A Symposium While I’m Away

Traveling today and lots of errands to get to before then. Stay out of trouble until I get back.

To keep you busy, let’s hold a symposium: What did the big hair rock bands wore in the 80s mean? What did it represent? What did it signify? From whence as a symbol did it come and to what misty signatory fate has it gone? Is there a semiosis we can somehow employ to understand the role of this bleached, poodle-y, split-ended phenomenon of the arena rock days of yore? I crave your insight.

To foment reason, I offer you a representative sampling of 80s big hair, in the form of: Giuffria!

Seriously, this video is a doctoral thesis on the semiotics of big hair all on its lonesome. You could build an academic career out of it. Probably, somewhere, someone has.

52 Comments on “A Symposium While I’m Away”

  1. Whatever it meant, let’s all be happy that shoulder padding for men is or should be a thing best left buried!! Maybe that’s what it meant, that skinny band members with big hair really wanted broad shoulders, but could only achieve this by padding….someone else can speculate on other “padded” areas….

  2. A quick search on a couple of dissertation indexes and multidisciplinary article databases sadly revealed no dissertations or articles on hair metal or big hair rock (why yes, this is what database privileges are for when you’re a grad student. Did you think we did meaningful research?). However I did find a book on amazon, put out 2 years ago, entitled “American Hair Metal”. Perhaps not strictly an academic work, but someone’s making a buck out of analyzing the phenomenon anyway. As one of the reviews on amazon says, “this vital piece of rock semiotics, so to speak, verifies how strong the attraction of monumental vacuity can be”.

  3. It’s too early for me to write a dissertation about this, but why did these big hair types always think they could get these mature, sophisticated looking women? I never saw groupies like that surrounding them.

  4. What did it mean? I’m afraid I can do no better than repeat the response of one Mr Snider when questioned about his performing attire by a Senator’s wife (who later should have been First Lady, had there been honest votecounting in Florida):

    It’s an act, lady!

    All the hair bands were doing was follow the centuries-old tradition of performers ranging from minstrels to circus acts. It means nothing more than “it’s an act.” That the fashion industry chose to interpret it otherwise says more about the desperation of the fashion industry than it does anything else.

  5. And in response, the great Timbuk3: Hairstyles and Attitudes (1984)

    I’ve done lots of research it may be just hype
    But the latest findings cause me to tremble
    They’ve categorized us into three basic types
    By which of the Three Stooges we most closely resemble

  6. While technically, this guy doesn’t actually have any hair, I think its clear that he inspired puffiness in all things. After all, this was one of the biggest movies of the early ’80’s. Coincidence? I think not.

  7. I never noticed this before, but the big hair on those guys is almost exactly like the hairstyles on women who sang on the Lawrence Welk Show in the ’70s. The only difference is the ’80s hair band hair is a lot frizzier. That’s probably an irrelevant fact, however.

    Could the movie “This Is Spinal Tap” offer some insight as to what the hair was all about? Perhaps the scene where Christopher Guest’s character calls the manager into his dressing room because the bread he’s trying to make into a sandwich keeps breaking. When he picks it up and breaks it, that is. Yes, perhaps they were just really superficial and not all that smart so they wore ugly hairstyles.

    Then again with fashion, it’s usually normal for bands to take the fashion of the day and do something a little more extreme with it. ’80s fashion was horrendous, hence, ’80s hair bands.

  8. The signature coif of the french poodle, and indeed the rather similar tonsorial fashions of the Portugese and Spanish water dogs, are surely derived from the necessity of ensuring adequate thermal insulation for the animals’ joints when pursuing their original work as retrieving breeds in wet or boggy environments.

    Perhaps the similar texture of the fuzzy-headed rock demigods is an example of parallel evolution, the thermal protection in this case being required to protect their tiny, tiny brains from temperature fluctuations encountered when playing large-scale stadium venues.

    An alternative adaptation is seen in certain Euro-metal artists, in which a thick layer of fat is laid down between the skull and the neo-frontal cortex. And we all know where that leads – (all together now) ‘It’s the final countdown, dada daaa daaa, dada da da da etc until brain death . . .

