Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Hayley Williams On Going Solo, Alanis Morissette & Trusting Her Intuition
To coincide with the release of her solo debut, 'Petals For Armor,' the Paramore performer spoke with the Recording Academy about learning to trust her body’s intuition, trying to make friends in adulthood and establishing boundaries on social media
These days, nothing is going as expected, especially for Hayley Williams. The GRAMMY-winning Paramore frontperson is stuck at home in Nashville tending to a house full of plants, her bright-eyed dog Alf and the near-weekly release of singles from her debut solo album, Petals For Armor. With quarantine lockdown intensifying her already isolated headspace, Williams has ample time to stress about the release of a record she never planned to make in the first place.
When talking about it over a weekday phone call, she sighs and laughs simultaneously. "Weird times," she says. "Today I’m PMS-ing, but I’m fine. It’s fine. It’s totally fine!" Usually a string of reassurances like that would strike as self-deprecating or tongue-in-cheek. For her, right now, it actually reads as honesty.
For starters, Williams has nothing to hide anymore. After concluding a string of tours in support of Paramore's synthpop full-length After Laughter and divorcing her longtime partner, she returned home only to discover it was time to address her struggles with depression and anxiety more formally. At the suggestion of her therapist, she began penning songs as a form of musical journaling. The results were passionate and transparent, the type of tracks where raw energy pulses through them, and Williams realized she had unintentionally created a set of songs worth sharing. Her bandmates suggested she turn it into a proper solo album. As an artist who was signed to a major label at age 14 where she established she would only record music with her friends as a proper band, not as a teenage pop star, the idea felt inconceivable—every song she had written for the past 15 years had been released through Paramore, save for one-off collaborations—until she decided to wing it and see what happened. When you’re Hayley Williams, an unintentional origin story can result in a pop album as creatively diverse and empathetically rewarding as this one.
To coincide with the release of Petals For Armor today, Williams spoke with the Recording Academy about learning to trust her body’s intuition, trying to make friends in adulthood and establishing boundaries on social media.
Petals For Armor opens with a pretty spot-on assessment that "Rage is a quiet thing," which reappears later in the album as well. In cultural conversations, rage is always addressed as a physical, visible, loud thing and never as something discrete or hidden. Looking back, do you remember the first time you felt truly overwhelmed with anger?
Oh, wow. Goodness. How deep do we want to get? I think I felt it in a few different iterations from a really young age. As you get older, you learn how to articulate some of those feelings in new ways. For me in my early years, I isolated a lot, I was very confused about my parents' divocre, and I was also confused about my mom’s second marriage and the abuse that happened there. I wasn’t a witness to it as much as I felt it. It was an uncomfortable time in life. For me, the way anger manifested was like heat in my body, almost like a blackout where I wouldn't remember the last few moments. You sort of dissociate in a way that doesn’t feel all that weird until you get older and, in hindsight, realize your body was trying to tell you something.
Absolutely. For whatever reason, I seemed to grow up without ever getting really angry. I would get upset or frustrated, of course, and certainly would debate with friends or family. But I never felt genuinely angry until I was in my mid-20s and experienced that full-force realization of, "Oh wow, women experience so many horrible things that men thankfully don't have to go through, and we’re just supposed to deal with it, to keep up with everyone else despite having unique setbacks." It’s weird to realize how long you’ve been carrying a silent rage before it finally boils over.
Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. In a way, I wish there would’ve been a way for me to understand what it was that was happening in my body and in my brain. But at the same time, you have to wonder, you know, our bodies are so intelligent and maybe they were protecting you and I from something we just weren’t ready to feel, in whatever ways that looked like for each of us. Now that I’m older, and now that you’re older, you recognize it. Hopefully that has taught us something that helps us move forward and grow. Some days I feel like I haven’t learned sh*t though.
While listening to this album, I’ve been thinking a lot about artists who sing about their anger or depression, especially in the '90s with Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, and how it defined their career almost to the point of redirecting their own narrative. For a lot of women I know, seeing that resulted in this impulse to be like, "No, I'm not like them. I’m a tomboy. I don’t let my emotions consume me." What those musicians were getting at, though, is ultimately how their personal experiences funnel into a larger desire for reparative justice and long-overdue equality.
