There’s not an obvious reason to compare the music of Hayley Williams and Hailee Steinfeld, besides the fact that they are both pop musicians (in the broadest sense of the term), and they share a name (albeit with conveniently different spellings). More concerning is that it would be easy to see this as just one more instance of the media comparing women in music who have little in common besides their gender: as we all should know well by now, gender is not a genre.
Yet in listening closely to their simultaneously released new albums, an instructive tale of two stars emerges. Shared sentiments about striving for equality and plain personhood as a woman are expressed quite differently, and with different degrees of effectiveness, in Williams’ “Petals for Armor” and Steinfeld’s “Half Written Story,” both arriving Friday.
“How lucky I feel to be in my body again,” Williams sings towards the conclusion of her frankly confessional new solo album, on a song whose title (and refrain) implies the realization of its central, floral metaphor: “Watch Me While I Bloom.”
“How lovely I feel not to have to pretend,” she adds, letting emotion slightly distort her powerful, flexible voice before the song’s ‘90s pop-ready bounce kicks in. The Spice Girls are among the diverse array of influences Williams has cited while promoting the album, and nowhere is the pink tinge of their particular brand of bubblegum more evident than on this self-actualization anthem.
Like most of “Petals for Armor,” “Watch Me While I Bloom” successfully avoids cliché despite its focus on a topic that’s been a bugaboo for women in popular music since long before that quintet insisted on chicks before dicks: sexism. Get it right, and you might wind up with your very own “Just A Girl.” But without insistent specificity and rebuke of anything that even smells like it might wind up immortalized as a wrongly-attributed quote on Instagram, you’re stuck in the hackneyed world of “Fight Song” and its tampon-commercial-music ilk.
Williams hadn’t completely avoided the topic in her impressive catalog with the group Paramore, one of this century’s most successful rock bands. But as the reluctant face of an otherwise all-male band, she didn’t exactly make femininity and its accompanying rewards and challenges central to her artistic persona. Williams was busy fighting the perception that she was the instigator of the band’s persistent drama because of the disproportionate attention she drew, much of which came in the form of drooling men pestering her both in magazines and at her shows.
Yet just as persistently, Williams had rebuked the idea of going solo, dating all the way back to when she was signed by Atlantic, alone, at the tender age of 14. In that sense, fellow child star Hailee Steinfeld — who shares very little musical DNA with the literally-dyed-in-the-wool rocker — represents the road not taken for the now 31-year-old Williams. Both had their first big break in their early teens, thanks to preternatural charisma and precocious talent (though Steinfeld’s was on screen, with her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s “True Grit’). Both were in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video, and both have collaborations with EDM monolith Zedd. Their forgettable songs with Machine Gun Kelly and B.o.B, respectively, also present an easy point of comparison.
But for Steinfeld, those chart-baity songs weren’t just an easy personal brand-building exercise, as they might have been for Williams. Instead, that’s all she’s really been in a position to do since she was signed by Republic at age 18 in 2015: one-offs that have gotten her to the upper tiers of Billboard’s Hot 100 without ever creating much of an identity as a musician at all. It’s possible to blame the lack of momentum on the fact that music is still Steinfeld’s side gig, but to have five years of singles without an album suggests that she might be at the mercy of the label’s plot to make her a Pop Star™ in the exact way Williams designed her entire career to avoid.
That market-researched artifice isn’t necessarily the only kind of “pretending” Williams is attempting to slough off with “Petals,” which she has made explicit is also about the dissolution of her decade-long relationship with New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert. But it is what’s disappointing about “Half Written Story,” the first part of Steinfeld’s two-part album. (Like Williams has already done with “Petals,” Steinfeld is releasing her new project five songs at a time.)
Steinfeld has long been seemingly sincere in her attempts to inject some vague notion of “female empowerment” (the optimistic catch-all term attached to ideas about women’s equality that can be easily bought and sold) into her music. Her debut single was, after all “Love Myself” (yes, it’s about masturbation). It’s a career-wide project: recently, she executive-produced Apple TV+’s “Dickinson” and starred as Emily in a critically acclaimed turn.
But on “Story,” it’s a challenge to find the there there, as the most successful songs lean heavily on pop hits past. “I Love You’s” and its confusing punctuation may borrow a great deal from The Lover Speaks by way of Annie Lennox, but it still feels somewhat candid and contemporary in its argument for taking time to yourself before diving into a new relationship. Funnily enough, it’s the same sentiment Williams spends her whole album parsing: Steinfeld even sings about buying flowers, “then when they die I’ll be happy that they got me through.” Similarly, “END This (L.O.V.E.),” co-written by Steinfeld, is a fun flip on the standard, in which she convincingly delivers a scorned-woman sentiment.
It’s the same gloss-up-the-greatest-hits model that executive producer Koz (aka Stephen Kozmeniuk) deployed much more effectively on Dua Lipa’s latest album, “Future Nostalgia,” and Steinfeld doesn’t yet have enough of an established personality as a singer to make paint-by-numbers pop her own. The desire to make a meatier banger is clearly there, given how long she’s been at it and the kind of material she chooses; she has the voice and the baseline taste level. It’s hard to imagine, though, that any of these songs will make her a recognizable force in pop.
In contrast, “Petals” is delightfully unpredictable and intimate. There’s a narrative presented around just about every major pop project, and Williams’ solo debut is no different, falling into the “most personal record yet” category. Yet there is an unvarnished, casual quality to the album. WiIlliams’ voice, clean and taut, presses to the front of even the tiniest speaker. On songs like “Sudden Desire” and “My Friend,” her signature angsty wail makes an appearance — but as punctuation instead of a default setting, showing her impressive range as a vocalist. Melodic, round electric bass lines, as on one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Leave It Alone,” dominate the album instead of Paramore’s early distorted guitars or the group’s later, forcefully cheery synths.
As Williams presents, more or less chronologically, her recent post-break-up journey from lost to found, dark to light, stripped-down rock, electro-pop, experimental R&B and even brushes of techno and industrial music offer rich, varied context to her unequivocally emotional lyrics. But it’s all done with an enviably light touch. When the lyrics veer trite, the music around them stays snappy and fresh; when the music feels over-familiar, she’s saying something plainspoken and true.
Most impressive, though, is how she is able to toe the line in articulating the anger, pain and occasional redemption of womanhood — feelings that often seem banal from the inside, let alone when you try to express them. From the seething, asymmetrical “Simmer,” which indicts some looming unnamed men (of the women in her family, Williams told the New York Times, “they’ve all been abused in almost every sense of the word”) up to the “petals for armor” refrain towards the end, the album vividly articulates the new, self-conscious but not self-deprecating femininity Williams embraced in the wake of her breakup.
“Petals'” poppiest song might actually be Williams’ most personal yet. On “Dead Horse,” she grooves through regrets about her relationship with Gilbert, including how, when it started, she was “the other woman.” A no-doubt painful revelation is given extra potency, though, by the fact that on Paramore’s biggest hit, “Misery Business” — a song Williams will no longer perform — she sang about beating out another girl (at the time, she was 17) for a boy’s attention, concluding of her competition, “Once a whore, you’re nothing more.”
For many women, her evolution is likely a familiar one; most of us eventually realize that we are the ones we’ve been raised to hate all along. In that light, the difference between a good and a bad song about sexism is the difference between being sincere about weakness and hollow about strength.