  9. It was a socio-political backlash to the incursion of punk and new wave music and the increasing popularity of its clipped or shaved hairstyles. Dudes with short hair protesting the failures of government, inveighing against the status quo, openly exploring alternative lifestyles, or embracing androgyny were confusing to boys who had always conflated clean cut, short haired men with military or other authority figures . The metal bands were all testosterone all the time and most of the songs were about getting, banging and/or losing chicks, so there was no confusion in their message. Their crowning glory (all that hair) was a direct challenge to the usurping new wave and an invitation to townies everywhere to reject the British/European musical and fashion invasion by growing out their hair and listening to similarly long-locked guys as they abused their instruments.

    Further exploration as to why these bands appealed to women will be forthcoming when I get a letter saying someone would like to fund my dissertation….

  10. Ooo, I like Redcoat’s version. But, I was thinking along Star Trek lines too.

    What they really had were those those big, bald, veiny heads. You know, like the telepaths had in the pilot episode where Capt. Pike is taken for breeding purposes. Veiny heads are not attractive on rock stars.

    No. Stop that. Don’t even go there.

  11. I suspect they were following along with the long hair of the bands they admired. Who were still waving their freak flags from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

    Though I also suspect the volumetric enhancement was a conspiracy by disgruntled hairstylists.

  12. Reba’s thesis regarding the adoption of bubble-permed big hair being a tacit rejection of European and British skinhead nihilism is neat, but it needs also to address the direct lineage by which 80’s rock coiffure descends from the more unkempt, aboriginal rock mane that surely originated in the British psychadelic and blues/rock oevres of the sixties and early seventies. Long hair among the flower children was a rejection of shorter styles prevalent among the preceeding generation, shorter styles that had been prevalent in Western cultures for maybe the greater part of 200 years and were, in the wake of 2 World Wars (and Vietnam), heavily identified with conformity and militarism.

  13. This video has almost all of the cliche’s from 80’s hair rock. There is the hair, the ugly leather jackets, the song is sappy ballad, the drummer has gong with his kit (either Neal Pert or Carl Palmer is to blame for that), and the key board player has 2 keyboards that he is playing at once while giving it a little shake. The only cliche’ missing is the double necked 6 string/12 string guitar. Good times…….

  14. I think Jeff is on the right track. I would say they evolved from the glam rock hair clade. You can probably compare it to the neck frills of dinosaurs, where a feature that served some useful purpose became more and more elaborate to the point of absurdity. Note, too, that big hair was also fairly common among women (largely real estate agents, politicians, and southerners in general) during this period. As were shoulder pads.

  15. Every succesful musical movement is eventually co-opted and commercialised to the point where the non-musical aspects (hairstyles, dress, ideals) become outrageous caricatures of themselves and the music itself becomes a slight variation on dumbed-down radio pop.

    See also: Hip-hop/gangsta, funk/disco, grunge/post-grunge.

  16. Damn, I don’t know about the hair but the keyboard player had a sick, huge analog rig.

    I think, keeping that in mind, it’s a bigger is better kind of thing. The amp stacks were huge, the keyboard rigs were huge, the drum kits were huge (Tommy Lee, Neil “More shit to hit” Peart), the venues were huge, the hair on the female fans and other bits were huge: the bigger the better.

    Except for Rob Halford.

  17. The hairstyles of the so-called ’80s “hair bands” was nothing less than a dialectical response by proletarian artists to the bourgeois elements of the corporate culture of the colonialist First World. As the antithesis of the conventional patriarchy, the large hair such musicians wore expressed community with others oppressed for their gender or ethnicity, and added a striking visual image to the sentiment (as expressed by one band of the era), “We’re not gonna [sic] take it, anymore.”

  18. I agree, Redcoat, but I would have to note that the reason the importation of the longer hairstyles from the first British Invasion and the throwback to the counter-culture of the 1960s is not as big a factor is that the average American teenager (a) had not been educated in any sort of recent history (not even a History Channel to fall back on!) and (b) has the cognitive function of a small lizard and about as much interest in seeing big picture sorts of patterns. Most people are reactive creatures, and there’s a whole other dissertation in the effort that has gone into keeping them that way – though one would have to tread carefully in order to avoid being handed a tinfoil hat and sent tot he corner.

