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That Hair: The Enduring Legacy Of The Pop Boy Swoosh

Has Justin Bieber made a grave error by cutting off his luxurious locks?

My baby boy Justin Bieber has been having a hard time, and it’s time to recognize that it's all his hair’s fault.

Or the lack thereof, specifically. Since shaving his head, Bieber has spiraled on social media. Then, last week in Saskatoon, he fell through the stage. And on Sunday night, he was accused of "sleepwalking" through a concert in Minneapolis, as if he was really and truly over it. Could it be any clearer? In short, the hair maketh the man. And while we all learned that from the tale of Samson, it’s a rule that’s never applied more than it does now in today's Pop Boy™ landscape.

We give no less than one million (1,000,000) fucks about the hair of famous male singers. We combusted at first viewings of Harry Styles's Dunkirk locks. We accepted Zayn’s assertion of solo-dom upon recognizing his penchant for buzzing and dyeing his (formerly) 1D-sanctioned tresses. And when Bieber began wearing dreadlocks in April, each and every one of us fought the urge to join hands and walk stoically into the sea. All of this makes perfect sense when contemplating the unique aesthetics of Teen Dreamboats. Hair is a currency, and to break from it is to launch into adulthood, leaving who they were behind.

But it’s not just any type of hair: I’m talking about swooshy hair, voluminous hair, hair that winks back. Hair that never lasts, but, like the lost romance in a Taylor Swift song, visits us in our dreams. Hair reserved only for male pop stars, Devon Sawa in the 1990s, and Leonardo DiCaprio pre-1998. (And maybe that one guy in your eighth-grade class who burned down a townhouse, but whose hair made it OK for some reason.) That hair.

That hair has existed ever since mainstream pop stars found their faces plastered on lunch boxes and bedroom walls. Elvis Presley’s 1950s pomp impressed not just his female fanbase, but Uncle Jesse in Full House (whose own hair was swoosh-worthy, despite him being a "rock star" — and also 20 years older than everybody watching). The Beatles’ grown-out locks enchanted their fans from the early 1960s through their transition into hippiedom and well into the 1970s. Not to mention Shaun Cassidy, The Monkees, and Donny Osmond, artists whose hair was long enough to pique interest, but not long enough to catapult them into rebellious Zeppelin territory. Length has always been key, but not so much length as to risk making anybody look "badass."

There have been other historical approaches to swoosh. As longer hair oozed into the 1980s mainstream, pop sensations like Rick Springfield (believe it), Menudo, and Duran Duran dialed it down, maintaining some of the length of the ’70s but cropping their hair just enough to seem clean-cut and approachable to parents (despite suggesting to fans that they were the opposite). Think Jake from Sixteen Candles: You wanted to run your hands through his perfectly styled ’do, but you knew you never could. These boys were but a dream — boys you projected your hopes/dreams/unrealistically high expectations on. To touch their hair would have been to shatter an illusion. The swoosh was an indicator of imperfection — it told us that they were normal. If their hair could fall (even a little bit), so could they. But they were never normal, and we never wanted them to be. If they were real, they could let us down.

That's easy to say now. We, as a society, didn't figure it out until well after the 1980s, when New Kids on the Block borrowed a little from Elvis and a smidge from Zack Morris to deliver both volume and length which, coupled with their flannels and baggy pants, made it seem possible for Top 40 pop to be ... yes ... badass.

And by "badass," I do mean "increasingly sexual." NKOTB, with their tank tops and their abs, ushered in the boy band aesthetic of the 1990s — a decade ripe with adult males parading as teens, men who sang in the rain with their shirts open while begging us all to fall in love with them. This worked, if only to an extent: Upon the release of Backstreet Boys’ 1996 self-titled debut, the only member whose hair seemed remotely swoosh-able was the act's youngest, Nick Carter. Parted in the middle and long like Leo’s, his hair bridged the gap between film, music, history, and our own expectations, evoking a look best defined as "bad-boy-within-reason," since we now know how much upkeep an undercut truly requires.

Carter's modified swoosh stood in stark contrast to the hair of his rival, Justin Timberlake of NSYNC. Where Nick’s long, blond hair required frequent nonchalant flips (think Bryan La Croix), Justin’s curls were caked in product, therefore allowing them to move independently from each other — like a bowl of wet noodles. By doing this, he split the realms between pop hair personas. On the one hand, there was hair that saw minimal upkeep, evoking the laissez-faire attitude of mid-’90s rock and/or roll (Nick). On the other, there was an awareness of upkeep that made Justin seem glamorous — but still masculine enough to win the affections of Britney Spears.

Then he went solo and shaved it all off, like another Justin we know.

Of course, Justin Bieber has always been solo, but to abandon the tresses that helped catapult one to stardom is a permanent choice. Sure, you can shave your head. You can be a grown-up like Justin Timberlake or Zayn — but with great hair comes great responsibility, and you can never go home again. When we first met Justin Bieber, his swooshy hair was entwined with his persona. In his first attempt to be grown-up, he cut it a little differently, as though presenting himself as part of a pop star cotillion. (Only to rebel to the point of nearly losing his career, and then returning with the Nick Carter Special.) That was fine, and we all survived.

Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FOX via Getty Images

But to shave it off — to abandon the swoosh entirely — is the equivalent of moving out of your childhood home and trying to make it on your own, only to find out your parents have sold their house and moved away entirely. When Timberlake did it, he was ready: He’d laid the groundwork, then collaborated with Pharrell Williams to ensure his place in the quickly evolving landscape of Y2K-era pop. Zayn’s departure from boy band life had also been a long time coming, with more than a million rumors circulating amid missed performances and his so-called hiatus. Hell, Harry Styles only abandoned his swooshable locks for a Christopher Nolan film, ensuring his next step would at least be paved with a reasonable paycheck. But should Bieber have done it? Could Shawn Mendes or James Bay do the same?

Not when they still need it. Not when any of their personas and music are just as attached to their hair as their actual scalps are. Not when they’re still precious baby deers learning to walk. Not when they’re not 100 percent calling the shots. And while Bieber’s a veteran of this industry, his latest escapades tell us he’s still a precious darling fawn, battling the trials and tribulations he may still need his hair for. Then again, only time will tell. If Timberlake could grow his hair back, maybe, just maybe, The Other Justin can, too.