By Noel Wurst, Client Services Manager
In my junior year of college, I took the most difficult course I’d ever taken in my life up to that point. It was plainly called “British Poetry” and it was taught by Bishop Hunt, a legendary “breaker of children,” someone to be truly feared. It was in his class that I was first required to practice “explications” – where we were required to convince Professor Hunt that we understood each and every line of an absurdly long and stuffy “classic” British poem by providing in great detail to him, the importance of each one of those lines to the poem as a whole. Not one line could be left out of your explication, no matter how short it was, or unimportant that it seemed.
I hated poetry explications, not because of the work required, but because of the poems on which they had to be performed. These were painfully dull (especially to a 20-year-old) poems by Keats, and Yeats, and Shelley, and Eliot, and so on – though the work itself was challenging, and in a grammar nerd sort of way – kinda fun.
Since I’ll probably never read another poem by any of those guys ever again in my lifetime, but I want to keep my brain nimble, I’ve completed my first poetry explication in 12 years…on the song “Hairdresser” by Lucille Cataldo and made famous on the New York City cable access show Stairway to Stardom…oh, and on Youtube.
Before reading my interpretation (aka SPOT ON nailing of the message in this now classic song) please view Cataldo’s performance, even if you’ve already seen it a thousand times before.
(P.S. – While this was fun, I’ll probably never do it again.)
“Stairway to Stardom” – by Lucille Cataldo
Hairdresser, hairdresser, whoh-oh
Hairdresser, hairdresser, Ohhhh ohh
Cataldo sings adoringly of her hairdresser, the tone in her voice is light and gives the impression that she could be singing this as she walks into her regular hairdresser’s business. She smiles and dances from side to side, playfully.
Hairdresser, would you set me up?
Make a little weave or two
Make me into something new?
‘Cause I am so blue.
Her immediate launch into asking the hairdresser for what she wants is somewhat direct, yet vague. Cataldo gives her the suggestion that she would like “a little weave or two” and with the straight hair that she wears during the performance, this would certainly qualify as “something new” for her. With the history and stereotype of “beauty shop gossip” – it’s not particularly alarming or worrisome that she then mentions that she is “so blue.” However, after reading further into the lyrics, one could interpret that Cataldo possibly begins to confide in the hairdresser, and to go into what has her so upset. But with the next stanza, the reader/listener can see that she abandons this option, and has a sinister purpose for visiting her hairdresser this day.
I’ll give you a chance
‘cause I wanna dance
And if you really would
It would be understood.
I’ll make sure I tip you good.
Cataldo states that “I’ll give you a chance” – which again, after deeper studying over her word choice, can only mean that she does care for her hairdresser, and that she’s going to give her a chance to style her hair the way she would like it, perhaps in a way that can raise her self-esteem to where she would no longer feel like her only option will be to mock and ridicule her hairdresser later in the poem. While initially there may be reason to hope that the hairdresser can perform this task, Cataldo quickly turns face shortly after this stanza, and the reader/listener realizes that the false promise of “I’ll make sure I tip you good” is only to lure the hairdresser into her trap.
Cut my hair it won’t behave.
Set up with gel and a wave.
One or two ringlets.
Keep the top a little wet.
Cataldo begins a list of requests that appear to be all over the place, offering no real direction for her hairdresser, again, setting her up for the only realistic outcome being for Cataldo to be disappointed in her haircut. The absence of any pleasantries, and using only strict directives – a definite departure from her early requests of simply being made into “something new” – the noose truly begins to tighten, and the worry of the hairdresser can almost be felt, if not absolutely assumed, as she has been given very little helpful direction to enable her to have Cataldo leave the beauty shop pleased with her work. The true tragedy being that Cataldo is doing everything she needs to, to ensure that she does leave satisfied – confusing, agitating, and ultimately destroying the emotions of her hairdresser.
Hey don’t get so upset!
I think something’s wrong.
You’re taking much too long.
Are you sure this piece looks great?
I’m worried, I’m tried, I’m late!
Cataldo abandons any attempts at masking what she’s there to do, and it can only be assumed that this is very uncharacteristic of how she usually behaves, or she would not continue to use this hairdresser’s services. She suddenly demands that the hairdresser not “get so upset” when that’s exactly what the hairdresser should be doing at his stage. Questioning the hairdresser’s knowledge of whether her work “looks great” and suddenly declaring that “I’m worried…I’m tired…I’m late” – the hairdresser is now left in the uncomfortable position of needing to fix what she’s done, without knowing what Cataldo wants done, and to need to do this quickly, as she’s just been informed that Cataldo doesn’t have long. The situation has spiraled out of control.
I want it just like yours.
Perhaps it’ll open new doors.
Its confidence I lack.
Maybe you’ll bring it on back.