Thankfully people have a lot more space and empathy and understanding now for these types of things. People like Fiona Apple or Alanis Morissette—and the thing about Alanis is she had such a massive moment in the ‘90s that was defining for women in rock music and alternative music—were suddenly accepted and then immediately were pushed away. That momentary acceptance that we all had culturally for someone like Alanis Morissette definitely faded into this fear of hysterical women. Our anger can so easily be misconstrued as hysterical. It’s as simple or as insidious as someone being like, "Well, are you about to be on your period?" And you know, that doesn’t have to be offensive because, yeah, sometimes I am about to be on my period and I want to rip your face off. But other times, we've let that become the reason that women shouldn't be taken seriously when it comes to our emotions. Your point is so, so valid. They were talking about so much beyond anger. Anger is just the cap, it’s just the surface of so many meltier, slimier feelings that are harder to explain—and that’s why anger is our go-to. It’s covering insecurities and other feelings that can be tough to explain.
How would you define your rage here? And do you feel like you're being heard now that you've shared some of it through this album?
Oof. I think there are still mornings I wake up where I’m a little nervous about certain things that I mention on the album. Today, the single "Dead Horse" is coming out and I woke up excited because it’s something new I get to release into the world like a child, you know? But I’m very nervous because you’re not in control of other people's perceptions, ever. It doesn’t matter what you do; you just can’t. You can only speak honestly about your experiences and choose whether or not you’re going to magnify that and let the world in. For me, it’s so second nature because I’ve been putting albums out for so long now—you know, this is what I do, this is how I get the full-circle experience of healing and expression—but it has been intense and wonderful to feel that I am basically serving justice for my own self in my own way. It’s very individualized and very, very personal. The things I’m talking about on the first EP have a lot to do with the generational trauma and abuse that was in my family for multiple generations. I wasn’t aware of it so much as I could hear it, like a low hum in the background, until I was able to name it and ask my mom direct questions about these things she’s experienced that basically every woman on her side of the family has experienced.
I feel a sense of relief and I’m proud of that, but it comes with knowing that not everyone will understand this when listening to the album. Like yesterday, I posted a very passive-aggressive thing that allowed me to find humor in the fact that there are a lot of men on the internet who try to mansplain how to put out an album when they’ve probably never even made an album in their life. You get polarized responses. You get people who are cheering you on and then you get, "Oh man, she’s a man-hater now." And honestly? Yeah! Maybe both! Maybe I’m all of it and every shade in between. That’s the problem with any type of public domain. You're allowing other people to define you and you're also kind-of having to consent to it. I can’t direct it, but I’m certainly still in it and I want to be expressing myself in these ways.
Speaking of "Dead Horse," you’re digging deep into your past experiences on this album in a very transparent way. I've always thought one of the most common tragedies of life is when people feel locked into an unfit relationship, whether that relationship is emotionally abusive, mentally draining, or just profoundly boring. It sounds like your marriage was disillusioning at best, but you tried to make it fruitful despite that. What were some of the signs that you knew your relationship was no longer the right fit? One time my friend said the moment they realized they weren't in love anymore was when they no longer enjoyed their partner's scent.
Yeah, that’s so real. That's very animal isn’t it? That's such a real thing though. That’s a great place to start any response that I might have to say about this. Our bodies do not lie. I don’t know if it’s cultural, but over time, who we are in the present day is very disconnected from our bodies. We're so cut off from our animal instinct. I do think there’s something to the fact that people who have been close to one another and there’s something pleasing about the other person’s scent is so… I mean, I think the only reason it even feels awkward or silly to talk about is because we’re so disconnected from our bodies. That is, for me, what I noticed for years. Things weren’t right. There wasn’t a congruence with my mind, my heart, my spirit, and my body. That’s not to say that I’m some evolved, perfectly balanced human right now, because I’m not, but I can check in now and slow down and ask, "What does this mean to me? How do I really feel about this and not deny obvious truths?" My stomach just hurt all of the time. It hurt all of the time. I don’t know how else to put it. I didn’t feel comfortable yet I also felt like I was owed some sense of normalcy and also I owed it to my family or the world. I tried to create that by settling for something that ultimately did not feel right.
