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Grow Op

The real reason pop stars grow facial hair

We'd kill for cred: the Killers. From left, Brandon Flowers, Mark Stoermer, Ronnie Vannucci Jr. and Dave Keuning. (Universal Music)
We'd kill for cred: the Killers. From left, Brandon Flowers, Mark Stoermer, Ronnie Vannucci Jr. and Dave Keuning. (Universal Music)

Brandon Flowers is, by most standards, a pretty man. The lead singer for synth-pop quartet the Killers has a sculptured coif, expressive eyes (that he often swathes in eyeliner) and pouty lips. Until recently, he also had lustrous skin that looked like it had never known the frosty touch of a razor blade. Flowers’ impish mug has landed him on many magazine covers, a perk that helped the Killers move more than five million copies of their debut album, Hot Fuss.

But in the press photos for Sam’s Town, the Las Vegas band’s new album, Flowers and his usually dapper confreres have gone shaggy. Shot in dusky black and white by famed rock photographer Anton Corbijn, the back cover of Sam’s Town captures Flowers et al. with beards — grubby ones at that. The portrait looks like a casting call for the HBO western series Deadwood.

It appears at first to be a case of lax grooming, but I’m not fooled; there’s something more calculated afoot. For me, the tip-off is the fact that the Killers grew moss en masse, as though it was a committee decision. If you think rock stars stop shaving because they’re lazy, because they want to look fashionable or because they want to avoid chafing sensitive skin, you are wrong. Only one explanation exists for growing the Rock Beard: artistic credibility.

The Killers emerged in ’04 with the song Somebody Told Me, a grandiose rocker that betrayed a deep love of drama and Duran Duran; buoyed by Flowers’ mock-operatic voice, the band’s next single, Mr. Brightside, was even more majestic. While they’ve enjoyed numerous hits, adoring fans and a few Grammy awards, the Killers have yet to slay music critics. Their new scruffiness can only be seen as a bid for legitimacy.

Big hairy deal: Bruce Springsteen, circa 1975. (Monty Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images)


Big hairy deal: Bruce Springsteen, circa 1975. (Monty Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Brandon Flowers natters on about how the band’s sophomore record was influenced by the elegiac, blue-collar rock of Bruce Springsteen. Flowers is a notorious blowhard, but he’s no liar. Filled with small-town vignettes, breathless emotion and glockenspiels, Sam’s Town evokes every Springsteen moment from Born to Run to Born in the U.S.A. When You Were Young, the album’s current chart-busting single, demonstrates the band’s uncanny ability to quicken your pulse while sounding utterly derivative. Given the Boss’s flirtations with facial hair, it’s clear the Killers have copped more than his riffs.

The history of pop music is as much about image as song, and growing a beard has long been a statement of intent: We’d like to be taken seriously now. A beard suggests maturity, wisdom, permanence. Just look at the cred enjoyed by guys like Dr. John, Jerry Garcia and Frank Zappa, or more recent beardos like Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine), freak-folkie Devendra Banhart or TV on the Radio guitarist Kyp Malone. Looking more like professors than rock stars, these men ooze credibility.

Like the Killers, Maroon 5 would love some of that action. Best known for fey pseudo-soul hits like This Love and She Will Be Loved, the mega-selling L.A. quintet is largely disdained by critics. Wouldn’t you know it, in photos for their upcoming album (tentatively titled It Won’t Be Soon Before Long), most of the members of Maroon 5 are sporting facial fuzz. Don’t talk to me about coincidences.

In the video for Coldplay’s first single, 2000’s Yellow, Chris Martin’s face is as pink and barren as the day he started kindergarten; now, the singer is as hostile to shaving as he is to eating meat. Montreal retro-rocker Sam Roberts emerged in 2002 with the EP The Inhuman Condition, but it wasn’t until he grew a thatch of facial hair that he became a mega-selling critical fave. (In an attempt to fortify himself against negative press, Roberts is now a member of the bushiest band in Canada.) Look at Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, who has kept irrelevance at bay by paying homage to the woolly mammoth.

The long and winding beard: John Lennon in 1969. (Photo by George Stroud/Express/Getty Images)



The long and winding beard: John Lennon in 1969. (Photo by George Stroud/
Express/Getty Images)

As with most things pop-related, the practice can be traced to the Beatles. Hair was a key strand in the Beatles’ 10-year narrative. In the buzz-cut era of the early ’60s, their moptops were a sign of British insouciance. By the middle of the decade, however, John, Paul, George and Ringo had tired of the superficialities of celebrity — and, evidently, their foppish haircuts. They stopped touring in 1966 to focus on creating more adventurous music in the studio; cultivating facial hair helped the Beatles convince fans and critics of their newfound seriousness.

Why did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blow so many minds? Because the overpopulated cover featured the Fab Four with moustaches. Moustaches! (The music’s not shabby, either.) The more deeply entrenched the Beatles became in the studio, the longer their beards got. Looking at the Beatles’ catalogue, we automatically slot their output into one of two eras: the clean-shaven period of lighthearted jangle-pop and the disheveled period that produced dark masterpieces like Abbey Road and The White Album.

Judging by the poor critical returns on Sam’s Town, the Killers’ foray into facial hair has been less than triumphant. Ah, well. In the cutthroat music biz, pop stars are free — nay, expected — to try any number of strategies to improve their standing: hooking up with a hot producer, exploiting a political cause, making a self-satirizing cameo on The Simpsons. Like those tactics, sprouting a few whiskers is no guarantee of anything — except maybe an itchy face.

Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

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