Paramore’s “Hard Times” Rules
Rock music is no longer pop music, this we know. If you look at this week’s Billboard Hot 100, you have to go all the way down to No. 47 to find the first rock band, Imagine Dragons. If you go searching for a second, you’ll scroll right off the page. Instead, our current rock stars are pretty much anything else: EDM DJs, rappers, pop virtuosos, hulking country singers, etc. Harry Styles could pass, but he was a pop heartthrob from the beginning. Maroon 5, who used to at least play guitars, long ago turned themselves over to the pop machine. Twenty One Pilots scored three gigantic hits last year as a nominal rock band (they’re signed to Pete Wentz’s Fueled by Ramen), but guitars appear only intermittently, if at all, on those singles.
All of which makes Paramore a continued unlikely success story. Their 2013 self-titled album spawned two hits—“Still Into You” and “Ain’t It Fun”—that bridged rock and pop earnestly, prominently incorporating elements like synths and gospel choirs. But both songs were built around central, and very catchy, guitar riffs. With “Hard Times,” the lead single off their upcoming album After Laughter, Paramore seem to be signaling a willingness to stand out as that very endangered species, the crossover rock band, by pushing even further into pop than ever before.
This is signaled immediately, with bongos and marimbas that open the song before its drums and guitars really steady it. The riff is easily the most danceable thing they’ve recorded, and the refrain that punctuates the chorus—”Hard times!”—feels like a bit of very classic ’80s pop songwriting. The song then ends with an outro that pushes the guitars into the background in favor of synths and unintelligible vocoder scribbles. There’s no mistaking what kind of single Paramore is pushing here, but all of this serves to accent what is still a rock song (and rock band) at heart. The levels have been tweaked again, but only just a bit.
What Paramore has pulled off with “Hard Times” does not seem easy. They’ve expanded their sound, at once quite obviously but also subtly, in the margins, and come out of the other side with what immediately feels like one of the best singles of their career, and one of the best pop songs of the new year. In a New York Times story that was rolled out this morning along with the song and video, Paramore makes it clear that “Hard Times” is a precursor for their most pop album yet. But they say that they once again eschewed proposed collaborations with industry songwriters and producers, instead following a natural path to this landing spot.
This shouldn’t feel as rebellious, or even as exciting, as it does, but such is the state of popular music. It’s also an interesting experiment, even if you don’t care for Paramore’s music. Can a rock band make rock music, but also pop music, in 2017, and be as popular as Zedd? As much as I want to know the answer, I’m still kind of scared to find out.