"Petals for Armor": Why it hurts to grow
How Hayley Williams' intimate and personal music explores the pains and pleasures of growth.
“I myself was a wilted woman,
Drowsy in a dark room.
Forgot my roots.
Now watch me bloom.”
Nothing in culture (from the expanding world of YouTube film criticism to the ever-diminishing book reviews) receives the same kind of interest as a debut work of genius, especially when its originating mind is so young that its wisdom seems like prescience. Not only does this author, artist, or musician know something important of what is to come, they seem also to be directing the path of the present into that exciting future. Aficionados are always eagerly waiting for artistic brilliance to burst out of virgin soil in shocking, landscape-changing full bloom.
I’m partial to unexpected genius from new artists too, but what really wakes me up is the complex, contradictory, mature yet still vivacious work of artists in that less-esteemed stage of life between young adulthood and life as a grown up. On the Road is an electric charge that got me going as a younger man, but Kerouac’s follow-up, Big Sur – with its melancholic reappraisal of youthful celebrity and its stark realisations that the one-offs of a person’s twenties are followed by a lifetime of more regular, less sexy, often richer daily experiences – is the more interesting book.
I first began to suspect the truth of this in my mid-twenties, and I am certain of it now in my mid-thirties, when I am increasingly searching for art that tackles the transitions, the growth, and the solidifications that occur during what Dante called the “midway” of “the journey of life”. This is in no small part why I was (and continue to be) so excited by the album Hayley Williams put out last year, Petals for Armor. Yes, it is her debut as a solo artist (though she has put out many albums with her band, Paramore) but the album is steeped in regret, remorse, and rebirth; it is the work of someone who has already done much living.
Like the ouroboros structure of a James Joyce novel, the album closes with a variation of the question that it opens with, and which carries us through the transitions of adulthood. “Friends or lovers,” Williams sings, “which will it be?” Between two identities, between two positions in life, which will each of us choose? Growth consists, after all, in our having the courage to make choices when confronted with questions of this life or that one, this value or that concession, or – as Williams struggles with in the first track, ‘Simmer’ – “how to draw the line between wrath and mercy”. Faced with a rage that burns “in [her] veins” and “in [her] face”, she grapples with whether to “give in” or exercise “control”.
Given her search for further methods “to make it to ten” (referencing the anger-management technique of counting before acting when enraged) as well as the injunction of her chorus to “simmer down”, it seems that self-control is the quality she aspires to. The larger album addresses a different dichotomy, one between the risk of selflessly opening up to another person and the apparent safety of staying closed off. The question is whether, in this aspect of her life, she still ought to grasp on to control. This is a problem that we all have to face, at some point in our lives as we seek individual identities along with a place in a community. How then does Petals for Armor attempt to address it?
“I started having these weirdly creepy visions of flowers growing out of me. And not in a beautiful way; it was painful and very grotesque ... I realised in that moment that there was a lot that was trying to grow out of me, but it was going to hurt ...”
~ Hayley Williams in interview
The question of whether God has a sense of humour (pretending for a moment I believe God exists to have any qualities at all) is answered for me by the frequent occurrence of events known colloquially in my global neck of the woods as “sod’s law” (elsewhere called “Murphy’s law”). The question is resolved for Hayley Williams, however, with a little more gravity though no less irony: “Don’t nobody tell me that God don’t have a sense of humour,” she sings, “because now that I want to live, everybody around me is dying.”
This was an especially poignant line for anyone hearing it when the album was released, during the infancy of a pandemic that would grow to take so many lives. Imagine, just for instance, a writer emerging from a season-long depression, planning at last not for the end of life but for its beginning again, who is unexpectedly confronted with lockdown and mortal risk to everyone he knows. Of course, we need not face a pandemic to face the reality that we could – no, we will – lose everyone we love. Life is an unending health crisis that causes us all to wonder as Williams does in one verse, “Who else am I going to lose before I’m ready? And who’s going to lose me?”
A well-worn adage has it that only taxes and death are certainties in life – loss, in other words, is our only constant. Raymond Radiguet writes in The Devil in the Flesh that what is so awful is not to die, but to leave behind that which gives life meaning. Losing what we love is the insult that offends, the burden that often seems too heavy to bear. Williams was not the first, nor will she be the last, to retreat from a fear of loss, but she is one of few to describe it with such clarity.
Much of the first half of Petals for Armor reaches the listener from a place of bristly defensiveness against the possibility of losing love. There is sadness at loss already underway, as with her unnamed relative who doesn’t “remember [her] name some days, or that [they’re] related”. There is regret, as in Williams suggesting that if she’d “seen [her] reflection as something more precious, he would’ve never ...”, an ellipsis that invites us to supply, perhaps, “left her”. There is anxiety about losing herself to another person in a new relationship, which makes her worry that if she “let you in, you will never want to leave” – here, the thought of not losing someone comes to mean losing her newfound independence.
The second half of the album stakes out space for learning from her own fear of loss and fighting against the urge to give in to it. Her battle, however, is not a zero-sum contest but a reconciliation between her fear and her faith, the desire to stay safe – meaning closed off – and to be brave enough to open herself up to the world. She attempts to find balance between the light and dark parts of herself, and as she journeys through the album, Williams begins to understand that the dichotomies within her (wrath and mercy, love and loss, open and closed) don’t merely exist side by side but interplay with and alter the shape of each other.
