When I first started teaching, I thought about going back to school to get a master’s degree.
I had a great idea for a master’s thesis in history: Finding the definitive hair band.
Sorry, that’s not very master’s thesis-y. How about: Analysis of the Hair Band Phenomenon and its Causes and Effects on the Society and Economics of the 1980s.
I would stand out on my classroom porch during passing periods and try to come up with a working history of hair bands with the teacher next door. Sometimes our students would drop a name or two, because it was 2003 and teenagers still had some peripheral awareness of hair bands (Not a true understanding, of course, but at least a working knowledge).
Eventually I decided that a master’s degree wasn’t worthwhile. It would cost $5,000, and my particular school district would only pay me an extra $1,000 a year for it. Take out taxes and I’m looking at a decade before I make the money back, much less the lost hours of my twenties and thirties.
Unfortunately, that meant all of my “research” on hair bands had gone to waste. I could’ve maybe turned it into a book, but that would require writing it. And maybe needing some real research. Hello, Wikipedia!
But before I could get off my ass in order to sit my ass down and write it, the other teacher and I came to a huge disagreement about whether one particular group counted as a hair band. Like a true hair band, we decided we could not possibly go forward with this project, regardless of the fact that it would have brought us untold millions of dollars and screaming fans.
Stephen Hawking has groupies, right?
So the definitive history of hair bands was never written. Until now. Here’s my completely unresearched and unverified search for the definitive hair band (seriously, I haven’t checked the dates of these releases or how they charted or sold or anything) :
Motley Crue (not sure how to put in umlauts, please bear with me) was a pretty straight-forward rock band with limited success. Some good songs, especially on their second album with a remake of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and what should have become an anthem, “Shout at the Devil.” But only moderate success. Vince Neal was scratching his head wondering why they hadn’t broken through yet, when he turned on MTV. All the VJ’s were gushing about a couple of Twisted Sister songs. The members of Motley Crue thought, “That music is kinda lame. Why is it so successful?”
Of course, we all know what the secret to Twisted Sister’s success: the makeup, the tongue-in-cheek songs.
So Motley Crue decided to glam out, and their next album was a huge success. The hair band was born.
Okay, I might’ve fudged some of those details, but I think most would agree that “Theater of Pain” was the beginning of the era. It held a number of the motifs that would come to define the genre. There was a guitarred-up remake of an old song, in this case “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” Late examples of these remakes would be Poison hitting the big time with “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and… oops, the other notable remakes come from the-band-that-shan’t-be-named.
Motley Crue’s next single was the first of what would end up becoming synonymous with hair bands: the power ballad. “Home Sweet Home” is about as awesome of a power ballad as you can get. I know most people will put “Every Rose has its Thorn” or <Redacted until later discussion> up there, but there’s something especially awesome about “Home Sweet Home.” It still stands up thirty years later, and it’s especially impressive when you consider that they were flying blind on that particular gamble. Sure, “Sister Christian” might be a little more kickin’, but by the time Night Ranger was recording it, they were following a tried-and-true formula.
And yes, Kiss fans, I know your band recorded “Beth” a decade earlier, but that’s just a ballad, like “Desperado” or “Yesterday.” Your band didn’t invent the power ballad. Now go cry through your make-up.
Different Types of Hair Bands
To find the definitive hair band, we must first define a hair band. The obvious definitions include (obviously) hair, make-up, and “playing in the general vicinity of the late 1980s?” Hair bands usually had four or five members. I don’t know why. Not all hair bands had to have a remake of an old song, but I think to be counted as a hair band, you needed to have rock songs (usually with sexual undertones that seemed edgy for the time but are downright Disney Channel by today’s standards) and power ballads, in more or less equal number. As the fad progressed, we started to get some hybrid songs that started as ballads, then became rockers.
I can’t say for certain if all of the band members played instruments, but I get the general sense that most of them had a “front man” whose only job was to sing and maybe move their crotch. And keep the peroxide shipments coming in, naturally.
Two bands stick out as extensions of the hair band era. The first is Bon Jovi, which unequivocally began as a hair band. Their first three hits included two rock anthems, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” followed up by ballady “Wanted Dead or Alive” with a B-Side of “Never Say Goodbye.” Their next album was even more hair band. “Bad Medicine” fulfilled the rock quota, “I’ll Be There For You” was the power ballad, and “Lay Your Hands on Me” took that middle road which became increasingly prevalent in the waning years of the 1980s.
But Bon Jovi managed to survive past the hair band era. At first, it didn’t look like they would. When they released their “Greatest Hits” album in 1994, they might as well have been calling it a career. But then they took a little time off, Jon Bon Jovi bought some sports teams, and they adjusted their style of music to fit the new millennium. This might be because Jon Bon Jovi plays (and I believe, writes) his own music, unlike most of the front men, so he could adjust to the changing times. Perhaps the only reason they were a hair band was because that’s what the music industry required at the time. Hell, if Bon Jovi comes on when I’m shuffling my iTunes in my classroom, my students classify it as “Country Music.” The horror!
