The Meaning Behind “Misery Business” by Paramore and the Controversy Surrounding Its Lyrics

Paramore is one of the most influential bands of their generation. When the Tennessee group’s second album Riot! arrived in 2007, it soundtracked MySpace and Warp Tour kids across America.

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Studded belts, guyliner, and Manic Panic-stained hair crowded mall food courts while Hayley Williams fronted a band trying to survive themselves. Williams blew up the hegemony of boys in emo and pop punk, becoming its most interesting force.

Their breakthrough song is “Misery Business,” but it’s also the most controversial part of a career defined by tumult. Meanwhile, above the controversy is the endurance of Williams.

You don’t get to Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo without Hayley Williams. And it all began with “Misery Business.”

Frustrated Incorporated

For many years, Williams gave conflicting answers to the song’s meaning. She later revealed she had a crush on former bandmate Josh Farro “when I was 13 or 14.” Williams wrote “Misery Business” out of spite when Farro spent time with his girlfriend. Farro co-wrote the song with Williams.

I’m in the business of misery
Let’s take it from the top
She’s got a body like an hourglass. It’s ticking like a clock
It’s a matter of time before we all run out
When I thought he was mine, she caught him by the mouth

In the song, Williams finally gets the boy and contemptuously rubs salt in the wounds of his ex-girlfriend. The Paramore chorus is full of vindictive teenage rage.

Whoa, I never meant to brag
But I got him where I want him now
Whoa, it was never my intention to brag
To steal it all away from you now

“Misery Business” made Paramore emo icons before they knew what “emo” meant. Williams told Rolling Stone she had to look it up. She researched the term and became “obsessed with punk bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral.”

Emo Mistakes

But the emotional and visceral lyrics to “Misery Business” arrived with controversy. The open misogyny in Paramore’s hit caused a backlash, and eventually, the band removed the song from their set.

On the recording, Williams sings, Once a whore, you’re nothing more, though she’s since apologized for the lyric. Paramore reintroduced “Misery Business” to their live set in 2022, but Williams no longer sings the controversial line. When the second verse arrives, she covers her mouth while her fans sing the offending lyric—Williams smiles wryly before continuing with the remainder of the verse.

It’s worth remembering Williams’ young age when she wrote the words. She said the controversial lyric originated in her diary. As a teenager, she tried distancing herself from “the other girls.” She called it a “cool girl religion.” Williams told Nylon, “I was a 17-year-old kid when I wrote the lyrics in question, and if I can somehow exemplify what it means to grow up, get information, and become any shade of ‘woke,’ then that’s A-OK with me.”

Good 4 U

Olivia Rodrigo’s towering 2021 hit “Good 4 U” sounds similar to Paramore’s “Misery Business.” Too similar? While Rodrigo’s debut album Sour dominated pop music, accusations of plagiarism surfaced around her song’s similarity to Paramore’s hit.

Variety reported that Rodrigo retroactively added Hayley Williams and Josh Farro to the writing credits of “Good 4 U.” Rodrigo explained to Teen Vogue how she felt receiving the online accusations of theft:

“I think it’s disappointing to see people take things out of context and discredit any young woman’s work. But at the end of the day, I’m just really proud and happy to say that my job is being a songwriter. […] All music is inspired by each other.”

Copyright holders regularly bring lawsuits against sampled recordings. Things can get murky regarding influence and inspiration.

Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” shares compositional DNA with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty and Jeff Lynne became co-writers after Petty’s publisher noticed similarities between the two songs.   

bad guy

During a headlining performance at Coachella in 2022, Billie Eilish covered “Misery Business” with Williams, though the Paramore singer had tried talking Eilish out of performing the song.

For all the negative ways people tried to define Williams, Paramore’s massive impact towers above the controversy, watching the band’s influence reach someone like Eilish and her brother, Finneas.

The misery business has a long history in music. Porter Wagoner recorded the Jerry Reed song “Misery Loves Company” in 1961, and Soul Asylum famously documented the mercantile usefulness of suffering in their song “Misery.”

It proves you don’t need to shop at Hot Topic to be emo.

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Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

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