It’s heartbreaking to think that we do this, though. I’m from the South and there’s this whole idea of what the church says is right and wrong, and how we view marriage through a religious lense. I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t really think you can adhere to all of those rules and be a healthy person and a good person. Look, I believe love is hard. Love is a choice that we continue to make. I’ve been married to Paramore since I was 13 and it’s been a fking hell of a rollercoaster, but I'm in it and I reap the emotional benefits of the commitment that I've made. I know it’s possible to stick it out in relationships. My grandparents have been together for 55 years. I see it in the world and I know that it’s real, but I didn’t have it and I tried to force it to be that.
In a New York Times interview, you said you were "scared of losing access to [your] sadness" at one point. What is it about that vacancy that feels alarming?
I’m not making a blanket statement about everybody, but for me, for my personality, for my identity, I actually enjoy romantic, tragic beauty. I find a lot of comfort in stories like that, in twisted narratives, and it adds meaning and depth for me in a world that, if everything were perfect and sunny, would be so boring and disenchanting to me. Everything would be too shiny. I really wanted to treat my depression and take it seriously. I was fine going to therapy, but when it came time to consider medication, that was my one and only hesitation. I get through this life by writing and expressing. So much of that comes from the dissonance that I feel. What happens if this medication numbs it all? I’ve heard friends talk about that with ADD medications or depression medications. For creatives, that’s a really valid concern. There’s the argument that you don’t have to be sad to make art. I guess I believe that, but I do feel like I have to be able to access all of my emotions to live. So far, what I'm taking makes me feel like I do still get depressed, but the difference is that it no longer feels like my identity is the depression. I don’t feel stuck to the bed like I don’t want to get up anymore. It’s some weird in-between. I'm still trying to figure it out, but I’m thankful that I went for it and decided to start acting on it.
Oftentimes you hear people say the hardest part of dealing with any problem is realizing that it's a problem in the first place, but I think the hardest part is realizing that you need help dismantling it, that it’s unrealistic to do it on your own. Based on previous lyrics, you've always been open about grappling with depression. So what changed? What helped you realize that checking in to a therapy retreat for your depression was worth trying?
Oh boy. Ooof.
We can skip this if you want!
No, it’s okay! These are actually the conversations I like to have, it’s just that normally I’m having them in my bed on the phone with a friend or my mom. I think I’m good to answer this. So, when we came home from After Laughter, life was a lot better than it had been before After Laughter—or at least seemingly so. I had been busy for years: touring, hanging out with my friends every night onstage, hanging out with them backstage, doing cool sh*t like going to a Broadway show and seeing Japan. Life was very sensational. Then you come home.
I missed home so bad, but I got here and it was quiet and still and there wasn’t a schedule, no dates in the distant future. It was pretty sobering. Suddenly I had no company but my own, unless I wanted to be a freak and go out every night as if I'm in my early 20s. I just realized that I needed to handle some sh*t. I needed to figure out my dog and if I was going to be able to take care of him full-time now that I’m not touring 75 percent of the time. I needed to hunker down more in my house and try to make whatever necessary adjustments to it to make it liveable on the regular. But I also wanted to be in a relationship. I wanted to be able to date, to be able to experience partnership, and to do that in a healthy way—but I was so far from healthy that I kept sabotaging any good opportunity for any relationship, really. That's one of the first lyrics I wrote for the record, actually. In "Why We Ever," I talk about me trying to sabotage this great relationship. It’s me being like, "Okay, I’m ready to move forward into my adult, human woman life. I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made before, blah, blah, blah," but then I became hypervigilant and had to go back to the beginning to figure out why. That was what did it. I realized my depression spills out onto anyone I care about. It’s not just about me in the back of a bunk crying after a show. It’s real life, and if I want to take part in it and be someone’s partner, then I have to take responsibility for myself.
Gosh, that was a long answer. Sorry. I think it’s because I’ve not really talked about this and it’s kinda hard.
Oh, it’s such a long process to understand yourself, nevermind to explain it all to someone else. Are there any exercises or phrases from therapy that have since stuck with you?
I did a type of therapy called EMDR, which I still am not sure if it’s something a lot of people are aware of or if it’s obscure. But I’m now a year and a half into it, off and on. It’s not something you should do all of the time because it’s heavy. It helped me to go back into memories that, as an adult, I probably perceive a lot differently than I experienced them as a child. It’s about being able to comfort yourself and protect yourself. That’s where the line in "Simmer" comes from: "Nothing cuts like a mother." My mom, by the way, is a fantastic, strong, insanely independent woman. She’s been through so much sht and she’s come out of it so strong. But at a certain point, we all have to learn to mother ourselves. That was one of the biggest lessons for me: She can’t always give me every security that I need. She was dealing with her own sht, not that it was my fault or even her own. That’s just how life goes. We need to learn how to self-soothe. In a lot of ways, I’m still learning how to do that. The basic sense of what that feels like is at least a little more comfortable for me now. I’ve been able to work through some traumatic sh*t because of it.
