After years of grinding as a beloved wrestler on the U.S. independent circuit, Willow Nightingale is now winning belts on some of the industry’s biggest stages. And the 29-year-old AEW star is pummeling her opponents with a massive grin on her face. The catchphrase emblazoned on her merch—“Nothing matters, smile anyway”—adds shade to her babyface presentation, and it has become a motto Nightingale follows to navigate life. “A hundred billion years from now, none of us are going to be here and nothing that we did is going to be important,” she says. “All we can control is how we experience life, so I’m doing my best to be around people that I enjoy and listen to music that I enjoy, and find the best of it all.”
One of Nightingale’s nicknames is “The Babe With the Power,” a reference to David Bowie’s remarkably goofy Labyrinth track “Magic Dance,” and she’s got a portrait of the rock icon tattooed to her calf. She says Bowie was one of the first cultural figures to show her “there are cool, weird people on Earth who can be celebrated for just being themselves and doing whatever the hell they want.” She also loves how he tried on new characters throughout his career, something she’s been considering with how she’ll present herself in the ring moving forward. “For a long time I’ve been this bubbly, cheery, enthusiastic character, but I know in my heart I can’t be eternally happy, because that’s not life’s journey,” she says. “We change, we grow, we evolve.”
Nightingale turns to music frequently when thinking about her wrestling career, whether she’s contemplating her legacy while listening to formative pop-punk songs or winding down from a match with a deep listen to the new Boygenius album. Here are the songs and albums that just might inspire her next evolution.
Paramore: “You First”
Willow Nightingale: I first discovered Paramore in the Myspace days. I even have two Paramore tattoos—the Brand New Eyes butterfly on the back of my neck, and the lyrics “fall in love with yourself,” from “Ankle Biters,” written across my chest backwards, so I can look in the mirror and read it to myself every day. At first I was very worried I wouldn’t like their new album This Is Why, especially after their last one, After Laughter, felt like Willow Nightingale all wrapped up—on the outside, that album is very happy, but at its core it’s really about life tearing you down.
This Is Why is a little bit more stripped down than their other stuff, but I love “You First.” There’s the line “everyone is a bad guy,” which makes me think, of course, of wrestling. We’ve got our heels and our babyfaces, and throughout a wrestler’s journey, you see them flip back and forth. But nobody’s perfect—even me, who’s perceived as the babiest of babyfaces. I’m sure there are people I’ve pissed off in my life. Does that make me a bad person? Maybe at times, but really all of us are.
Soul Glo: Diaspora Problems
I was first introduced to Soul Glo when they played at a wrestling show in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania around 2019. Initially I was into them because the band’s name is a Coming to America reference, the jheri curl ad. There’s also this layer of having Black representation in hardcore music, which is so cool. It’s been really awesome to see the trajectory they’ve taken along with me—from some little club in Pennsylvania to them being at Coachella this year, and me doing all the things that I am doing. To hear angry, beautiful music from a Black person’s perspective is so refreshing and what I need when I’m in the gym.
Boygenius: The Record
The entire sad end of my emotional spectrum is perfectly vocalized and expressed through the words of Lucy, Phoebe, and Julien. Before the last Ring of Honor pay-per-view, I remember thinking, I’m gonna wait until I can sit on the plane after the match and listen to this album the whole way through. It opens with a lovely a cappella tune, and I was clicked in immediately. When it got to “Cool About It,” I was like, I love this. This is my favorite song. And then for them to end on “Letter to an Old Poet”? I was losing it. The Record is what I have on repeat the most.
The Wonder Years: “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral”
I was 19 years old working at a 7-Eleven when the Wonder Years put out The Greatest Generation 10 years ago. I remember old folks coming in, super happy to see my smiling face and purple hair at 6 in the morning. I had just dropped out of college because I couldn’t afford it and was thinking about starting to wrestle. I was definitely at this crossroads in my life, feeling all this hopelessness: What is my life amounting to? What am I doing? I listened to this album and felt sorrow and confusion, wondering what’s ahead of me.
I’m still listening to it. But now I look at the album, particularly the closing track “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral,” as someone who is constantly on the road and worrying about the legacy that I’m leaving behind with my career. How have I affected all of the people that I’ve interacted with? When I leave, will my friends, family, and fans have positive memories of me? Will all the struggles that I’ve gone through amount to anything? Am I letting the people closest to me down? Is my legacy enough to make that matter? As I’ve gotten older, the album’s gotten so meaningful.