  19. If it is true that most outward symbols of cultural rebellion eventually get absorbed into the culture, commercialized, and stripped of their power to shock and symbolize, then 80’s hair bands were a stage in making the rebellious long hair of the 60’s hippies into something commercial and meaningless.

    Also: there is a distinct duality in the sexuality of these bands that was really prevalent in many 80’s cultural phenomenon. There is an exaggerated masculinity AND femininity there. I’m not sure why that was such a big deal in the mainstream 80s.

  20. Eric@20: The biggest problem is your last statement. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was released in 1969 – way pre-era of 80’s hair bands.

  21. Kerry: you refer to The Who, I was referring to Twisted Sister. By 1984, when Twisted Sister recorded their song of that title, The Who had long been subverted by the predominating capitalist paradigm. (Note that Twisted Sister’s name and the style of dress chosen by the bandmembers shows solidarity for the oppressed castes of both drag culture and womyn, making their strident cri de coeur even more resonant than it otherwise might have been.)

  22. Well, the bigger the hair, the closer to God – that’s what we always said back in the day.

    Not sure that was the effect they were going for, though…

  23. I blame mixing heroin with cocaine.

    It probably went something like, “Dude, what if you mixed David Bowie with Iggy Pop? That would be the coolest thing ever! So, we’ll need eyeliner, long hair…but not just long hair, BIG hair! And synthesizers. And some of those fake drums! We’ll be bigger than the Gary Glitter, man.”

    Additionally, I believe this justifies the war on drugs. Let those degenerates use drugs and this is what happens. (Or as the poster in my local beer store in Austin used to say: “Heroin may not kill you, it may just make you look like Kieth Richards.)

  24. On behalf of the Mississippi Gulf Coast (at least, I lived there at the time), I would like to apologize for the existence of Gregg Giuffria.

  25. Gay chemicals in the cocaine supply. Ru Paul had connection to Noriega in Panama, and tried to gay America through music and drugs.

    Sadly, Reagan’s son caught gay, and Bush invaded Panama in retribution.

  26. Meaning? What does anything mean? I think it was Whitman who said something to the effect of “the author is entitled to all interpretations which can be derived from the work.” This holds true for music as well as prose.

    I love “hair bands” and have a huge number of their albums, so take this with whatever measure of salt you deem appropriate. Some of the issues I derived:

    1. This is what happens when you let a bunch of coke-addled advertising executives make decisions about video presentation and image. Individuality was suppressed by preset expectations about hair, tights, leather, naked skin and so on. If it wasn’t there, it didn’t get funded save for rare exceptions where bands burst onto the scene with such speed and power that they reset their own genre (think Guns-n-Roses or Nirvana).

    2. This is also what happens when you demand that music video directors insert “meaning” into what was (mostly) good-time rock and roll, intended to have no terrifically deep meaning (think Van Halen).

    3. Many comments have been made elsewhere about the homo-erotic nature of many of the hair band videos, where the guys were always shown in close proximity if not actually groping each other or themselves, while what babes were shown were shown in isolation. I think this was a product of the changing times as society moved from a puritan background of no sex (even implied sex) and no cursing on any airwaves under threat of dire penalties into what we have today. I think the FCC was more effective and certainly more feared back in those days, and the directors were attempting to inject sensuality of some kind and failed. On the other hand, they may have been gay and it may have been deliberate. Who knows?

    4. I’m thrilled that many of the hair bands have toured over the past five years or so and that some of the younger generations have rediscovered the fun of just rocking out without death, mutilation, hate, mysogeny or other foul content cluttering up the music. Pre-empt: yes, I know that any of these elements can be found in certain hair-band music, but the elements are simply not as prevalent then as they are in today’s music.

  27. It didn’t mean a thing just like their lyrics. They thought it looked cool and so did their fans who emulated them. Bret, I am going to have to disagree with your connection between big hair bands and drugs. Drugs are still here and big hair is gone. Considering you get your anti drug wisdom from a purveyor of beer, which is just a legal and popular drug, I really shouldn’t be surprised.