Petals For Armor is divided into three sections, and you can hear the musical and lyrical shifts as each third starts. It almost sounds like different mindsets of the healing process. Was that intentional?
It wasn’t intentional, but I do think it’s because healing from any sort of trauma, addiction, or whatever is universal. It’s like how writing about love will resonate with so many different types of people’s experiences with love because it’s a universal thing we all experience. I didn't intend on it while writing, but I did know that I was going to seperate it. I could feel how songs from early on in the songwriting process felt darker and aesthetically belonged together. In a lot of ways, I know it’s dumb to answer any question like this in an interview, but it just happened. It felt like it was supposed to happen. Whether it was me writing with Joey [Howard], Paramore’s touring bassist who’s an incredible talent, or in the studio with Taylor [York], things just came up that felt right. I knew they were right when they happened. I just had to get out of the way to keep the space clear for that.
After Laughter was such a colorful, buoyant musical shift for Paramore. Did that album act as a creative springboard and loosen your creative expectations for Petals For Armor? There’s such a wide range between the lovely Radiohead-like production of "Simmer" and a club-ready song like "Sugar On The Rim."
Yeah, the way Paramore has moved has been so half-hazard. Whatever we felt like, we followed it. We didn’t really let outside opinions dictate where we should go in our career. It would have felt very inauthentic to follow Riot with another scene-sounding emo album. We weren’t even that band by the time the last single came out. I remember us struggling about getting popular off a song like "Misery Business" while already looking and being different people by the time "That's What You Get" came out. That’s how we've moved through everything. By the time we got to After Laughter, we were so overdue for a shakeup and to feel out on a limb again. I was so proud of it and it felt so liberating to talk about these things. I don’t even think I was aware that I was writing about my depression until afterwards when speaking about the songs, because at the time of writing I didn’t know I was depressed. It created incredible conversations that challenged me to heal—some of that happened very publicly and some of that happened over champagne in a hotel room with Zac [Farro], Taylor, and I crying about sh*t that’s ancient history. That album was a massive gift to each of us as individuals and as a band.
Petals For Armor almost plays out like an exercise in self-love: from learning to admit your troubles, to breaking them down, to recognizing your strengths, to expressing gratitude. Out of all the songs, which one are you most proud of?
Goodness. It’s hard to pick a baby. I think that today it would be different than tomorrow and tomorrow would be different than the next day. But if I’m answering for today, I would say a song called "Crystal Clear," which is the last song on the album. It was very accidental. I had been begging, begging Taylor for music that came from him first. That’s typically how we write Paramore songs, but that’s not how we wrote a lot of songs on Petals, even the songs written by the both of us didn’t start in that way. So I had been begging, like, "Hey, let’s do the ol’ razzle dazzle! We’ve been doing the whole ‘me’ thing and now I want to hear you!" I wanted to hear what he had been feeling like in hopes that it would take me somewhere new. He showed me the beginning of "Crystal Clear"—at that point, all he had was the beginning of it and it had a lot of Phil Collins drumming to it. We wound up finishing the whole song that day. Not every song is a gift that is that smooth and simple, but it felt so right. I loved what I learned from writing it. I loved the lyrics because I was able to tie in some references from After Laughter that have to do with love and bring people up to speed with how I’m viewing it today, which is that I feel afraid, but I’m diving into it again anyway. I’m proud of it and scared of it, but I love that song. There is a special guest on it, but it’s very personal and I don’t know if he’s someone who's ever had a song on the radio or anything, but I’ll be able to talk about it more when we get closer to its release.
Reading through other interviews, it sounds like there was some very reasonable fear about going solo—not the act of making music outside of the band, but by releasing these songs publicly not as a band. What helped you realize it's okay to release solo material?
