Re-Reviews: Evolving With Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair”

Our relationship with art changes over time. In our instantaneous iPhone age, we don’t live with albums or movies or TV shows or books like we used to. With Re-Reviews, we re-explore our relationship with a piece of pop culture — and how that relationship evolves over time. We dismiss some art unfairly — or prematurely. Perhaps certain songs or bits of dialogue didn’t resonate because of our mood or our position in life. On the other hand, perhaps our adoration of some childhood favorite is clouded by nostalgia. Does this even matter?

It’s books now, but for months, all my son wanted at bedtime was a song. My wife would sing lullabies like “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I took my turn with him as an opportunity to introduce him to the music that I love and begin to cultivate his taste. “Hey Jude” was an early favorite of ours. He liked the childlike simplicity of the lyrics, and I liked the extended outro that I could stretch out as long as it took for him to fall asleep.

I’ve long considered musical taste to be a matter of paying attention. I didn’t begrudge those who stopped by my record store in the late ’90s to buy the latest Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind CDs. I assumed these people were passively receiving music rather than seeking it out and when they listened to it, they didn’t really hear it – even if the songs cycled through the radio airwaves every 40 minutes. I, on the other hand, listened deliberately. I took my time. And this ability to patiently focus on the music allowed me access to a more difficult and challenging (and thereby rewarding) strata of music unavailable to people who had to squeeze in a visit to the record store on the way home from work. Music without depth didn’t matter if you never had the time to fully explore it. I didn’t have much of a life in those days, but – as I told myself, at least – I did have good taste.

One evening a few months ago, I put on Pavement’s 1994 album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain while I swept up the kitchen after dinner. My son and his younger sister skipped around my dust pile in wide, loping circles, their arms pumping up and down as if they were throwing tiny handfuls of confetti in the air. “Cut Your Hair” came on, and my son began to sing along. “The Haircut Song,” as he calls it, was a new addition to our bedtime playlist. When he blissfully belted out “hesitate to die,” my wife shot me a sharp look. I set my broom aside and joined in with the kids, dancing and singing about a drowning drummer survived by his cell phone until the irrepressibly catchy nonsense-word chorus came in and I finally answered the disapproving stare my dancing had failed to dislodge. “He said ‘hesitate to dye,’ like hesitate to dye his hair. The song is about a haircut after all.” She looked back at me incredulously and resumed washing the dishes.

Once the kids were tucked snugly into bed and even more songs had been sung, I reexamined the lyrics of “Cut Your Hair,” trying to convince myself that ‘die’ and ‘dye’ were both defensible readings. For the first time, I closely considered the words I’d memorized so many years ago, and all at once the song broke open for me. Dye and die, career and Korea, lie and line – Stephen Malkmus employed these moments of ambiguity throughout to dally on the edge of meaning, all the while pushing the listeners to puzzle out the small differences for themselves.

In the second verse, Malkmus pairs homonyms with abrupt contradictions, singing, “I remember lying / I don’t remember a line / I don’t remember a word / but I don’t care / I care / I really don’t care.” In so doing, he remembers and he doesn’t remember. He cares and he doesn’t care, mirroring the capriciousness and passivity of audiences that sends the next big thing tumbling down the charts as quickly as they had rocketed up them. The second verse ends with Malkmus rhyming “I really don’t care” with “Did you see the drummer’s hair,” a damning critique of the perpetuation of style over substance.

In “Range Life,” the second single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Malkmus calls out The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots by name. In both cases, he dismisses the bands not for their music but for their carefully tended images. It’s not a stretch to read “Cut Your Hair” as yet another song from the album that is openly critical of the celebrated buzz bands of the era. However, Pavement’s own rise in popularity at the time of the album’s release complicates the interpretation.

Although technically released on the fiercely independent Matador Records, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was Pavement’s first album to enjoy the distribution power of the decidedly corporate WEA (Warner Elektra Atlantic) machine. The record was expected to introduce the underground darlings to a more mainstream audience. Pavement might not have liked to consider the bands touted as the next big thing as contemporaries, but widespread distribution, a new drummer with a more subdued approach, and a clean-sounding recording was about to make it difficult for casual music fans (read: ones without good taste) not paying as close attention as I was to see the difference between Pavement and Gin Blossoms. “Cut Your Hair,” as the song’s first single, sought to clarify that distinction for them.