From the “Hair Band that became something else” to the “Hair Band From a Different Time,” I present the Goo Goo Dolls. Think about it. Their three biggest hits from “A Boy Named Goo” completed the same trifecta as “New Jersey” had: Rocker (“Long Way Down”), Ballad (“Name”), and middle ground (Naked”). If Johnny Rzeznik isn’t the second coming of Vince Neil, I don’t know who is. A
By the way, one of these pictures is Jon Bon Jovi, the other is Johnny Rzeznik. If one of them walked up to you, would you know who it was? I’d probably have to ask them about the Arena Football League and see which one has a comeback.
Hey, as an aside, did Def Leppard grow into a Hair Band a la Motley Crue, or did they always just have nine arms and suck? Discuss amongst yourselves.
Here’s where my co-creator and I encountered our obstacle, a creative difference that rivaled Lennon and McCartney. A disagreement that shook us both to our very cores, calling into doubt the groundwork we had done and the very definition of a hair band. And really, if decent society cannot come together to define who is and who is not a hair band, then can the world survive?
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to quote Thomas Jefferson in this instance. “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Or, to misquote a more recent president. I don’t see red states or blue states. I see people who realize that Guns n Roses is a hair band and people who don’t are wrong.
My friend does not feel that GnR was a hair band. He sees them as much more Metallica than Poison. He claims that “Appetite for Destruction” was a solid, hardcore rock album worthy of Black Sabbath, and that “Use Your Illusion” was a classic double-album that would fit perfectly alongside “The White Album” or “Quadrophenia.”
(Hey, that’s a “Quadrophenia” reference two posts in a row. You’re welcome, Pete Townshend.)
You know all the bullshit that Axl Rose was throwing out about “Estranged,” “Don’t Cry,” and “November Rain” being a trilogy? Yeah, my buddy buys that. Only don’t call it a Power Ballad Trilogy.’ Those were just standard, um, unempowered ballads.
Oh, and that other song I redacted in the “Home Sweet Home” discussion earlier? I was talking about “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” My friend claims that the o’ in the title makes it an Irish jig.
Okay, not really. He claims “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is not a power ballad because it has no piano.
On second thought, that argument makes about as much sense as calling it an Irish gig.
Quick, here’s a picture of Axl Rose and Bret Michaels. Which one is which?
The Definitive Hair Band
Fortunately, we had determined the definitive hair band before the debate over whether “Live and Let Die” is a remake of a classic rock song. The definitive rock band was easy to determine once we had determined the parameters.
And, to give you a hint, it’s a band that hasn’t been mentioned yet.
Most people jump to Poison. They are certainly the most prominent hair band, but they’ve come to define so much more. Reality shows, diabetes, aging rock stars. If you mention the band Poison to someone, a lot of different things come to mind. Plus, while they had plenty of songs, including some sexual innuendo in “Talk Dirty To Me,” their power ballad trumps their entire career. So while “Every Rose has Its Thorn” might be the definitive song of the hair band era, Poison is not the definitive band.
It couldn’t be a band that existed outside of the hair band era (see: Crue, Motley; Jovi, Bon). It had to be a band with both rockers and power ballads, preferably in equal number. In fact, if the band could only have two hits, one of each style, that would be ideal.
Substantial attention was given to Whitesnake. Tawny Kitaen on the hood of a car was enough to put them into second place. The problem with Whitesnake is that their two songs are effectively both power ballads. Sure, “Here I Go Again” speeds up as the song goes along, a la “Stairway to Heaven,” but it still doesn’t quite qualify as a straight-up rocker. “Sister Christian” speeds up, too, but we all know that’s a power ballad, right?
Wait, did I just put “Here I Go Again” and “Stairway to Heaven” in the same sentence? Yep. You’re welcome, Pete Townshend.
So Whitesnake is damned close, but not quite there. The definitive hair band, though, shares the first letter, W.
Just kidding. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.
The definitive hair band is, in fact, Warrant.
“Who is Warrant?” you might ask. Unless you were between the ages of ten and thirty in 1988, you might not have heard of them. As it should be. Because if you weren’t between those ages in that year, you don’t really understand hair bands.
Warrant only had two hits. Their first one, “Heaven,” was a power ballad, complete with oddly homoerotic concert footage in the video. Nobody ever found that stuff odd at the time, but it was in a lot of videos. It’s not gay if the four shirtless dudes spooning each other on the stage are wearing spandex, right?
But the song that really helped this band define a movement was their second song, “Cherry Pie.” If there was a checklist for a hair band rocker, this would tick all the boxes. Sexual innuendo? Check. Video with scantily-clad blonde? Yep. Sprayed with a hose? Absolutely. With a slice of cherry pie emulating her pubic region? Naturally.
It should come as no surprise that “Cherry Pie” was released in late 1990 and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” came out in 1991. Once a pinnacle has been reached, it’s time to move on to the next mountain. Disco hit right after “Hotel California,” too.
So there you have it. Thank you for listening to my dissertation.
Where do I pick up my PhD?