What makes “Cut Your Hair” so great? We’ll take a look at how an atypical unbalanced chord structure and playful thematic lyrics work together to make this song a true 90’s “slacker” classic.
Pavement is a revered 90’s band. But, I think they have five or six great songs and a bunch of just OK songs. However, those great songs are truly great, and as most casual-at-best Pavement fans would agree, “Cut Your Hair” is one of the hits. This song captures that hyper-intelligent slacker feeling we associate with both Pavement and the 90s, but is also unbelievably catchy with its “oooh-oooh” vocals and semi-familiar chord changes.
Great songs often start with a great first line and this song delivers:
Darling, don’t you go and cut your hair
Do you think it’s gonna make him change?
At first it seems like Stephen Malkmus is talking about relationships – the most relatable topic of all. However, the rest of song is really discussing the importance (or lack of importance) of image, especially in terms of trying to obtain success in music. Cleverly, the first line works in both settings. And of course if you say that image doesn’t matter, you are actually creating a certain image of yourself – a recurring theme of the 90s. Pavement was likely wrestling with the fame and image issue at the time of this song, so it makes sense they would address this topic.
Giving weight to lyrics is all about setting them up properly. Here, Malkmus does this by using a mix of occasional randomness that later converges to support his point. Besides the opening lines the first verse is relatively vague. However, the second verse is suddenly very specific in addressing the “music scene.” He’s seeing bands and not remembering anything, but then asks (or someone asks, as the song seems to mix the voice of the speaker), “did you see the drummer’s hair?” – bringing back the hair theme in a crafty way. This time we view the musician’s image from the audience’s perspective. For Malkmus, it’s this mix of randomness and specificity that adds weight to his ultimate point about image. Finally, Malkmus hammers the true theme home by repeating the topic of what the song is really about: “career.”
The lyrics are good; but from a songwriting perspective, I think the really interesting aspect of this song is the music. Musically, this song sounds both familiar and unsettling. But, what is unsettling about it? The main chord progression throughout is D – C – G – Em – G – Em with each chord getting two beats. This means the whole song is actually built on a 6-bar phrase (or 3-bar if you prefer to think of it that way). Even further, the song never leaves this structure to go into more comfortable and even 4 or 8 bar phrases, even during the guitar solo. Both players and listeners are uncomfortable with such uneven phrases, so this unbalanced feel tests the nerve of the listener as well as the skill of the band. And of course that guitar solo, in true 90s fashion is highly simplistic. One way to uphold that slacker image was to never show off your guitar chops (unless you are J. Mascis).
Next, it’s not immediately clear what key this song is in, again leading to that unsettling feeling. That chord progression on paper suggests G major. However, the unbalanced phrase and lack of a familiar resolving cadence keeps it ambiguous and keeps the momentum constantly rolling. Listening to the chord progression with the melody, the D chord sounds more like home; but I’ll leave it to you decide. And considering the song as a whole, the uneven feel, but continued momentum, paired with the ambiguous chord changes supports the lyrical theme of the contradiction between musician and image.
From the topic of image and career and sarcastic lines in the lyrics, to the unsettling chord changes and simplistic guitar solos, to the fact that Pavement never really got huge, it contains a slew of 90s alterna-rock hallmarks. While “Cut Your Hair” was not a huge radio hit, this song is quintessential 90s.
Now, did I miss anything?