Sugar Shock #009: It’s a Hair Thing
our hair…it’s everywhere.”
Dashboard was on to something here. Of course, they probably meant to evoke the feeling of finding traces of a loved one after they’re gone—a strand of hair on a pillow, say. The image could be beautiful, but the histrionic delivery of the line suggests big ugly clumps of the stuff. Those four words constitute one of the most viscerally unpleasant and commonly derided lyrics in recent memory. When teenpopper Joanna covered the tune, it sounded sweeter, but there was still something vaguely unsettling about all that hair, everywhere.
This is a roundabout way of getting at what Mike Barthel has suggested in a recent blog post: “…[hair is] an unacknowledged but potent symbol in pop, and maybe the seemingly superficial things we see female popstars do with their hair are worthy of a closer look: P!nk, Ashlee going brunette, etc.”
In its natural state, Ashlee Simpson’s hair is blond like her sister’s. This is pretty much the premise for her “Shadow” video, in which she dresses up as her sister, blond hair included, to convey the inferiority she felt in Jessica’s shadow. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” she sings, but the truth is that Ashlee never really had a chance of garnering widespread sympathy in the first place. Her hair tells the story: at the time of the video, her then-trademark dark hair was technically fake, but to regain her natural appearance, she needed to face the stereotypes and personal baggage that awaited her when she finally went blonde. She was stuck—for many, there was no “real” her (or “real” hair) to reveal, even though she’d been trying (and succeeding beyond all reason) to reveal and define herself in her music from the start.
Hilary Duff recently changed her hair color from blond to dark brown, which makes her look a bit like Mandy Moore, who also made this switch at a crucial point in her career (in part to distance herself from her teenpop roots, which she has since disowned). Hilary’s underlying statement is right there on her album cover: DIGNITY. And yet the hair color is phony—she’s a blonde just like Ashlee. Darker hair is associated with Hilary’s newfound sophistication and respectability, but it’s also transparently staged; she’s hiding her hair and also making it appear as though she has nothing to hide. This paradox plays out over the course of the album, too, as Hilary keeps it cool amidst some truly strange but generally sophisticated dance-pop.
Her hair is the only physical indicator of her new façade and, if you dig a little deeper, of the confusion it’s hiding just under the surface. Which reminds me, Marit Larsen already touched on these issues years earlier as “the blonde one” in M2M, going naturally brunette when it was time to go solo. Often dark hair signifies casual, down-to-earth “realness” where blond hair is all unattainable radiant energy (to use a defining visual example, Hitchock exploited this idea in Vertigo). Any attempt to “keep it real” is more likely to translate into “keep it brunette” than “keep it blonde,” unless you’re Ashlee and that plan has already backfired.
(Side note: I’d argue that Ashlee’s nosejob—which was far more drastic than a dye job—doesn’t hold as much influence on public reception as the hair, precisely because the social nuance is gone. Her new nose doesn’t provocatively redefine who she is so much as reconfigure, or disfigure, her appearance completely. So in pop, sculpting your hair might say more about who you are, or want yourself to be, than sculpting your face.)
“Well, your hair can grow back,” my girlfriend says. Hair is a temporary medium; it always relays a message of change, naturally through renewal, growth, or decay, and unnaturally through dying, cutting, shaving. If you’re Ashlee terrified of living up to the expectations set by your sister, the normal growth of your hair is a constant reminder from within of your natural state, of what you fear (to fail) to be. If you’re Hilary, Lizzie McGuire waits patiently just below the scalp (well, not exactly—she lightened her hair for the role). Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana had the right idea with a clear-cut identity split via a wig—no inching inescapable personality signifier to battle with on a dye-to-dye basis.
And then there’s Britney. She lashed out and it stuck, it got under the skin. She punked us. Confronted with Britney’s bald head, the tabloids turned straight to mental illness and a hypothetical narrative ending with her inevitable death, which is a shame because they (and conversations resulting from the coverage) could have just as easily interpreted it as a symbol of life, struggle, rebellion. That’s how it’s meant to be perceived when it’s a punk move, and it’s such an obvious move by now, as Frank Kogan argues, that it’s no longer very effective within punk.
Baldness, then, can be a sign of resistance, part of a story of struggle, so long as it is resistance, so long as it’s linked to a struggle we believe in—so long as it’s real. More specifically, female baldness is often a symbol of the tenuous line between survival and death. Kylie Minogue is a breast cancer survivor, and her short hair is a symbol of her spirit to fight. The growth of her hair is a silent expression of her will to live, her body’s visible stand against cancer. Kylie’s hair, as a reminder of her experience, offers me, as someone who lost a parent to cancer, a personal connection to her that previously I only had through her music. Her appearance is a little startling, but her hair is universally seen as a signal of strength, not of temporary weakness.
For one thing, “fighting illness” is an accepted struggle and “fighting celebrity” is not. (Kylie has the dignity that Hilary is searching for, that Britney actively complicates.) But Britney isn’t literally a survivor, and barring further speculation on mental illness or addiction, I’m not bold enough to make the direct connection. I only mean to suggest that it’s certainly possible to look at her act as one of strength and resistance rather than one of weakness and loss.
Until now, Britney was a pop star whose persona was so distinct, albeit constantly changing, that she could conceivably make any cosmetic alteration her own; brunette was the same as blonde because both could signify only “Britney.” Britney’s hair said what she wanted it to say. But shaving her head was perceived as much more than just a cosmetic change, and it helps us to understand “cosmetic” as a concept that isn’t merely pejorative or superficial. Though she did no real physical harm to herself, she released the latent potential of seemingly harmless actions to shock and challenge just about everyone, be it a fan like Kelly Clarkson (“well, she’s still hot”), or a hater using laughter to mask discomfort, or someone like Ashlee, observing, testing, trying to find what this shit means.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-04-04