What was named by The Beastie Boys, banned by the Iranian government, and thrust into popular culture with the help of Billy Ray Cyrus? No, it’s not Hanna Montana, the teen sitcom about Cyrus’ multi-talented daughter, Miley. Although that would involve an interesting explanation, particularly the Iran part. The answer is the mullet. A bygone hairstyle that’s short on the sides and top, and long at the back. Over the years, the look has defined the image of countless pop icons. More recently, I’ve started rocking the mullet as a bulwark against impending adulthood.
A tightly-buzzed dome with a dangling blonde mudflap at the back, my mullet is glorious. Or at least I think so. In New York, where I live, mullets are decidedly not in style. They’re considered uncouth and tacky. When I started growing my hair earlier this year, I understood the negative perception surrounding the trim, but I’ve been somewhat surprised by people’s response. Recently, disgusted by my haircut and its potential impact on my employability, my sister booked me a haircut and pre-paid, assuming I wouldn’t renege. Of course, I did.
The hairdo can be traced back to Ancient Rome. Early civilizations likely used the short in the front, long in the back arrangement to keep their necks warm and dry while clearing their line of sight for battle. The term “mullet” wasn’t popularized until 1994, when The Beastie Boys used it in their little-known track, Mullet Head. (Mike D is widely credited for coining the term.) In the song, the word was used as an epithet to mock the hairstyle and other tokens of the ‘80s.
“You’re coming off like you’re Van Damme/You’ve got Kenny G, in your Trans Am… Put your Oakleys and your stone wash on/Watching MTV and you mosh on… Cut the sides, don’t touch the back” are some of the lyrics. The band later double-down on their mullet obsession with a three-page spread in their short-lived magazine, Grand Royal. In an article called Mulling Over The Mullet, they identify the symbolic and psychic benefits of the hairstyle.
“Conceptually, the Mullet is as much a state of mind as it is a haircut,” it read, in part. “The Mullet is favored by those adult personages who wish to kick out the jams weekends but stay out of jams on weekdays.”
I love the “business in the front, party in the back” coiffure because it strikes the perfect balance between partying and professionalism, an essential duality for anyone bridging the gap between party-filled post-adolescence and evening news adulthood. Which I am. I recently graduated with a masters’ in magazine writing from NYU and I’m facing increasing pressure to enter the workforce. I’m desperately rejecting the transition into working life, clinging to the creativity and autonomy that gets sapped by a 9-5. My mullet is a physical manifestation of that protest.
The mullet has always been something of a mission statement. David Bowie sported an orangutan-orange head ornament to affirm his androgynous, gender-blurring Ziggy Stardust persona; tennis player Andre Agassi wore his fluffed-poodle mop as a middle finger to the country club establishment; Joe Dirt, the lovesick redneck played by David Spade, needed a mullet wig because the top of his head never formed as a baby, which to me is a protest against his damn skull. For me, the mullet is a protest against corporate conformity.
But fully understanding my mullet involves some personal anthropology, among other things. Calgary, AB, where I grew up, sits at the intersection of two mullet-positive domains: cowboy and hockey culture. In high school, my friends and I grew mullets, which usually flowed out from underneath our Toronto Blue Jays ball caps. I’m not sure if we grasped the concept of irony at that time. I suppose our mullets were a bit of cheekiness crossbred with group signifying.
In North America, from the late ‘80s onward, the mullet became symbolic of the rural working-class ethos, largely through the aesthetic of popular country music. The Kentucky Waterfall, yet another name for the mullet, is nearly synonymous with culture in the southern United States. Calgary, a prairie city with a strong history of agriculture and ranching, shares this identity. For example, The Calgary Stampede, the city’s biggest annual event, features a big-money rodeo and A-list country acts. Mullets are a trademark of the 10-day romp, much like Wrangler jeans and crushed Budweiser cans.
Hockey holds a near-mythical place in Canadiana. The Calgary Flames haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1989, but the local devotion remains fervent. Much like how NBA or NFL styles trickle-down to influence American culture, in Canada, we’re similarly influenced by our NHL heroes. Puck players have a reputation for growing their “flow,” as hair is known in hockey parlance, so there’s a compulsion for youngsters to don the haircut, too. The best example of hockey hair is the eternally youthful Czechoslovakian winger, Jaromir Jagir, who had the Platonic ideal of a mullet during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In some ways, I’m using the mullet to cling to my youth. The hairstyle certainly helps improve the appearance of my male pattern baldness. At 21, an age when men are ill-prepared to confront their vanity, my hairline started to retreat. Balding has its merits, of course, but since then, I’ve mostly hidden my withering follicles underneath hats. By tightly cropping the top and letting the back run wild, the mullet accentuates the areas where my hair remains lustrous. When I wear a newsboy cap, an homage to my Scottish roots, I feel particularly virile, since passerby assume I’m a man with a thick shock of blonde hair.
The mullet could also be a defense mechanism, a petty attempt to suspend the carelessness of my 20s. It could be that I’m just afraid to start taking things seriously. Easier to wear a joke-y, ironic haircut, pretend that I’m not interested in success, claim that I’m protesting “corporate conformity” rather than face reality. Perhaps, after graduating, my idealism is at a loggerhead with reality. Maybe I’m scared and frustrated. Maybe I’m just rejecting the establishment before it can do the same with me.
Update: I recently got a job. Prior to the interview, I cut the mullet. This is probably symbolic of my foray into adulthood. Or perhaps it was some sort of concession to corporate tyranny. Depends how you frame it, I guess.