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Blonde Ambition: How Male Pop Stars Use Hair Dye To Signal Rebirth And Renewal

Why Justin Bieber, Zayn Malik, and more respect the power of bleach

Nothing marks evolution like the power of bleach. As most of us know firsthand (and all of us have seen in pop culture), transformation through boxed dye, highlights, lowlights, and Kool-Aid have marked rebrands and life stages, ushering in 2.0 versions of pop stars with their new-and-improved fresh coats of paint.

This is especially true if it's at the hands — or on the head — of a guy.

If Justin Bieber has taught us anything in the last two years (and believe me, he has), it's that to bleach is to be born again — to become a blank slate for projecting our own washed-out fantasies onto. Bleach erases mistakes, a purification by chemical. Bleach is a statement, but more specifically, it’s one we think we’ve already figured out. Which is why we don’t tend to ask most guys about their hair: We acknowledge the change, we nod as if we understand, and then we assume exactly what the wearer is trying to say.

When Bieber went blonde in December 2014, my precious son abandoned his virgin locks as a way of assuming a new-and-improved alternative identity. He was hot off a lengthy apology tour, desperate to assert himself as a relevant artist who had outgrown his PG roots, yet also one who wasn't going to pee in any more buckets or anything. More recently, this move was mimicked by Zayn when he left One Direction, buzzed his hair, and later dyed it blonde as he launched what he repeatedly reminded us was a far more adult brand of solo work. Frank Ocean bleached his hair before dying it green — all before dropping Blond (!!!), an album that marks his metamorphosis into an even more mature artist. Hell, even Tyga went blonde earlier this year after breaking up with Kylie Jenner. Life overhaul, thy name is bleach.

There’s a caveat to this rule: Age before bleached beauty. Upon the release of “I Want You Back” in January 1998, former Disney star Justin Timberlake waved goodbye to his kid-friendly legacy by capitalizing on his natural blondeness with bleach galore. But it was only a phase. Within a few years, with Timberlake distancing himself from *NSYNC and edging toward solo stardom, he pulled a reverse Zayn and buzzed his head before foregoing all dye and easing into dad-like splendor. In his case, bleach-as-transformational-tool had an expiration date.

That’s because if you’re a grown-ass man, you’re not supposed to rely on your hair to declare who you are. When Adam Levine and Pete Wentz went blonde in 2014, both were in the midst of new-ish life phases (see: The Voice and Fall Out Boy's reunion), and they quickly left behind their new blonde locks once they committed to these adult ventures. Similarly, My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way made a public announcement in 2013 upon leaving his bleached hair in youthful memory, while Eminem — the former poster boy for every bleached-haired dude in my high school — made a point of reverting back to basic brown when he relaunched his career circa 2009's Relapse.

These rules are hugely limiting for male artists, especially when you compare their relationship to bleach with that of their female counterparts. Blondeness has become a symbol for youthful male beginnings, but we’ve witnessed the vast complexities behind a woman’s choice to bleach it up. This year, we saw Taylor Swift go ultra edgy and light prior to breaking up with Calvin Harris and the release of “This Is What You Came For,” before reverting back to her natural Red-era (read: innocent) tone. Alternately, Miranda Lambert went platinum after her divorce from Blake Shelton. Meanwhile, in May, Miley Cyrus took to Instagram to elaborate on her relationship with bleach and dye, and the way her frequent color changes were ultimately just a form of self-obsession, and how nothing really matters, man.

And for female artists who bleach their hair, it doesn’t have to. Beyoncé’s hair has gone from brown to blonde at a whim, while Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Rita Ora have consistently played with color and style as casually as most of us play with lipstick. Arguably, hair color is the rare realm in which women in music aren’t as closely scrutinized as their male contemporaries. Blonde hair is the first tell before a man undergoes a massive life overhaul; for women, hair color change is marketed to us from puberty.

Aside from bleach providing a blank slate, there’s still a ton of room left for us to determine what blondified hair really means. Since it can really mean almost anything, we’re the ones who tend to project aesthetic narratives onto the wearer. Bleached hair had roots (#LOL) in punk before making its way into 1980s pop through Madonna and Boy George; from there, it became a marker for rebellion in grunge before nestling into happy highlight territory circa Y2K. It’s also steeped in glamour, thanks to Marilyn Monroe and her Old Hollywood contemporaries, has gone on to connote high fashion risk-taking via Kim Kardashian West, and has become the Super-Dad calling card for dudes like Guy Fieri (whose bleach is his “wild and crazy guy” trademark).

Despite its complexities, there’s a reason that bleach most often functions as a slate-cleaner, whether in appearance (#makeover) or intentions (“I’m new!”). Regardless of how we spin it, blonde succeeds at erasing the past so the wearer can take on a new identity. But when it comes to men specifically, we fixate on their hair because we’re not used to seeing them embrace such huge aesthetic changes, period. To bleach is to transcend any and all looks by absorbing them — not just a grand gesture but also an artistic statement. It’s a fresh page, a new canvas. It’s the fastest way for men to reset while still telling us that they’re bold enough to do something drastic. And then after they get sick of it, they shave it off and start again.