Why is everyone singing about cutting hair again?
It’s been almost fifty years since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released the classic track, ‘Almost Cut My Hair’. Proudly turning their backs on the buzzcut norm, it was the perfect depiction of ’70s counter-culture.
Decades later, growing your hair (or shaving it off, for that matter) is no longer controversial. So why is music still so obsessed with the metaphor? In the last few months alone, four Australian artists have sung about haircuts: Camp Cope, Ali Barter, Methyl Ethel and Dune Rats:
“I’ll keep growing my hair out/It’s not for you.”
The Camp Cope – ‘Keep Growing’
“Why’d you have to go and cut your hair?/Why’d you go and cut your hair?”
Methyl Ethel – ‘Ubu’
“If I shaved my hair would you tell your friends you don’t care?”
Ali Barter – ‘Cigarette’
“I don’t care/I’m never gonna cut my hair.”
Dune Rats – ‘Don’t Talk’
So what does it all mean?
Pride and power: the strength of long hair
There’s a rich, storied meaning around hair, and not just in music. In Japanese history, growing long hair was a sign of prestige, wealth and power. Samurais and priests wore tight top knots to display status; if disgraced, their hair was ceremoniously sliced off, fast tracking them to the bottom of the social ladder.
Long hair was often seen as a luxury of the rich and noble. It was a depiction of strength – literally so, if you recall Samson. In the ’60s and ’70s, particularly for men, it became a sign of rebellion. Both a celebration of individuality and a ‘fuck you’ to the Man, this is where our story begins.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ woozily begins, “I almost cut my hair/It happened just the other day/It was gettin’ kinda long/I coulda said, it was in my way/But I didn’t and I wonder why/I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”
Three years later The Who released the mellow, satirical ‘Cut My Hair,’ in which they ask, “Why should I care/If I have to cut my hair?/I got to move with the fashion or be outcast/I know I should fight/But my old man, he’s really alright/And I’m still living at home/Even though it won’t last.”
Like Camp Cope today, choosing to grow their hair was a symbol of freedom, individuality and expression. It’s their choice, and they’ll do as they please.
Cutting to conform?
Likewise, in this context, cutting hair could be a means of slipping into the mainstream. In 1986, Huey Lewis and the News’ hit single ‘Hip to be Square’ sang about how, “I used to be a renegade/I used to fool around… Now I’m playing it real straight/And yes, I cut my hair.”
Jump ahead a little further and we find something more sinister. In 1995, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill lamented the discovery that her boyfriend was kissing a prettier, happier ‘replica’ of herself: “She burnt my dresses and she cut my hair,” she shouts. Hanna pushes back against cookie-cutter conformity, one of the muscliest pillars of Bikini Kill’s powerful punk.
Protesting the same concept, Pavement’s 1994 track ‘Cut Your Hair’ begins with, “Darlin’ don’t you go and cut your hair/Do you think it’s gonna make him change?” Explaining the story behind it, frontman Stephen Malkmus said: “It begins with me imagining some girl bummed out on her boyfriend. ‘What am I going to do?’ she’s asking herself. ‘Cut my hair!’”
“It could be anything, really,” he says, explaining that the metaphor extends beyond relationships and into the music scene. “Whatever you try to do to get a man or woman to like you. It never works. Someone’s always got the upper hand. Then [the song] goes on to how the music world’s the same, the way it concentrates on little outside things that seem cool, like your thrift-shop clothes or the amount of stubble on your chin… or how long their hair is.”
Chop to change: Turning a new leaf
Historically, shaving hair was often synonymous with religious and military rankings, as well as a form of punishment. It later became a staple of alternative subcultures – the skinhead lurks among punk and metal scenes to this day.
Where some see cutting hair as a sign of weakness, others find it empowering: a form of liberation, emancipation. Cutting your own hair is a symbol of control – and there’s remarkable freedom in that decision.
In 2009, Jessica Simpson released a powerful video clip for her aptly titled song ‘I Belong To Me’. Still an American sweetheart and pop idol at the time, she took scissors to her iconic golden locks while singing, “I belong to me, I don’t belong to you, my heart is my possession, I’ll be my own reflection.”
The sentiment is echoed in Kelela’s 2015 video for ‘A Message.’ Here too, she lobs off her thick dreadlocks as a way of farewelling a past love. “Are you even breathing?” she asks. “I should have known better/So I’m gonna let your body go for sure.”
While Simpson and Kelela cut their hair to symbolise the end of a relationship. Ali Barter uses one to question hers. On ‘Cigarette’ she sings, “[You’re] playing with my long hair, like you found your prize … If I shaved my hair would you tell your friends you don’t really care?”
Speaking to FL, Barter said it was about someone asking, “Why do you like me? Is it based on what I look like? What am I to you?'” She described the song as the “frustrated musings of someone being taken for granted or treated like an accessory”.
Barter’s statement epitomises that mentality of control and confidence; the same confidence Kelela and Simpson had before her, that Malkmus wanted to instil on ‘Cut Your Hair’. It’s the exact same power Roger Daltrey and David Crosby exuded when they refused to cut theirs in the 1970s. It’s the loss of control we find in Methyl Ethel’s track, and the fury it fans for Bikini Kill.
In lyricism, hair represents power, personal agency, confidence and individuality, and it’s a message bigger than any one song.
Lauren Ziegler is a music journalist from Sydney. You can argue with her about hip-hop on Twitter.