Saturday, 2 November 2013

I Ain't No Square with My Corkscrew Hair (and Moustache)


Students taking my Popular Music degree have included me in a team for Movember, all of us growing moustaches in aid of testicular cancer research (to donate click here). Inevitably this has made me think about the use of the moustache in popular music. There are clearly different tendencies: the beatnik moustache (Acker Bilk, Frank Zappa); the gay biker look (Freddie Mercury, Paul Rutherford, Glenn Hughes of the Village People); the metal moustache (Tony Iommi, Lemmy, Derek Smalls), the eccentric’s moustache (Ron Mael, Nick Cave), the European moustache (Gorgio Moroder) and the moustache to signal a burgeoning seriousness (the Beatles). However, I’m struggling to draw any historical conclusions.
            In contrast, men’s hairstyles have been an indicator of crossover in popular music. This goes back at least as far as Elvis Presley, who used Royal Crown Pomade hair grease in order to slick back his hair. This was a popular product among black Americans, who used it in order to style their hair into white styles. Nelson George has remarked that ‘in a typical pop music example of cross-cultural collision, there was Elvis adapting black styles from blacks adapting white looks’.
            In contrast, the Beatles mop-top look was not so easy for black fans and artists to adopt. Ben E. King has held this hairstyle responsible for terminating the racially mixed musical culture of the early 1960s:
But when they came along – because you know black people can’t grow their hair long and straight, now forget that – so they came along with long, straight hair, and that changed the whole attitude of the music in a racial way.
By the mid-1960s, however, white artists were adopting black hairstyles: witness the afro grown by Eric Clapton and the similar cut that helped Noel Redding to pass his audition for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This period of miscegenation was short-lived. White hippies went in one direction, growing their hair very long and loose, a style that was even harder for black people to adopt than the Beatles’ cut. Conversely, as the black power movement grew more militant, its afros grew bigger and more magnificent, laying down a gauntlet that few outside the black community could take up.
            Few, but not all. There is another ethnic element to consider: Jews. Jon Stratton has written that ‘being positioned between the ideologically driven binary of black and white, Jews have mediated between African-American culture and the hegemonic white American culture’. This is as true of Jewish hair as it is of Jewish songwriting. Although some people have remarked on the similarities between the Beatles’ mop tops and the pudding-basin cut modeled by the Jewish comedian Ish Kabibble, more commonly Jewish hair has signalled an affinity with black culture. Witness the fantastic afro-growing ability of Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Marc Bolan, Mick Farren, Charles Shaar Murray and Geoff Travis. Apparently there's even a word for what's going on here: the Jewfro.

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