer of 2015, Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams wrote on her Tumblr about her feminist identity and apologized for the lyrics she wrote at 17 in her band’s breakthrough single, “Misery Business,” a biting anthem directed at a woman who caught the eye of her object of affection. The worst offender: “Once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change.” Williams wrote:

i’ll say this: 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.

…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. one thing i’m more thankful for than just about anything is all that my experiences - including my mistakes - have shaped me and made me someone i’m happier to be. in songs and in life. it’s always a little nerve-wracking to bring you guys along for the ride but when i step back and think about it… it’s kind of a huge honor that anyone cares in the first place. in conclusion. i’m a 26 years old person. and yes, a proud feminist. just maybe not a perfect one?


Since then, no other emo/pop-punk star of note has written something similar, angling to delegitimize the sentiment of their harmful lyricism. And it’s certainly not lost on us that the one musician of this particular scene who did is one of the very few women (for a while there, arguably the only woman) to see real success in it.

That is, until recently, when the reunited Glassjaw frontman Daryl Palumbo spoke to about his band’s questionable lyrics, specifically on their first album, 2000's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence. He said, after being asked if musicians should apologize for those songs:

It’s come up. It came up in a short Pitchfork thing. And it should come up. Those are some absurd things to say. The sentiment was frustration. I was a young guy, and I was supposed to be a man and I was not. I apologize for saying any of that. You can be frustrated, but I really wished I had written better lyrics. I wish I had better taste; I wish I wasn’t so insensitive. As a son to a widowed mother, a husband to the most amazing woman I ever met and as a dad, I feel idiotic for saying that stuff. Coming from a place in punk rock—to get those sentiments off of my chest—is ignorant. And acting like that isn’t punk-rock at all, because it’s not all inclusive. I was small-minded when I should’ve been a man.

“The Pitchfork thing” Palumbo refers to published the week following sexual misconduct accusations leveled at Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey, a dive into this particular era of emo’s rapant sexism. It quotes the 2000 Glassjaw lyric from “Pretty Lush”: “You can lead a whore to water / And you can bet she’ll drink and follow orders,” a song full of undeniably vicious rhetoric.


Will Williams and Palumbo inspire other bands of similar backgrounds to apologize for their most toxic lyricism? It’s hard to say. Should they have to? Emo and pop-punk is in a unique position where many of the bands from the 2000s mainstream golden age (as determined by Billboard charts and TV spots and daily appearances on TRL) continue to tour and acquire new fans—Panic! at the Disco and All Time Low, for example, have enjoyed the biggest records of their careers in the last two years, a decade after their career-making hits “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies” and “Dear Maria, Count Me In,” respectively. If young and loyal fans alike continue to flock to these records of yesteryear, we can only hope they do so with a grain of salt—and hold its creators accountable for the messages it espoused.

Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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