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What Is Hair Metal?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Hair metal is a sub-genre of music that falls under the pop or rock category. It became very popular, especially in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but began to lose popularity by the early to mid 1990s. It was characterized by the unusual look of the performers, who often sought a glam look by growing long hair and teasing it out, wearing makeup, and putting on flamboyant outfits. The sound of hair metal is generally characterized by heavy guitar riffs and fast solos; songs are generally quite loud and aggressive, though many bands did feature some ballads as well.

Hair metal music was mostly geared toward younger listeners, and the lyrics of many songs were overtly sexual, mostly in keeping with the overall stylings of the genre. The combination of loud, heavy music with overt theatrics on stage made the genre very popular throughout the 1980s, and much of the clothing style as well as the general pop culture in the 1980s derived from hair metal. While the genre found its roots in punk music, hair metal was generally its own distinct musical styling that focused on power chords and howling guitar solos.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Many hair metal bands were as noted for their off-stage antics as they were for their on-stage presence. The rough, hard drinking and partying lifestyle became the defining characteristic of the hair band rock star, and band members tended to relish in their fame. While this was hardly a new theme, hair metal bands tended to take excesses to the extreme, and stories of these excessive lifestyles often became part of the lore of the hair band.

The genre began to decline in the early 1990s with the advent of grunge alternative music. The theatrical style began to be replaced with a more angst-ridden performance style, and less emphasis was placed on overt sexuality; indeed, even the epicenter of popular rock music seemed to shift from Los Angeles, where hair bands thrived, to Seattle, where the new grunge scene was being born. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam replaced hair metal favorites such as Van Halen and Motley Crue as the front runners of pop music, though the most popular hair bands did persist through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Many even experienced a revival of popularity in the early 2000s, though the genre as a whole declined in favor of other, newer genres popular among a new generation.

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      Man playing a guitar