  28. Mr. Snider and C.E. Petit nailed it.

    A secondary aspect of big hair reflects the “it’s all about ME!” attitude prevalent in the 1980s. In an interview with singer Pinn Head, former member of the now-defunct band Massive Follicles, he explains:

    What do the groundlings see from way back in the shitty seats? They can see my big hair and damned little else. They can see it from another zip code, for chrissake. This hair, it’s advertising. It’s big for the same reason that billboards are big.

    Right now, when your camera — [turns to look directly into close-up camera; holds a beat] — is on me, what it’s showing is my face, my hair, and a thin border around the edge of the screen of this studio.
    [aside] Y’know, you could have saved yourselves a bundle by just painting the edges of the set….

    No learned discourse here, move along.

  29. I agree that it is likely that the hair is a “dialectical response by proletarian artists to the bourgeois elements of the corporate culture”. Or the whole hair/makeup/costuming portion of hair metal was to disguise the fact that most of these bands couldn’t play their way out of wet paper bags. After all, the king of big hair was one Jon Bon Jovi, a man whose band, despite having played together for well over two decades now, still has barely achieved a level of skills equal to a mid-level bar band.

  30. Rembrandt @34:
    I dunno, I think the cocaine-to-heroin ratio is key to understanding the hair. However, I’m willing to buy Josh @32’s theory of spreading ‘teh gay’ via tainted Nicaraguan cocaine as a hilarious alternative. If only because living in N. Florida I can hear a little voice in my head saying: “Lurleen, call the Preacher! That boy of ours caught teh gay from that devil powder again!”

  31. Let’s see, they were in a band so they needed long hair to be cool, but maybe they felt in order to attract women fans they felt they needed to look like them. Of course, one perk was that the guys could borrow hair spray from the groupies when they ran out.

  32. Well, perusing the Taxonomy of Metal
    I find that most of the hair metal bands fall under Glam Metal, or Pop Metal, which looks to be a direct descendant of Classic Metal and Glam Metal. So I would agree that it was a variation on the wild hair of the glam set. Combine that with the advances in hair styling techniques in the interval between your Slades and Sweets and your Motley Crues and Europes, and I think the lineage makes perfect sense.

  33. Oh, hell, that wasn’t supposed to be anonymous up there at 41. It’s me.

    And to provide some content, I also think that somewhere along the line, somebody with a guitar and with naturally lush, curly hair grew it out real long, and everyone else was jealous.

    Because long, straight, lifeless hair is boring. Let me tell you.

  34. Reba (back at 21), says that American teenagers of the 80’s would have had no knowledge of history or of 60’s counter-culture – I acknowledge that this may be true (my knowledge of American teenagers of the 80’s derives almost entirely from The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

  35. I agree with Reba (21) as well.

    Remember, Ferris Bueller would have spent all his time getting beaten up in a true 1980s high school. Someone tell me that he wouldn’t…..

    The Bighairs still look better than the hippies of the late 60s/70s, and far better than the Emo kids of today look. Even someone delicate like Robert Plant would slap around an Emo guy.

    The 60s had established long hair as the norm for rocks tars. Big hair just hsows that you tend to the hair, instead of letting it get all gross and dirty like a hippy.

    Once Nirvana came around,you could look like you hadn’t been in the shower for a week again. “Leather is corporate, mannnn…my record label wants you to wear flannel.”

    Besides, in the 80s, the alternative looks were Boy George, Wham, Sting, sweatsuit/fisherman hat early rap star, Paul Jones, or Robert Smith. Just to try to make that list less gay-driven, I did a Google of “heterosexual 1980s English musician”… article 1= Bowie, 2= Morrisey, etc… I gave up after Johnny Marr, but know that I tried.

    It’s tough to front some guy teasing his hair for an hour and wiggling into his leather pants to sing love ballads as the leader of an anti-gay backlash, but nothing else really makes sense.

