Breaking: Brad Pitt has a full-blown goatee. It’s long and gray and bushy, and when Pitt showed it off last week at a movie premiere, it was beaded in a style favored by the pirates of the Caribbean. If there were ever a time to reassess the state of facial hair, this would seem to be it. It used to be that growing a goatee was some kind of fashion statement. Now the goatee has become the Gap T-shirt of beards. The New New Goatee can be worn at home or at the office, by the hip and unhip alike, signifying, well, just about anything.
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The New New Goatee is a beard for all seasons, as harmless as a tattoo. This becomes apparent by reviewing a list of Americans who have been sporting goatees lately: Kobe Bryant, Tim McGraw, Pastor Rick Warren, chef Rick Bayless, NBC’s Chuck Todd, Todd Palin, Larry the Cable Guy, even Mariah Carey in her latest music video. “There is no kinship at all,” Chuck Todd, who is a good sport for answering his phone, tells me. Larry the Cable Guy does not concur: “I think Brad Pitt might have the goatee just because I pulled it off so good,” he says.
What does a New New Goatee mean? First you have to understand that the goatee has always been hard to pin down. Shakespeare had one, as did the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, whom the Van Dyke was named after. (For simplicity’s sake, I have grouped the Van Dyke and the goatee together, even though the Van Dyke is the official name for the lip-chin combo.) “Imagery often shows Pan or the Devil with a goatee,” says Allan Peterkin, the author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. In the 20th century, the goatee was alluring enough to attract Lenin and Buffalo Bill, Burl Ives and Dizzy Gillespie, Colonel Sanders and Malcolm X, Dobie Gillis’ Maynard G. Krebs and Spike Lee, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Kurt Cobain. It was Cobain and his grunge mates who resurrected the goatee from its Beat obsolescence in the 1990s. Though the goatee retains little of their residue of cool—if you’re at the cutting edge of facial hair, you’re wearing a full Zach Galifianakis—it is oddly more prominent in mainstream American life than ever.
The New New Goatee sometimes symbolizes brainy gravitas. This is most notable in Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent. Todd’s ginger goatee, which he grew in the summer of 2002, is a bracing counterpoint to clean-shaven mugs like Brian Williams’. “It highlights that nobody on TV has facial hair,” Todd says. But those carefully trimmed whiskers are part of Todd’s magic. A veteran of the D.C. insider tip sheet The Hotline, Todd is NBC’s numbers guy, its Election Day stats guru. In the blowhard universe of TV news, Todd’s pronouncements seem to carry real weight—you actually believe he knows what he’s talking about. Todd’s goatee confers upon him the same kind of authority as a political-science professor’s goatee.
Last month, when Todd lost a public bet with ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper and appeared poised to shave off the goatee, blogger Dan Amira compared it to Samson’s locks. Todd made a $2,000 donation to charity and kept the goatee by a whisker.
Another take on the New New Goatee: It is a symbol of bloggy, stay-at-home cred. “I wish I were part of some grand sociological trend,” says Jonah Goldberg, the goateed conservative pundit and frequent blogger on National Review Online. “But I mostly do it because I work from home and it makes it easier to go very long periods of time without shaving.”
The New New Goatee can signify both youth and maturity. Billy Joel’s goatee is a sign of an older man trying to recapture his youth. Michael Phelps’ goatee is a sign of a golden boy trying to look older.
There are, of course, aesthetic considerations. “First and foremost, they’re thinning,” says Larry the Cable Guy. When he debuted as a morning radio personality in the 1990s, Larry’s act was delightfully offensive but his face was baby-smooth. “I looked like a kid, a punk, no facial hair, nothing,” he says. Larry grew a full beard, but that was a smidge too country—“I looked like an Oak Ridge Boy”—so he pruned it down into a goatee. Paired with a baseball cap and sleeveless shirt, these days Larry looks like he has just exited a Golden Corral buffet. He has redneck gravitas.
Don’t like your New New Goatee? Simply change an accessory or two. Add some pricey eyewear, and a goatee can make you hip, as it does Johnny Depp. Doff your shirt, and it can make you all-powerful, as it does Shane Carwin of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Stand in the vicinity of a Republican presidential candidate, and a goatee can make you look like the campaign’s sage, as with McCain aide Mark Salter. A goatee can lend an otherwise unremarkable creature a touch of menace. Google News turns up dozens of criminal suspects like this one from Oregon over the weekend: “a white male about 5 feet 9 inches or 6 feet tall and weighing between 160 and 180 pounds. He may have a goatee.” Ooga-boogah!
How did we end up with all this chin foliage? On the one hand, the New New Goatee is the case of something hip becoming something mainstream. It is also the case of the American office becoming a more casual place; Allan Peterkin notes that about the only people who can’t have goatees nowadays are politicians and bankers. The New New Goatee is also a sign of our neo-Bohemia, where formal culture has mixed with hipster culture and created a mix of the two: the Wall Street trader who wears a goatee with his Michael Kors suit.
Pitt reportedly grew his goatee for his role in The Lost City of Z, a real-life Victorian adventure. But what you make of the facial growth depends on what you make of Pitt. Some cast it as a youthful star finally confronting middle age (“Meet Joe Grey,” quipped The Daily Mail). Others have suggested he grew it just because he knew he would still look great. When Pitt attempted an earlier version of the look in January, there was at least one howl of outrage from a female fan at the Golden Globes, who was apparently convinced Pitt was hiding his magnificent face.
What ultimately persuaded NBC’s Chuck Todd to preserve his goatee, however, was not aesthetics but an inter-generational sentiment: His dad sported a red beard before him. “After my dad died,” says Todd, “I saw my red beard, and it was like this one, odd commonality I had with my old man. I didn’t want to shave it. It’s like I’d be letting him down.”
It is a sweet sentiment, and hints at goateed depths we have yet to plumb. Cut it however you like: The New New Goatee is the beard for everything!
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.