To Beard, Or Not To Beard?

William Fitzsimmons

William Fitzsimmons performs at Abilene’s Paramount theatre for a one night only concert tonight. This concert has been heavily promoted at KACU and around the community with posters bearing Fitzsimmons’ beard-clad face. Yesterday, I found someone looking deeply at one of the promotional posters right outside the station, wondering who he was. I explained to her a bit about him, and she commented on his long, bushy beard. I’ll admit, it draws my attention as well.

I remember thinking the same thing when Iron & Wine was coming to town. Not only is Iron & Wine normally considered to reside within the same musical genre with William Fitzsimmons, but  Sam Beam (Iron & Wine’s real name) has quite a beard to be reckoned with as well. Are beards the “in” look with indie folk rock musicians at the moment? Or is it perhaps a source of power?

As Samson’s hair gave him super-strength in the oft quoted Bible story, does a long, prominent beard give one the ability to achieve that laid-back vocal sound that’s all the rage in indie folk music? Their voices are quieter, the polar opposite of scream-o, like the acoustic instruments they frequently use in their songs. They are quieter, yet still very audible, and this works greatly to their advantage on the iTunes and MySpace stage, where these artists garner much acclaim.

Of course attributing beards directly to skill is a more than a little far-fetched. But no doubt it plays into their hands in a different way: their songwriting. Both Iron & Wine and William Fitzsimmons are renowned for their deep songwriting. Now, I’m no facial hair expert, but beards generally show age, and with age is wisdom and experience. Perhaps this makes their songwriting a little more plausible and believable. It gives off the message that they know what they’re singing about because they’ve been there and done that.

But what about fellow indie folk musician Sufjan Stevens? He’s gone through varying degrees of facial hair over the years, but his beard, even in its heyday, was certainly never of the same caliber as Fitzsimmons’ or Beam’s. Yet he still pulls off that quieter vocal sound that these other two artists can do. His songwriting style is also similar, drawing on personal experience. But does his lesser beard discredit his songwriting? Most people would probably disagree with that statement, but most would agree that it does give him a much younger look, despite only being about a year younger than Sam Beam. While age may show experience, youth shows energy, and many of Sufjan’s songs are a tad peppier compared to the other two artists in this article.

It all comes down to the questions of appearance that have stayed with popular entertainment for eons. Even in music, an audio-only medium, appearance can be the key to success or failure. Even with the age of album covers declining, the live concert is still at large, and there’s no denying that the human face is the missing link between their voice and our ears. It’s up to the artist to decide their own appearance. Do you go with heavy amounts of makeup or none at all? Should you use your own face or construct an elaborate mask? Do you grow and maintain a long beard, go clean-shaven, or keep a 5 o’ clock shadow when you perform? There’s pros and cons to each aspect of appearance, each of which are important to constructing that all important image that we as music consumers use to link the artist with their music.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to blare some ZZ Top on my stereo.

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