How Paramore's 'Brand New Eyes' Helped Me Envision A Future For Myself
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
I left the Philippines for the San Francisco Bay Area at age 18, during the summer of 2015. The last few weeks before I departed, my mother had taken me to our church to "initiate my transfer," or to make sure the church in California knew I was coming through paperwork. The form I needed to fill out was a contract demanding me to abide by the religion's set of rules — one roughly translated to "You may not extend help to anyone excommunicated from the church" — which, after reading, I was to sign and thumbprint. I did as I was asked, and after being prodded to "update her information," my mother renewed her forms as well. The only difference between our paperwork was that my documents were placed in an envelope for me to take home, and hers into a record cabinet.
I've known the church since I was a child, having grown up in Quezon City, Manila. My family was deeply involved in a specific sect of Christianity, and my mother had made a promise to my dying great-grandmother — a prominent member of the congregation — to raise me in the church and have me baptized into it (to get "initiated") as an adult. As a child, I played with the other kids, sang hymns and closed my eyes to talk to God in my Sunday best. The adults, our life-long family friends, smiled at me, eager to teach me scripture. With its fish pond and flowerbeds, our parish was my little sanctuary, where I felt loved and safe. This haven slipped through my fingers, though, shortly after we moved to the big city, around the time I entered middle school.
As I grew into adolescence, my mother's promise to my great-grandmother grew in priority, but became harder to keep. We, a family of six, were living in a tiny apartment with little privacy, where tensions ran high often. Because of this constant claustrophobia, whenever someone was let down, the air became hot with anger. Did I want to go to church, exhausted from a full day of school, on a Thursday night? Or did I want to bear the brunt of my mother's cold shoulder? It depended on the day, but I often chose to turn my back on God.
The church we started attending after the big move was different, too. Impersonal. No one but the people who worked there knew each other's names. I remember whispers of them guessing how much money was in the donation envelopes for a Thanksgiving event, and the image of a family being pulled aside for not being able to provide a larger sum for the celebration. Knowing this was what I was working towards being a part of, I became more upset with my routine, which gradually felt more and more futile. I was saddled with guilt and shame for being unable to fulfill such a simple wish, for intervening with my mother's own pursuit of contentment.
During this time, music and blogging were the only two things that alleviated any stress for me. The internet was a different place then; I could still be faceless, adjacent pixels forming words on a screen. I reacted to my muddled reality via the posts I shared: creepy-cute images, deconstructed garments, music and lyrics. What downtime I could find was spent with Brand New Eyes, an album by Paramore — my true forever band — released, originally, in 2009. I revisited the record after hearing "Brick by Boring Brick" resurface on my family's go-to morning radio show. I needed to be consoled by something reliable and familiar, but because of the circumstances, I also found new meaning in it.
The record is dark and intense, devoid of the suburban comforts and devil-may-care attitude of the band's previous releases, and is instead more earnest in its expression, like someone proud of having chosen the right words for what they wanted to say. Its songs weren't cheery like the hymns I sang growing up, but these tracks spoke for me. I paired specific guitar riffs with fits of rage, and emotional vocal breaks with bouts of depression. Brand New Eyes was my coming-of-age; I annotated each song with moments from my life, as if I had written them myself.
One day during my second year of trying to get initiated into the church — because I couldn't get in on my first try! — my mother woke my younger brother and me up in a rush, and told us to get dressed because one of the ministers was coming over for "extra lessons," or sermons on the church's principles we needed to sign off on. Towards the end, right before we entered a group prayer, my brother asked why he wasn't able to hold beliefs outside of our family or partake in personal practices of faith. The minister responded in a patronizing tone and urged my brother to fear the day of reckoning. Feeling tricked, my brother argued back. "It's an honest question," I told them in an attempt to create understanding. The minister proceeded to give an entirely new sermon, humiliating us in our own home for even considering practices outside of theirs. This event drew a line between me and faith. I realized that fulfilling my grandmother's wishes would necessitate becoming quiet, languid and pliant. I refused to do so.
Until I confronted these feelings, it didn't occur to me how anxious I was around the clock. Deeply unsettled by the amount of influence the church had over its parishioners, I wondered the ways my family has been manipulated — or manipulative over others — in order to remain a part of it. My mother shrank in front of these so-called leaders, with their chests puffed out, so they could exercise their power of choosing whether we were "in" or "out" of the organization. I was embarrassed for us, angry even, but having been warned against doing anything contentious, I internalized those negative emotions. Despite my resolve, I couldn't bite back.
Whenever I think of my younger brother, who stood up for himself that day despite being condescended to, I think of the Brand New Eyes track "Playing God." It staggers in with twinkling guitars, quieter after the last track. The drum and bass pace around like a conversation trying to sort itself out without any outbursts. It sheds civility when the chorus cuts in, uncompromising: "Next time you point a finger," Hayley Williams sings, "I'll point you to the mirror." The song rolled its eyes at the men who tube-fed us doctrine, who claimed they held the answers to life's purpose.
