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I Got Bangs! The Ultimate Aesthetic Power Move

Anne T. Donahue on the life-changing (or life-ruining) power of a certain haircut

Two weeks ago, Rihanna got bangs.

Bangs are a life-changing choice. For us normals, they require upkeep, commitment, and a deep examination of who one is and who one wants to be. They’re dependent on season and face shape; they’re the safest way to signal a life change without venturing too far from familiarity. One winter, I cut blunt bangs to success, but summer humidity led to disaster. This is because bangs make and/or break you. They are, at one point or another, something to be survived.

Unless you aren’t a normal at all.

For famouses — or people with access to money — bangs are but a small life phase. While the rest of us will spend months growing out something we once foolishly thought would set us free, pop stars treat bangs like we treat new lipstick: a temporary add-on to be jettisoned on a whim. Bangs are just a glorified accessory, and a reality we will never know. When Rihanna originally debuted bangs back in May, she earned praise and exclamations for her bold, new look — what we all hope for when taking the plunge. Meanwhile, Selena Gomez used hers to assert a grown-ass musical persona in the wake of her new album, and then like Rihanna, disappeared them as quickly as they came.

Bangs have always been more than a haircut. Baby bangs defined 1950s pop and pin-up culture, even if their lasting effects were wildly different: wearers like Skeeter Davis and Sandra Dee used theirs to personify teen innocence, while Bettie Paige equated them to her overt brand of sexuality.

This split continued into the next few years as the sixties delivered bangs-as-rebellion. Artists who defined themselves by counter culture (like Jane Birkin, Francoise Hardy, Nico, and Patti Smith) left their hair straight-ish and wispy, with their bangs usually parted in the middle. Alternately, universally accessible artists (like Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, and even Ronnie Spector) coupled their highly sprayed bangs with beehives and curls, capitalizing on the glamour and stereotypical femininity of the decade before it gave way to the You Do You vibe of the 1970s and then the excess (and whatever-the-shit-was-happening) of the 1980s.

But the divide returned for the '90s and made bangs even more complex. Courtney Love resurrected baby bang greatness (coupled with babydoll dresses) in the same subversive way as Bettie Paige, while Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton kept hers light and wispy with pigtails and no hint of irony. (See: Sandra Dee.) Meanwhile, artists like All Saints and Christina Aguilera kept their bangs center-parted and natural-looking (like the late '60s/early '70s), while Mariah Carey sprayed hers to high heavens, keeping that glamour alive.

It was Carey who laid the groundwork for the bang disposability of the 2000s and 2010s. While the '90s saw a wee Mariah proudly display curly bangs, the new millennium gave rise to her straightening them, side-sweeping them, and eventually growing them out (freeing herself of them forever). But what Mariah put down, artists like Britney Spears picked up, especially as she began using bangs as an accessory instead of a life choice.

Using Baby One More Time… as a non-ironic wink to innocence, the singer played up her schoolgirl aesthetic and coupled her bangs with pigtails and headbands, before abandoning them for blonde extensions and a more mature sophomore release. Bangs became co-stars in her constant state of reinvention. As Britney’s personal life began to garner more attention, she began to play with hairstyles, lengths, and colors more and more, never settling on one for long before abandoning ship to start anew.

Bangs became less about being divided into two camps (sexy/innocent, hip/not) and more about bangs-as-a-quick fix. Brit wasn’t the first to pioneer this mind-set, but her very public on-and-off relationship with bangs — and ways to wear them — helped establish the look as an extension of dress-up and less of an identity. Or, more specifically: highlighted the way those with access to stylists, wigs, clip-ins, and extensions have more hair freedom than the rest of us. Jennifer Lopez was well into the 2000s before she embraced bang life, and she continues to couple them with '70s-esque layers to raise her levels of glamour. She & Him's Zooey Deschanel uses her perma-bangs to cultivate an ultra-feminine '60s folk feel, coupled with tea dresses, ballet flats, and a ukulele. And then there’s Taylor Swift: an artist who uses her bangs as a costume, clinging to the innocence they once evoked. In February, she kept them business blunt while sweeping the Grammys, while in 2014 she swept off to the side to mark her transition from country to pop (Red to 1989). She returned to waves in the aftermath of July’s Snapchat shame, arguably as a means of showcasing her her innocence even more. Like Skeeter Davis, Nancy Sinatra, Baby Spice, and even Zooey Deschanel, Swift’s bangs reflect something bigger: In her case, it’s a calculated whole, accessorized by J.Crew and Tom Hiddleston.

Where Taylor Swift uses her bangs as a glorified squad member, artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé use theirs as an accessory because, well, they can. As a regular person sitting and writing this (hi!), I know that at no point could any of us sit in a stylist’s chair and ask for “The Beyoncé” or “The Rihanna” — particularly because they’ve never had one hairstyle long enough to necessitate it becoming a trademark. For artists like them, bangs reflect a penchant for risks or changing shit up: as in, they’ll try something, move on, and try again. Ariana Grande broke from her traditional look and got bangs two weeks ago, or like Selena, whose bangs (RIP) arguably alluded to a Justin Bieber–free phase of life. But while anyone who gets bangs is ultimately kickstarting a new, higher-maintenance way of life, the message is even louder if the wearer is on the world’s stage. They’re the symbol of new life, big transitions; of innocence and of sexuality. They’re a costume, a face-changer, and a catalyst for regret. Whether or not you can clip them in or take them out, all bangs signal a shift: one of sound, image, lifestyle, or public relations nightmare.