It was two conversations. One was a conversation that had happened so long before we had even come off the road touring behind After Laughter. We were making the "Rose-Colored Boy" music video and our manager took us out to dinner. It was a really emotional conversation. Taylor’s family had just lost a loved one. We were in the middle of an album cycle that was deeply personal to us. There were a lot of good things happening, and I think when good things and growth are happening, there’s lots of growing pains. We were trying to make sense of how we could be in this wonderful moment in our career and this beautiful moment in our friendships but also could feel sad. The truth is we were tired as fk, which is not a big deal if you really think about it—of course we were tired, we had been playing music since we were 13. But Taylor mentioned to us, "I really think it’s time, when we wrap up After Laughter, to take some real time off. Not to throw away what we’ve done and what we’re doing now, but to give ourselves space and to find ourselves outside of Paramore." What if we just want to relate to each other as people? What if we want to know what it’s like to go to another country but not be on tour, just go see it, just to go walk around? Not to walk around and then return to soundcheck depressed, or be in London for five hours for a photoshoot and then leave? What if we just want to find ourselves outside of the band as adults? What if I want to learn how to cook something? Little did we know we would be stuck at home. [Laughs.] But I really felt every word he was saying because we had a conversation two years prior about me wanting to quit the band, before we wrote After Laughter. He said, "Look, we can stop or we can keep going, but I’ll support you either way. If we decide to keep going, we can look out for one another in a better way than we have in the past." So I made good on that promise and really backed him up and Zac did as well. He was right. It was time for us to go home for a little while and trust that we would know when it was the right time to make another Paramore record.
All that said, fast forwarding to whenever I started making this record, I knew that this did not belong to Paramore. I really wanted to make good on my word that we all deserved time away from it. When I realized I was writing more than I thought, there were two options: sit on this stuff to see if it would work for a Paramore record eventually, or I can ask for help now and see how I feel when I’m done. By the fourth or fifth song, it was obvious that this was an expression that was necessary. Taylor really encouraged me to release it as an official project. When I told Zac about it, he said the same thing. I just saw his text the other day while scrolling through pictures because I took a screenshot of it for myself. He was like, "Dude, you've got this. You gotta do this." Taylor was the one who told me I needed to tell our manager so I could have that support system ready to go too. He kept reminding me that it was real. I would deny it and he would say it was real because I had already written the songs. And he was right!
Such good friends! That’s how you know, such genuine support.
Right? They’re the best! It’s been a really good time for us. Not only did Taylor produce it and he grew so much just as a musician. He became such a force and I don’t think I fully realized all that he could do. And Zac is absolutely killing it. He moved to L.A., he started a record label, he’s producing his own albums. Everyone is really flourishing. It’s a sign. It’s that thing we were talking about earlier. You feel something in your body and you can either listen to it or ignore it. I think we’re seeing what happens when we really listen to our guts and respect one another. Now we’re all having this really special moment. It won’t last forever, but it will definitely have a lasting impact on who we are.
Petals For Armor is peppered with all these nice friendship moments, too, thanks to cameos from Paramore members and friends like Boygenius. It feels like receiving a big, communal hug. Were those organic to weave in?
Yeah, totally! The only contributions that I think people would qualify as a feature are the Boygenius song and the guitar player of my favorite band, mewithoutYou, his name’s Mike Weiss, he played on "Creepin'." There was no reason to seek out a feature-heavy record. I feel like we’re inundated with them. That’s fine for people who feel like they thrive creatively in that setup, but I don’t think I do. I thrive with people in my intimate circle of friends. Every now and then, if it feels like it came about natural and feels right, I’ll have an opportunity to collaborate with a new friend or someone I look up to. I really like how this one came about. I ran into Julien [Baker] at another friend’s show in Nashville. She was hanging with Lucy [Dacus]. Phoebe [Bridgers] was meant to come in the next day because they were working on… something. Maybe they were each working on separate things. But that was so kismet. It turned out mewithoutYou were playing a show in Nashville which we planned on going to anyway, but when I realized what that could mean I realized I had to ask Mike if he could stop by the studio. I think it happened in one day where everyone was in town. We did all those tracks—Mike’s guitar and the girls’ vocals—in one day because they all hung out together in the studio. It feels natural because these parts are from friends or people I already know.
Since taking a break from touring, it seems like you've been investing lots of time in cultivating and nurturing friendships, old and new. I recently moved to a new city and work from home, and it’s surprised me how hard it is. There's not really a guide for how to make friends in adulthood, especially when you're not someone who holes up at bars. What's been the hardest part of that process for you?
