BEARD HERE NOW
Notes On the Noughties column, Guardian, winter 2009
by Simon Reynolds
Standing on a subway platform waiting for the L train to Brooklyn recently, I saw a group of young men with that slightly scruffy, indeterminately hip look that screams "Williamsburg" and was struck by the fact that all three of them had beards. Later that same week, walking down a single block in the East Village, I passed around a dozen men in the 18 to 35 age range who were bearded. A few days after that, watching New York Noise, an alternative rock cable TV show, I saw several videos in a row in which most members of the group sported one form or other of facial fuzz, climaxing with Fleet Foxes's hairier-than-thou "He Doesn't Know Why".
Valentine is sniffy about the more "commercial" end of freak folk (performers like Joanna Newsom, who spiritually at least is a bearded lady) for being too sonically groomed. But there's no deny that Devendra Banhard has contributed massively to setting back the cause of cleancut-ness this decade. Other notable Noughties hairies who've put the willies up the Wilkinson shareholdership include Bon Iver, Band of Bees, Destroyer's Daniel Bejar, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Band of Horses, and Broken Social Scene (roughly 80 percent of whose sprawling line-up go unshaven, with most of the remainder being female). Strangely, Grizzly Bear favour the razor, while Animal Collective is only one thirds furry.
As it happens, the neatly-trimmed (and well-washed) Seventies soft rock style beard has been cropping up in electronic music circles all through the decade, from one half of Air to Norwegian "space disco" producer Lindstrom.
Here beardedness becomes tantamount to a visual rhetoric, a form of authentication, as though the band are wearing their music on their faces. The video is a symphony of brown hues; there's even livestock mingling with the band as they play, goats whose tufty throats accentuate the band's bewhiskeredness. The promo's earthy colour-palette and the group's straggly and somewhat greasy beards make for a blatant example of image following the music's lead in echoing an era of rock history: 1968-1969, the very first time that rock grew a beard. On "He Doesn't Know Why", the sound and visuals are equal parts Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Band. With Fleet Foxes's debut album featuring ditties about red squirrels and meadowlarks and song titles like "Ragged Wood" and "Blue Ridge Mountains," it hardly takes Roland Barthes to decode the beards as the physiognomic expression of that perennial American yearning for wilderness (a longing seemingly felt most fiercely by young Americans who didn't grow up anywhere near remote rural areas). In this symbolic scheme, facial fur = fir (and pine, spruce, maple, et al), while Gillete = the timber industry, or "mountaintop removal" mining.
Blissblog follow-up post on changing attitudes to facial hair and cycles of fashion / grooming through rock history
If you saw a furry face in the NME it would be either a roots reggae band (the semiotics of beards have a completely different valence in black music in general) or it'd be someone like John Martyn or Richard Thompson, i.e. a throwback to another era, folk-rock. Beards strangely doubled as signifiers of hippiedom and authority (they were what policemen had--just check the cover of David Peace's GB84 with its throng of coppers holding back a mass picket).
At my college the only beard-wearers were a bunch of hippies, the same age as me but utterly dedicated to living in 1968 (they listened to The Hangman's Incredible Daughter). Apart from these strident anachronists, the only other occurrences of facial hair were rare and fell into particular categories. It could be a guy who was short and slight and therefore sick of being offered half-price on public transport. It could be the expression of radical self-neglect (often accompanied by body-odour or scurvy). It could be the sign of an evangelical Christian (the beard expressing both Jesus-identification and a lack of vanity). Finally, the stereotype went, a beard was the insignia of the geology student.
There was weirdy-beardy electronica (Richard D. James, Luke Vibert).
Somewhere in the middle of this you also got the I-am-above-such-trifling-things-as-image beard,e.g. the brambles that over-ran the face of Elvis Costello circa 1990, seemingly an act of pique at the fact that he wasn't getting hits anymore.
(Paddy MacAloon's current image might be a variant of this kind of ex-popstar beard).
Facial hair of ever-increasingly complexity became a staple of metal both on the underground (thrash, black, doom, etc) and mainstream (nu-metal) , perhaps signifying the resurgence of "real" metal bringing to an end the Eighties hair metal era (when pretty-boy rockers's faces were as smooth as their long locks were silky).