The song has yet another type of listener in mind — their own fans who might have a problem with Pavement’s entry into the mainstream. There’s a palpable disdain for both of these kinds of fans throughout, satirizing those who tell others what to do with their hair but still enjoy a “pretty nice hair cut” themselves or who shrug off deeper analysis because the “drummer’s hair” is so enchanting. In the last verse, Malkmus sings flatly the song’s most direct message, “songs are bought and so are you.” To music fans ready to cry “sell out!” due to Pavement’s greater exposure and for those ready to embrace them for the standard 15 minutes and no longer, “Cut Your Hair” is a cutting rejoinder — an anti-single that functions as an anthem of disavowal of their own fame and reminds fans of their own complicity in a music industry that fosters reactive, passive listening.

In blurring his critique between other groups and fans alike, Malkmus demonstrates the lack of substantive difference between bands that achieve commercial success and those that don’t. The two are, like the closely paired words, only a hair’s breadth apart, and the reason isn’t as simple or convenient as mere talent. Producers, advertisers and other cultivators of image also have their fingers on the scales, and Malkmus, unnerved by the critical attention and worried about what success might mean, was uneasy about the way in which Pavement hung in the balance.

In his essay “The Taj Mahal,” Salman Rushdie writes of his initial difficulty in seeing past the abundance of readings of the Taj Mahal – from World’s Greatest Monument to Love to Western symbol of the exotic, timeless Orient – that have been peddled, exaggerated and reproduced broadly to tourists looking to check off an item on their bucket list. The experience these visitors sought had already been carefully packaged and merchandised for their quick consumption.

It’s the same (tourist) trap I had fallen into with Pavement. Even though I think of myself of someone who pays attention to music, up until recently I had been listening to Pavement through a prescribed reading of my own taste. I thought of the band as “good” music, the kind of music that rewarded careful listening, and treated it as such. But just as my wife was an audience I forgot about during my kitchen sing-along with my son, I also forgot that there was a whole audience who Pavement was anticipating hearing the song. By giving the band a pass on their modest, incipient fame and the conflict it might cause, I failed to grasp the full scope of the song’s defensiveness and hostility.

For Rushdie, the moment of understanding only happened when he stood “in the presence of the thing-in-itself” and truly saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, as it was, separate and apart from its “accumulated meanings.” For me, it took hearing “Cut Your Hair” as a parent to a young child, one who doesn’t see a difference between Tom Waits and Old MacDonald, to finally listen carefully enough to hear the whole song for what it really was — a lament on the commodification of taste. As such, I recognize my teenage self as one of the listeners Malkmus was accusing of being bought.


Pavement Band

In high school, a sprawling new Kroger grocery store opened in the hip, urbane section of East Dallas, and I soon took to referring to it as the Taj MaKroger. It was pristine and stocked with expensive specialty goods my neighborhood grocers didn’t carry. The massive parking lot framed the store’s facade similarly to the way the gardens stretch out before the temple in its most iconic photographs. On two or three occasions, I enlisted two of my friends to join me in staging a mild prank there. We’d wander around for a while, pretending to shop and then, sensing each other’s restlessness and nervousness, lock arms and skip through its wide aisles bellowing “Cut Your Hair,” brand new at the time, at the top of our lungs. As an act of teenage defiance goes, it was pretty tame, but I’d like to believe that I picked that song for the soundtrack to our teenage hijinks because on some subconscious level I understood that “Cut Your Hair” was a snarling call to look beyond calculated, market-tested appearances and see the music for what it truly was and that a gaudy temple to consumption was an appropriate place to stage a protest.

But I probably didn’t.

If Malkmus is correct that there are only the smallest of differences between the music that matters and the music that’s celebrated (and I don’t think he’d argue they are mutually exclusive terms), then my son, at three years old, is simply too young to understand the difference. I was, regrettably, too young to understand it as a teenager. Let him enjoy “Twinkle Twinkle.” For one, I don’t have to concoct tortuous explanations meant to protect him from the world of adulthood before it’s appropriate with such songs. For another, I wouldn’t be cultivating his taste anyway; I’d simply be asking him to memorize one catchy tune or set of lyrics over another.

If he is going to develop good taste, it – by my own definition – can’t be received from me. It has to come from his own close attention to the music. The best thing I can do for him is to help him love music and prompt him to pay attention to the reasons why he does. If I can do that, he’ll have far better taste than me; he’ll have the taste I once gave myself credit for.

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