"If God's the game that you're playing / Well, we must get more acquainted," Williams continues in the second verse, as if furrowing her brows in sympathy. "Because it had to be so lonely / To be the only one who's holy." It always rubbed me the wrong way, how hesitant these leaders were to say that everyone could be saved, and that all were worthy. They fixated instead on pointing out each other's faults, threatening excommunication and lack of support to those who failed to meet their instructions. Did they care about anything in our earthly existence, besides money to keep the church running and heavenly brownie points?
Ironically enough, I tried to cope with being the family disappointment by trying to be a better person "outside of God" — a massive undertaking for a teenager, looking back at it from years later. It was a last ditch attempt to align myself with what was good, proof that I could still be a moral person outside of the church. I tried so hard to change and be my own person, to protect my younger siblings in ways I wasn't able to when my self-worth was contingent on whether I was able to meet others' expectations. I meditated on this through blog posts, punctuated with a line from "The Only Exception," a song I rejected when I first heard it because I thought it was a soft karaoke pick, but later grew fond of as much as the louder, darker songs on Brand New Eyes. The song's narrator is "content with loneliness," but there's something or someone that's finally changing their mind, challenging them to take a risk and believe in love. "You are the only exception / And I'm on my way to believing," Williams murmurs at the end. Like a mantra I couldn't utter, I wrote that line over and over. It was a sliver of hope I could hang onto, that I would one day be able to look back at this moment and believe that I chose the best for myself.
On "Turn It Off," the midpoint of Brand New Eyes, Williams sings: "I scraped my knees while I was praying / And found a demon in my safest haven." What once felt sacred to me was rearing its ugly head. The place I considered safe as a child of the church became obsessed with growth, putting profit in front of people in a grandiose display of dominance. Adults couldn't answer why that was necessary, even while they were so concerned with my salvation. "In the free fall / I will realize I'm better off / When I hit the bottom," Williams sings.
In my junior year of high school, before I was poised to apply to colleges, I decided to — for a lack of better phrasing — give up. I was approaching my third year of trying to get initiated into the church, and there was no end in sight. My personal interests and endeavors were starting to take center stage, and I had very little energy to spend appeasing God. As a result of years being worn and let down by the church, I dropped any physical commitments I had with it. I broke up with God in a way, and in turn, broke a promise. In a private LiveJournal entry I posted in the fall of 2013, I shared a 2009 video of Paramore performing "Turn It Off" at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and wrote:
turn it off is my favorite song off brand new eyes. it means a great deal to me. [...] it was a transitional one for them, and it's the same for me, because it feels like everything's ending. it's not that i feel bad about leaving. i just feel bad in general. [...] things have changed these past few years, since this album came out. i don't know why it's only sinking into my head now. they have been different for so long already.
Writing those entries, I was speaking for myself, for once. I reckoned with my wearying emotions, questioning why I felt so pressured to fulfill my duty as a daughter, and whether my relationship with any higher being was judged by anyone besides it and myself. I wanted to stop ignoring my own impulses and desires, to leave and be what my body wanted me to be. I was still so young, without any hold or power in this world, but I sensed that I deserved better.
In Brand New Eyes, I saw my past and present. It was a record I kept close, to help me cope with the absurd violence, corruption and manipulation I experienced and witnessed as a child. But in it, I also saw my future. It was the piece of art that convinced me I could live longer and find a purpose that was determined by me alone. There's one post on Paramore's LiveJournal, which was active between 2005 and 2013, that I always return to when I listen to the record. It was written by Williams, but as she adds, "it's from all of" the band members. Titled "what do i have left that the world can still take?" it reads:
even though today, i might feel a little run over and feel heavy hearted for a few people that i love... there is a promise that tomorrow i will be a stronger, more patient and better refined person. we are to be brought through the fire, not left in it.
After finalizing my transfer, I asked my mother what I needed to do with the papers in my hands. "I don't know. You could leave it at home or take it with you," she responded. "Or throw it away." I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. There is a promise, always, that I will be a more refined person, that I have a future wherein I will be able to carry my burdens with ease and move forward with grace. Having been able able to see myself outside of what was expected of me, how I had changed — fragmented and pinned down with precision, like the butterfly on Brand New Eyes' cover — through these songs may have been what validated me the most as an individual, away from filial piety and indoctrination.
The bridge in "Feeling Sorry" is sung with a bit more compassion than the rest of the song. It's a sentimental conversation, as if Williams is speaking with the listener. "Won't you promise me tonight / If it's the last thing you do, you'll get out," she sings, pleading.
Well, I did it. I'm out, and I still choose myself. As long as these songs remain, there will always be something to hold me to that.
Alex Ramos is a writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.