One Track Minded | Pavement took on a phony scene and desperate commercialism with ‘Cut Your Hair’

If you consider yourself a music fan at all and spent any time on the Twittersphere last month, you’d have been hard pressed to have avoided the social media “fallout” that followed Johnny Borrell’s quite funny Noisey interview in which the former Razorlight frontman offered a scathing deconstruction of the era in which he peaked.

Borrell candidly serves up the “definitive history of landfill Indie”, even going as far as to state that his own band’s ninth single ‘Before I Fall To Pieces’ “totally fucked it up for everyone”. As if anyone thought the survival of an entire genre hinged on the shoulders of the fucking lads who gave us feathery-soft rock earworm ‘America’. Admittedly, Borrell is being playfully hyperbolic and his musings can be surprisingly revealing about an increasingly disregarded period for rock.

The best part though, was the #indieamnesty hashtag that began trending online with many closeted noughties fans emerging from the woodwork and expressing their repressed guilt through bitesize anecdotes of their misinformed fandom. On Twitter, people revealed landfill secrets like “lost a trilby at Bambyshambles gig” and “sung along to The Others’ ‘This Is For The Poor’. Wasn’t poor”. Not me though, I came out of my mother’s womb already obsessed with Galaxie 500 B-sides and fretting about the break-up of Talking Heads. I, did, however, have a ‘friend’ who may have had The Fratellis’ ‘Chelsea Dagger’ set as their Bebo flash box. Still though, is this near universal cringing fair? Does a decade’s worth of indie deserve to be reduced to a wince-inducing meme?

Another inevitable result of the Johnny Borrell interview was the nostalgic longing for the better days of the early 90’s when rock was a cultural force; authentic and free from the constraints of industry involvement. Of course, this was not strictly or even remotely true and back then, critics were offering the same kind of backlash as Borrell is now. Some unwarranted, some warranted. One of the most creative and scathing assaults on the hypocrisy of the grunge era was found in the form of ‘Cut Your Hair’, Pavement’s minuscule hit of an alt-rock single. At the absurd, ubiquitous heights of guitar rock, Stephen Malkmus and co. weren’t afraid to call the scene out for what it could be – just as vacuous and commercial-driven as any other era that came before or after.

The alt-rock explosion that took place after something called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reached the No 1 spot was unique in how it saw itself. Its followers felt that, for the first time, the mainstream belonged to the ears of its listeners and that they had been rescued from the superficial showmanship of 80s hair metal. The reality, however, was a touch greyer than that. The major labels may have been dumbfounded by this sudden cultural 180 at first, but they soon shifted focus in order to exploit another burgeoning market. Steve Albini, legendary producer and unrelenting cynic, famously wrote an essay in 1993 entitled The Problem with Music that opened with an image of bands voluntarily swimming through a trench “filled with runny, decaying shit”, as they all vie for a major label contract at the far side.

Albini may be about as cheery as a Chernobyl walkabout, but when he’s right, he tends to be very right. Hordes of smaller, now mostly-forgotten bands were being signed and chewed up by the system. The bubble was always going to burst and Pavement knew it. ‘Cut Your Hair’ is a wicked send up to the oxymoron of a concept that is the alternative rock hit. Its simple structure, gloriously goofy “ooh-ooh-ooh”s and mocking chorus make it sound like the pandering audition tape that would by binned by reception at Universal, never to reach even the lowest rung of the A&R department. But there’s a simple reason that ‘Cut Your Hair’ endures so much better than the songs it parodies – Pavement were just that much better than everyone else.

The more conventional jock rock of ‘Cut Your Hair’ may be a marked departure from the crackling lo-fi of Slanted & Enchanted, but Malkmus’ lyricism is just as sardonic, savvy and silly. His words skewer a generation not just for its over-saturation, but also its self-aggrandising. “Bands start up each and every day / I saw another one just the other day / A special new band”. Everyone thought that the groups they saw were the new leaders of a movement, but if they were all ‘special’, then surely none of them were. What irked Malkmus, however, seemed to be the false pretence that it was the music that mattered most.

What he saw around him around him was a culture so intent on appearing anti-image that it became obsessed with image in its own right. He chastises the arbitrary rules that were expected to be followed (“Advertising looks and chops a must / No big hair!”) and the feigned, fashionable apathy (“I don’t care / I don’t care / Did you see the drummer’s hair?”). At one point, Malkmus is also tragically prescient. “Hesitate to die, look around, around / the second drummer’s drowned / His telephone is found”. The line is both a light jibe at the band’s replacement drummer (Bob Nostacovich) and a comment on how music can fetishise the premature deaths of its brightest stars.

‘Cut Your Hair’ was released in February 1994, with Kurt Cobain taking his own life just two months later, giving grunge its own tragic hero to grotesquely mythologise for decades. His final lament of “Attention and fame’s a career” is also especially resonant: I wonder how Malkmus feels about it now, considering we now live in the age of YouTube celebrity and the Kardashians.

It may not the bands best song – hell, it’s not even the best song on Crooked Rain – but I’d be lying if I said it’s undeniably cocky charm doesn’t continue to make me grin. A song chastising the commercialism of the music of its era becomes the closest thing to the hit Pavement would never have and you’d imagine the irony was not lost on the band. Perhaps rather, this was Pavement showing us they could play the game, even when they knew it was rigged. More than anything, the song is proof that every generation has its naysayers. ‘Cut Your Hair’, like Borrell’s interview, only shows one side of an era.

Maybe guitar rock was better in 1994, but to say The Kooks are the face of noughties indie is like saying Spin doctors defined 90s alternative scene. And if Borrell was right, and those mid-2000s works are destined for a landfill, then the existence of something like indieamnesty still demonstrates how value is what you make of it. And anyway, whatever musical era you reside in, Malkmus offers one eternal truth that will always be relevant:

Songs mean a lot, when songs are bought”.

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