  36. Hmm. Stacey, I don’t think anybody ever called Mr Plant ‘delicate’ to his face back in the day . . .

  37. …..but God what? Surely the authentic strut and swagger of the Zeppelin archetype is preferable to the mincing squeakers of the Bon Jovi school – sweat beats lip gloss for me.

  38. Life is short… and thank god fads are shorter. It’s just our bad karma is that they often get reincarnated.

    I believe, like so many fads, big hair was simply a separating/defining device. A way to make thier own mark. It was not thought out, not ‘intelligently designed’, we were just unlucky enough that someone thought it was cool… I blame that on the heroin, cocaine thing.

    Fads… keep in mind in America, you can sell ANYTHING. One guy used to sell rocks… as pets. Sheesh.

    Christ I used to teach disco line dances in a common area in front of a theater, a drug store and the Purple Possum ( I swear) disco club. Geez whatta memory…

  39. I see it like most everything else- it started out small and grew. By the era of Hair Bands, the actual people who were participating had no connection to the origin, knowledge of it’s beginning, or concern for the meaning behind it.

    Having long hair in America (as a man) had two meanings and they often intertwined in a single expression. The first meaning is no one in the mans life cuts his hair. Two people cut mens hair- their mother or their fathers barber. Having independence from a mothers control over your head or the rejection of your fathers definition of manhood results in uncut hair.

    The second meaning comes up thereafter (occasionally springing from those two ways men get hair cuts). You are too poor to afford a barber and/or you have no family to care for you. This fit hand in glove with sympathy for the plight of the poor and also speaks of someone who has faced adversity and stood on his own (the archetype of the loner).

    These reasons and meanings for having long hair often lead to sex with young women looking for whatever it is that young woman see in a young man who can define for himself how a man should be and/or defy his own parents so coifishly.

    Where there is sex to be had, young men will tend toward that behavior with very little other encouragement. Hair Bands are the parody of the meaning of long hair. Taken to the extreme end of the meaning, the model falls apart and begins to loose impact. A solid decade of young men refusing to visit their fathers barber has resulted in the rise of the beauty salon. This became the cross-over path for androgyny. Hair Bands then became rejected by the young men coming up who wanted to have a more masculine expression of angst and rejection of the parent trap. This is preference heralded the emergence of “Grunge” (but that is a different story).

  40. This is easy.

    As with everything else in the 80’s it was the extreme implementation of things that had been building for the previous two or three decades in music and fashion. It went away because, seriously, how much bigger could it have gotten? How much father could the next band have taken it? So with the envelope pushed, ripped, shredded, and gone, bands of the 1990s went back to being ordinary dudes.

    As for the deeper roots of the whole thing, look to the musical “Hair”…

    I would just like to say that it is my conviction
    That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
    Of appearance are nothing more
    Than the male’s emergence from his drab camoflage
    Into the gaudy plumage
    Which is the birthright of his sex

    There is a peculiar notion that elegant plumage
    And fine feathers are not proper for the male
    When ac—tually
    That is the way things are
    In most species

  41. Um, hi. I was a hair band guy. Genuine, bona-fide, wacky leather jacket, ripped jeans and Aqua-Net for real. My hair was almost down to my ass and wider than my shoulders (which wasn’t hard when I weighed 125, heh). A bit sheepish about it now, but hey, I had a lot of fun and even got to release a CD!

    We just did it because we were like, 20, and thought we looked cool. I went for mine because of Eddie Van Halen and Dave Lee Roth. Also Zeppelin.

    I was actually in a band, many bands – and most of the dudes who had the “best” hair band look were not. That was a little weird…

    We looked different from everyone who wasn’t us (except for the equally Aqua-Netted “Guidettes,” of course). Same reason the punks did their thing. Screw you, we don’t look anything like you mainstream people. Of course it was a bit of ego fluffery. And an act. But again, fun!

    And nobody I know was mixing heroin with cocaine. One or the other, usually. Certainly I didn’t do any of that crap, I stuck to beer and JD.

    It was just a thing, y’know? Our odd little thing in our odd little world. Everyone does something like that, tho most don’t go quite so over the top. :)

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