First of all, I really feel you on the new town and having the kind of work situation where you’re not regularly meeting new people at. For me, moving to Nashville during my divorce, I didn’t really have any other way to be other than incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have any energy to fake it or be animated. A lot of times when I’m out in public, I’m an introvert, but I really care about making people comfortable. I go out of my way to make others comfortable because I was the kid who was always uncomfortable growing up. That makes people think I’m extroverted, but really I just don’t want other people to suffer by feeling the anxieties that I feel. All of a sudden around my divorce, I lost the energy to act that way. If somebody asked me how I was doing, they better buckle in, because I was going to tell them how I was doing and I didn’t give a sht if we were in public. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but I met some of my closest friends in adulthood in that way. I was at a party at Zac’s house for someone’s birthday. His wife and I got to talking when I met her that night. We were in a corner of Zac’s house just, like, meeting each other for the first time and asking each other questions. It turned out we had both been through similar divorces, both had been in similar living situations after, and it was like, sht, I don’t have to go out of my way to make people comfortable. I just need to rest in this moment and trust that if I'm meant to find new people, then I’ll find them or they will find me. All I need to do is own my story and be present for it.
You’ve established a relatively healthy relationship with your fans on Twitter and Instagram while still making yourself available, whether it’s sharing memes of yourself or embracing accidental typos. You also know when and how to take a break from social media, which is equally important. Do you have any advice for artists who are struggling to find the right balance between the two?
Oh man. Social media is so hard. It’s not going to get any easier either; it’s only gonna get harder. That’s where I’ve had to implement those lessons of listening to myself, to that very small voice that’s generally wiser than I am. I get to a breaking point where it either turns into anxiety or some type of jadedness where I need to forget my phone exists and only talk to people I know in real life. If it’s advice for other artists, I would say, we’re taught to believe that if it’s not out there it doesn’t exist, but you definitely still exist. Even if you’re not posting some probably bullsh*t thing, you definitely still exist. I have to remind myself that all the time. I exist far more in real life than I do on my phone. We’re just accustomed to seeing people through a screen now but that doesn't mean it’s a reality.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: (L-R) Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Live Nation, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic, Courtesy of Christina Aguilera, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
2022 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop Music
Pop music continued to showcase its versatility this year, with newcomers and legendary mainstays alike shaking up the industry — which has led to major hits and even bigger cultural moments.
If there's one word to describe this year in pop, it would be "unpredictable." Take fan favorites Beyoncé and Rihanna for starters: as fans began pondering when they'd hear new music again, both superstars made significant returns to their solo artistries, further elevating their statuses as elite pop divas.
Pop's unexpected nature is what makes it so beloved, especially in 2022 as artists showcased just how far their versatility can stretch. TikTok showed off its influence once again, with songs like Nicki Minaj's "Super Freaky Girl" birthing endless viral dance challenges. There was plenty of dancing outside of TikTok as well, as artists like Drake, The Weeknd and Beyoncé had everyone grooving under the disco ball.
From pop stars unleashing their naughty sides to singles that transported us back to the '2000s and beyond, there were several major moments in pop music this year. Dive into eight of the genre's most dominant trends below.
Y2K Pop Divas Made Comebacks
Throughout 2022, the influence of late '90s and early '00s culture was reflected on fashion runways, TikTok and even a multitude of television reboots. So it was only natural that it also seeped into the music realm, with some of the era's biggest pop stars having a refreshing revival.
More than two decades after the release of her debut Spanish-language album Mi Reflejo, Christina Aguilera returned to her Latina roots (Aguilera's estranged father is an Ecuador native). The long wait was worth it, with the star sounding more confident than ever before as she celebrated her rich heritage. After starting this new era with the female empowerment anthem "Pa Mis Muchachas" (alongside fellow Latina artists Becky G, Nicki Nicole and Nathy Peluso), Aguilera continued to flex her versatility and vulnerability with songs like the impassioned Mexican ranchera "La Reina" and the somber "No Es Que Te Extrañe" that found the artist healing her childhood trauma.
Y2K pop sweetheart Mandy Moore, who returned after an 11-year music hiatus with 2020's Silver Landings, kept the momentum going with her seventh album In Real Life. The folk-inspired record showcased Moore's strength as a songwriter and new motherhood.