This is not unlike integrating one’s shadow in Jungian psychology, wherein a person faces what lies in their darkness and learns from it, allowing it to become part of who they are in a process that harnesses its destructive tendencies to make it something productive. This is described in ‘Sugar on the Rim’, where Williams sings, “I love to play with our shadows, in and out of the glow. / I’m not afraid of a dark side. Just tell me things I don’t know.”
There is much to be learned from the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden. It’s worth diving into that cave and battling that dragon to see what riches it might be hoarding, or what assistance the beast might offer once safely harnessed. Or as Williams puts it, with more concision and punch, in another song:
“If there’s resistance, Try to stay open. Make it your friend.”
“If you feel like you’re never going to reach the sky
Until you pull up your roots, leave your dirt behind –
Baby, you’ve got a lot of shit to learn.”
~ ‘Watch Me While I Bloom’
As I sat down to write this essay, with the soundscape of Petals for Armor echoing in my mind, I had just finished re-reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, in which his character Saeed, who has lost his homeland to war and both of his parents to the fate of all finite creatures, has something of an epiphany about our precarious human condition. His insight strikes me as remarkably like Williams’ discovery in Petals for Armor that pain and loss might not only be borne, but can be brought to bear on how we build and grow:
“[We] will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry ... and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world ...”
It is an occasionally useful tool of reason (if utilised well) and a frequently irritating gotcha-moment for pedants to look for exceptions to definitional rules, and as far as defining humanity goes, few traits are absolute. (We don’t all have two arms and/or two legs, to take a basic feature of the species.) Death and the loss it brings are, however, two fixed features of our condition. We share loss with every other member of our strange animal tribe, and it unites us. Unity, or at the very least a sense of it, is what we build richer lives, stronger communities, and a better world upon.
With the full-belly feeling of satisfaction that, on writing the previous paragraph, I am nearing some understanding of what I have taken from Petals of Armor and what I hope to impart here, I take a break to read this week’s TLS. In an example of the Badder-Meinhof effect or a nose-thumbing from a cosmic sentience mocking me for lack of belief in its existence, I read a review of the Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s latest book and it includes a quote that perfectly aligns with what I have been writing about. The reviewer cites a moment in the memoir when Stepanova finds a white china figurine that has seen better days:
“My china boy seemed to embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away. And how lacunae and gaps are the constant companions of survival … How only trauma makes individuals – singly and unambiguously us – from the mass product.”
Connections like this between books are like the connections between people, which build layers of overlapping lives, uniting ever-expanding networks of humans, unifying communities on increasing scales. They help us see ourselves and our situations in usefully different lights, just as this passage from a Russian poet I’d not heard of before today has articulated a deep part of what Petals for Armor has wonderfully opened up for me.
Via the workings of the readerly mind, the brain whose synapses are made of connections between books, I am brought from this newly-discovered quote to the memory of a paragraph from another author. I take the book from the shelf – Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El Saadawi – and locate the wisdom she has distilled into a short paragraph. Her narrator is in the small home of a poor family in a run-down community, and she is struggling to offer medical help to an elderly man who may be beyond remedy. In return for her efforts, the man offers her a smile:
“It was a little smile from dry, cracked lips but it contained the meaning of life ... That meaning was love – a love of life and all its pleasures and pain, in sickness and in health, the known and unknown parts of it, the beginnings and the endings.”
This brings me full circle, back to the hope expressed in Exit West that our shared sense of loss might promise a “potential for building a better world”, which is predicated on the wisdom of accepting all of life, of living it fully and embracing “all its pleasures and pains”. Out of this, life can surprise us and remind us why it is worth the suffering. As Williams puts it, singing of the unexpected love that takes her by surprise, “Had a life in hiding, but a storm kept coming in. Could you be the silver lining, like sugar on the rim?”
“Wrap yourself in petals.”
In childhood, we learn about loss in merely abstract terms; we understand it as an intellectual proposition in early adulthood; we finally accept it as an experienced reality, as a fact incorporated into the fabric of feeling, only when we truly grow up. It could be said that accepting this truth is part of what carries us through the transitions of becoming fully functioning adults. In an early track on the album, Williams sings of her own reckoning with the tragic fact of the relationship between love and loss:
“If you know love, you best prepare to grieve. Let it enter your open heart, then prepare to let it leave.”
This couplet could stand in as a distillation of the larger journey described over the course of Petals for Armor, which I read as the story of a woman undergoing the process of becoming herself in full femininity, strength, and belonging. The description of this journey feels to me like it is part of the journey itself, as if Williams needed to write about herself to herself. The album is self-referential in a way that adds conversational layers and dialectical depth. By the end of the album, Williams seems to be telling her younger self from the opening tracks – who, in ‘Cinnamon’, wonders if her identity and independence require shutting potential love out – to take the risk of opening her heart.
And a risk it is. But to avoid danger by closing one’s heart is to suffer loss anyway, the loss of connection and of love, because (as Williams notes) “the opposite of love is fear”. Finally, at the close of her album, at the end of a difficult journey, and as the result of so much struggle, she is able to own her anxiety and overcome it: “I want to make it crystal clear,” she sings, “that I won’t give in to the fear.” To love both requires and is a form of courage – go love, this album tells me, and be brave.
• Petals for Armor, Hayley Williams (2020)
• Hayley Williams and Sampa The Great, interview for ‘Radio 1’s Future Sounds with Annie Mac’ (2020)
• Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
• In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova (2017; Eng. trans. 2021)
• Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, Nawal El Saadawi (1958)