Suddenly informing the hairdresser “I want it just like yours” – it’s easy to imagine that Cataldo and the hairdresser have completely different hairstyles, and that this is an impossible task, certainly one that could not be performed in whatever short window of time that Cataldo is claiming to have. Her mention of lacking confidence, and asking the hairdresser to “bring it on back” begins an avalanche of mocking the hairdresser as the task of returning confidence to such an irate customer would be next to impossible.
Tease it up
What a tease (x3)
Tease it up
What a tease (x3)
What a tease.
By flip-flopping between demanding the hairdresser to “tease it up” and then shaking her head in disapproval and judging by repeated saying to herself “What a tease” – the hairdresser at this point would probably be best to remove Cataldo from the premises – as the mockery and humiliation is obviously going to increase, and it does. With the repeated use of the word “tease” – the hairdresser probably actually know exactly what’s coming.
All the guys call her Teasa Louise.
Without her hair, without her face, she just ain’t Teasa Louise.
With the name calling “Teasa Louise” – Cataldo is directly hurting the hairdresser and is not making any attempt to fool her into thinking that she’s there for any purpose this day but to do embarrass the hairdresser to no end. One can assume that “Teasa Louise” is a name that the hairdresser has been called before, and one that crushes her spirit when she’s heard it in the past, and Cataldo calls her this repeatedly. Cataldo really only attacks the hairdresser in two ways: calling her “Teasa Louise” and attacking the hairdresser’s physical beauty. Cataldo gives the impression that she knows that this is all she needs to do, as if these are the two things that will hurt her hairdresser the most, and are intended to make her hairdresser as “blue” as Cataldo claims to be earlier in the poem/song. Disparaging the hairdresser’s own hair, and face, Cataldo informs us, and possibly the hairdresser herself – that these two things are what ultimately make her Teasa Louise. This attack is intended to truly sting deeply, criticizing the physical appearance of someone in the business of creating physical beauty.
Teasa Louise, Teasa Louise
Oh you know she’s not out to please.
How can a model drink beer from a bottle, that’s why they call her Teasa Louise.
Teasa Louise, Teasa Louise,
Oh I know she’s not out to please.
When you adore through all that’s in store, you’ll overcome Teasa Louise.
Continuing the name calling and the attacks on her physical appearance – Cataldo asks “How can a model drink beer from a bottle?” – wondering how anyone could find the hairdresser as attractive as a “model.” Cataldo shows a bit of piety, possibly by not choosing to drink alcohol herself, and again mocking the hairdresser’s attempts at personal beauty, stating that everyone can see right through her dolled up appearance with her brutish public behavior of drinking in public. The last line of this stanza is a bit cryptic, and I believe that “adore” is actually incorrect, and is supposed to be “endure” – addressing any suitors to “Teasa Louise” that if you can “endure” or “make it through” all of her charades, and falsities, that you will “overcome” her, and will not simply be a “victim” to her. The word “adore” simply does not make sense in this line.
Now she says “Please…please…please…PLEASE!”
Perhaps the most chilling line in the entire poem, Cataldo repeatedly mocks the hairdresser’s attempts at getting Cataldo to stop her attack. The hairdresser can easily be envisioned helpless, crying, and begging for Cataldo’s mercy. “Now she says…” truly displays Cataldo’s disbelief that “now” the hairdresser wants her stop, as if she she’s admitting to warranting the attacks, and that she just wants them to stop. Cataldo never mentions an apology from the hairdresser, only that she wants her to stop attacking her.
Hairdresser, hairdresser whoah-oh.
Hairdresser, hairdresser ohhh-ohh.
Hairdresser (x4) Ohhhh ohh.
Hairdresser (x7) Hairdresser (x6) ohhh ohhh Ohhhh
Tease my hair, Tease my hair, hairdresser, hair dresser…
Even with the hairdresser’s frantic pleas, Cataldo continues on her with attacks, no longer calling her “Teasa Louise” but simply referring to her only has “hairdresser” as if this is a cut-down enough, as if this is a lowly profession. Cataldo trails off, singing “tease my hair, tease my hair” – as she can be imagined dancing out of the beauty shop, continuing her mockery, as the hairdresser stands ruined, in her own establishment.
The only defense that could be made for Cataldo, and it’s difficult to do without knowing the reason for her attack, or for the history of the hairdresser, is that it’s not impossible to assume that the hairdresser did something equally hurtful to Cataldo. The easiest hypothesis is that the hairdresser is in fact very attractive, and is somewhat promiscuous around town, potentially with a former or current love interest of Cataldo. This situation is not hard to envision, as all of Cataldo’s attacks revolve around the hairdresser’s own physical appearance, and her public behavior. What prevents the reader/listener from being able to fully accept this theory is Cataldo’s intended absence of any of this background information in her own poem/song. As the author, Cataldo has only told us of the carefully crafted attack that she herself made, and the boastfulness in which she sings leads the audience to believe that this is all that matters.