But arguably the most unexpected return came from Britney Spears. Following the official termination of her conservatorship last November, the pop star freed herself from a decade of restrictions. Spears found her way back to the studio for the first time since the release of 2016's Glory album, and joined fellow pop legend — and longtime supporter — Elton John for "Hold Me Closer." The song draws elements from John's classics like 1971's "Tiny Dancer," 1976's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and 1992's "The One," but adds a modern twist with shimmering dance melodies. "Hold Me Closer" debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, proving that Spears can still score a hit with ease.
R&B Artists Danced Under The Disco Ball
Pop has seen a disco revival seeping in over the last few years (even including the return of ABBA!), but what made this year so different is witnessing more R&B-leaning artists putting a fun spin on dance music as a whole.
Leading the charge was Beyoncé, who ignited a full-on dance party with her latest album (and first since 2016's Lemonade). After trying her hand at Afrobeats with 2019's soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift, Queen Bey transformed into Queen of the Dance Floor with 16 hip-shaking tunes whose influence call back to Studio 54 and Black ballroom heydays. The album is not only a tribute to her late Uncle Johnny (who she credits for introducing her to house music), but Black queer culture as a whole.
Nearly two years after 2020's After Hours, The Weeknd aptly kept the club open until sunrise with his fifth album, Dawn FM. Jam-packed with '80s elements from new wave to synth-pop, the record is an energetic joyride kookily narrated by comedian Jim Carrey.
While he's widely known as a rap superstar, Drake channels his R&B crooning alter-ego from time to time. His seventh album, Honestly, Nevermind, arrived as a surprise in June — and he was clearly ready to kick off summer with a party. The album found the artist at the center of the dance floor as he explored house music with bouncy songs like "Sticky" and "Massive." The experimentation paid off: the album became Drake's 11th Billboard 200 chart-topper.
Throwback Samples Were Inescapable
While sampling is more of a historical music staple than a trend, this year many artists had fun traveling back to the '70s, '90s and early '00s to add nostalgic doses into their hits. Beyoncé evoked the spirit of Donna Summer on "Summer Renaissance," which pulls from the disco queen's 1977 jam, "I Feel Love." Elsewhere, Charli XCX lifted the Stonebridge Mix of Robin S.'s 1992 "Show Me Love" for her own dance floor hit, "Used To Know Me," while NYC-based EDM duo Sofi Tukker sampled Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" for their infectious tune "Summer In New York."
Throwbacks were perhaps most predominant within mainstream rap hits. Tyga's "Sunshine," a collaboration with Jhené Aiko and the late Pop Smoke, samples Lil Flip's 2004 hit of the same name, while Jack Harlow used Fergie's 2006 No. 1 smash "Glamorous" to create his own hit. Rap newcomers Armani White and Central Cee also traveled to the early '00s, with the former's N.O.R.E. sample heard throughout his debut single, "Billie Eilish" and the latter using Eve and Gwen Stefani's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" for "Doja."
Nicki Minaj and Yung Gravy took us back to the '80s, as Minaj flipped Rick James' 1981 single "Super Freak" into "Super Freaky Girl, and Yung Gravy's viral "Betty (Get Money)" was based on Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Artists Tapped Into Their Edgy Sides
Pop music can surely be wholesome, so it's always fun when artists try their hands at edgier sounds. Sam Smith has long proven they can do more than a heartfelt ballad, and their TikTok anthem with Slut Pop star Kim Petras found the pair at their naughtiest.
Dove Cameron shed her Disney Channel beginnings with February's "Boyfriend" single, which celebrated her queer identity with dark, spine-tingling production. She raised the intensity levels with August's "Breakfast," which flipped gender politics on its head.
Maggie Lindemann also traded pure pop for pop-punk for her debut album, Suckerpunch. Continuing the Gen Z angst that rattled 2021, Lindemann unapologetically rebels against the music she was previously associated with thanks to singles like the nostalgic "Cages" and the incredibly flirtatious "She Knows It."
Even Taylor Swift got in on the fun. The singer, who previously showcased her edgy side with 2017's reputation, further leaned into that style with her hazy tenth album, Midnights. A complete left turn from 2020's folk-inspired LPs, folklore and evermore, Midnights captured the restlessness, revenge fantasies, self-criticism, and curiosity that come with what she detailed as "13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life."
