Saturday, March 15, 2008

Whiskerino: Beards on the Internet

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BIPL has been wondering about the current vogue for beards among our young men for a couple of years now. I noticed it first among people you might expect: people who make or/like really thoughtful indie rock and folk, Saul Williams. Then all these punk and hardcore bands had them. Now it has spread to mall emo bands and pretty much anyone shooting for that indefinable air of credibility, such as The Killers. All of this took from 2005 to the present.

I really started pondering it all at South By Southwest in 2006. The full but well-kept beards on the faces of male Bohemia were really underway and I was able to verify then that this was going on all over the country if not the world. I was also able to verify that it was a good look.

Heavy psychedelic rock also seemed to be under way and I blamed the entire weird folk movement even though I'm not sure who really started it and Devendra Banhart is the only one in that group who comes to mind as actually having a beard ever. I started calling it the indie beard, as in, "No, that's not quite an indie beard yet."
Few people were willing to acknowledge that something was going on for at least a year and a half. Then one day a friend referred to a vast swathe of the music I like as "beard punk." He was right. And the plot thickened.

It has now spread to the entire hep cat populace and beyond. There are articles in reputable magazines about this phenomenon now. I have read them.
One clue I have to offer is that the arc of everyone having more and more tattoos has also followed the rise of the beard.

I imagined at South By Southwest that it all represented a shift towards maturity. That, during wartime, maybe we were all feeling a little more sober - not to say continually pissed off.

Let me remind you: before it was all about beards and plaid shirts, having sleeve tattoos and being barrel chested, before Against Me! was on the radio, hella people were listening to Death Cab for Cutie and either mooning over androgynous man children like Conor Oberst or trying hard to look like them. Beards were for creepy weirdos.

The intervening years have been ugly. In the face of them, I think there has been a need for young, independent-minded men to redefine masculinity for themselves in the form of facial hair and possibly neck tattoos. It makes sense when you think about it: shagginess became the fashion last time we had an indefensible war with a nausea-triggering body count.

Then, in 2007 my friend Tim informed me that he and his band mates were growing beards on the Internet.

They joined online community Whiskerino.org. It was like Myspace but for beards. The old-time definition of a Whiskerino is technically a beard growing contest and this Whiskerino was in essence a competition too.

Participants had to join clean shaven and post a photo to prove it. Then they had to post a series of photos showing their beards' progress. More community than competition, they commented on one another's photos and offered support. Still, trimming was frowned on and if you shaved or failed to post photos you went to the Wall of Shame. Meanwhile the most impressive beard photos had a shot at stardom as King Beard.

There was even a Vaginarino.org, where ladies posted tribute pictures of themselves doing impressions of recent Whiskerino posts. It was kind of out of control.

I thought it was great. One thinks of a beard growing contest as the kind of activity pursued in the days before you had movies and Internet on your iPodphonecameraGPSgamesystem. That an international community of beard growers would choose to do this, not in spite of the Internet but, in fact, on it, was, for me, a testament to the human spirit.

Best of all, a Whiskerino Throwdown weekend in Nashville, Tenn. was planned for the last weekend in February. I was invited so as to study the modern beard at close range. Which is how I came to be in a bowling alley containing only full-bearded men and their wives and girlfriends. It was the most dream-like scene I've ever encountered that included a beer drinking contest. It was followed by a beard formal dinner, beard concert and beard brunch. I missed the beard art show.
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The dinner especially gave me the feeling that I was joining in the rites of an hermetic society. Everyone was dressed up and showing off months of monstrous, unrestrained growth. These were not the well-trimmed indie beards I've been ranting about. The Whiskerino website encourages beard growers to let their beard take its own "natural path." The effect can be striking.

One curious camp follower was Phil Olsen, founder of Beard Team USA. He was handing out pins and recruiting for the World Beard and Mustache Championships to be held in Anchorage, Ala. in 2009. He has been on late night talk shows and is something of an unfortunate poster boy for this whole beard business.
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BIPL would rather elect Kid Static and Yea Big as the new face of having a beard. They are an experimental Chicagoan hip-hop duo and the only group from the beard concert night that I can remember. They covered "The Golden Girls'" theme song and rapped about Megaman and sandwich-related violence in a way that recalled Def Jux and Anticon's funnest moments.
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Altogether, the weekend seemed to physically manifest the online Whiskerino experience. And not just with the male camaraderie. There was also the picture taking. A lot of it.

My theories aside, Whiskerino speaks for itself with a manifesto on the website. It could be the final word on beards and it is an evangelical word: In days of yore a man without a beard was not a man, yet, today, society insists you shave, alienating you from your masculinity. Grow a beard and you can reclaim this lost manhood.

Fair enough, but, fashion being what it is, BIPL predicts the handlebar mustache will soon eclipse the beard in the subcultural imagination. Look around and you can see this beginning to happen. I have seen handlebars everywhere in the past year from Austin to Memphis and now here in Atlanta and even Nashville. I have seen them on kids who hang out in dive bars. They are no longer the purview of old guys who like model trains.

My theory is that life is getting so weird that the '50s and '60s just aren't a far enough escape from the strange times we live in. Soon, we will have to convince ourselves Victoria is reigning in England and/or the American Civil War has just ended in order to stop hyperventilating.

Whiskerino is a biennial event and will very likely be back in 2009. We foresee a spike in the popularity of the Whiskerino-linked, month-long Mustache May.
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