Black Pop Divas Made Long-Awaited Returns
After Rihanna and Beyoncé officiated their pop icon statuses with 2015's Anti and 2016's Lemonade, respectively, the two opted to take mini hiatuses from solo music. Beyoncé steadily remained in the music sphere, hopping on several collaborations including a remix of Megan Thee Stallion's 2021 hit "Savage." The song scored GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, the latter of which helped crown Beyoncé as the artist with the most wins in GRAMMY history with 28. (She followed up the achievement by recording "Be Alive" for the King Richard soundtrack, which earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song.)
But Beyoncé focused the spotlight back on herself with her seventh studio album. The July release was a pop culture phenomenon, weaving itself into casual conversations, memes, TikTok dance challenges and more. The album is a celebration of not only Beyoncé's career, but Black influence on dance music as a whole.
Rihanna was more quiet following Anti — only appearing on a few collaborations here and there, including Calvin Harris' "This Is What You Came For," DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts" with Bryson Tiller and Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning "Loyalty" — to focus on building her Fenty beauty and lingerie empire. But fans never stopped craving new music from the star herself, and their prayers were finally answered in September in major fashion: The superstar announced in September that she'll headline the Super Bowl LVII halftime show, which will mark her first live showing in over five years.
Rihanna quickly kept the excitement going with two appearances on October's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, "Lift Me Up" and "Born Again" — her first solo music in more than six years.
Rap's TikTok Takeover Was Still In Effect
Rap was one of the biggest genres on TikTok last year, and the trend remained strong in 2022. The dominance was seen through dance challenges and viral memes, with Lil Uzi Vert's infectious Jersey club smash "I Just Wanna Rock" creating an explosive wave that culminated in a dance-heavy music video.
Drake and 21 Savage's "Rich Flex," a highlight from their collaboration album, Her Loss, was transformed into a silly tongue-in-cheek meme. Brooklyn rap newcomer Lola Brooke had TikTokers feeling confident as ever as they used "Don't Play With It" to soundtrack their selfie videos. Even Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy's nostalgic jams had a resurgence, with 2008's "Lollipop" and 2018's "Pretty Boy Swag" spawning their own TikTok trends.
Ed Sheeran Was Pop's Big Brother
Despite being one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Ed Sheeran has maintained the humble spirit that made him so beloved. The British singer/songwriter has always shown a love for collaboration, even releasing a guest-filled project in 2019. But in 2022, Sheeran put collaborations into overdrive.
Sheeran kicked things off by teaming up with his old pal Taylor Swift on a duet version of his = track, "The Joker and the Queen." In March, he dropped not one but two singles with Colombian star J Balvin, "Sigue" and "Forever My Love," where Sheeran traded his guitar for a reggaeton bassline.
The singer then traveled across genres — and the globe — pairing with Jamaican dancehall singer Ishawna (who previously sampled 2017's "Shape of You" on her single "Equal Rights") for "Brace It" and guesting on Nigerian hitmaker Burna Boy's love song "For My Hand." Not forgetting his own roots, Sheeran also showcased his admiration for local British hip-hop with appearances on Manchester rapper Aitch's "My G" and rap collective D-Block Europe's "Lonely Lovers."
Bands Proved Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay
"Rock 'n' roll is dead" has been an ongoing debate ever since hip-hop became the industry's most dominant genre in 2017. Even so, rock acts continued to spotlight the historic genre this year, and helped it endure in arguably the biggest way it has in years.
After a five-year hiatus, Paramore thrilled fans with the announcement of their sixth album, This Is Why. Set for a February 2023 release, the new album era kicked off with the funky eponymous lead single in September.
Rock mainstays Red Hot Chili Peppers satiated genre diehards by dropping two albums within six months in 2022: April's Unlimited Love and October's Return of the Dream Canteen.
On the more alternative side, Arctic Monkeys re-emerged with a vintage focus for October's The Car, which drew from baroque pop, funk, early '70s rock and classic film scores. And after a brief pandemic-induced postponement following 2020's Notes on a Conditional Form, The 1975 returned with their fifth album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language. Singles like "Part of the Band," "Happiness" and "I'm in Love with You" found the band in a lighthearted, '80s dance-pop-inspired spirit.
After a year filled with viral moments and comebacks, there's no doubt that artists will continue to keep pop unpredictable in 2023.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].