A few months ago, I was watching Australian Rules Football. I noticed a pattern. It wasn't a pattern with football, no. It was a pattern with haircuts. This is what happens when your team is shit. Your mind desperately looks for any stimuli that doesn't involve pain.
I could have been hallucinating. Everyone on the field looked the same. Short back and sides, coiffed nonsense on top. Once I saw it, it was everywhere. Backline, forwardline. My team, their team. It was reverse Magic Eye. On the surface, a game of football. The next layer, three dozen identical real-estate agents.
Hair conformity is supposedly a big part of life in North Korea. Kim Jong Un, a leader arguably more famous for other moves, had reportedly mandated his people choose from twenty-eight state-approved haircuts. It is an amazing anecdote about power, masculinity and control. Australia in contrast, is a land of many freedoms. There is something called an 'avolatte', a drink that exists in a similar plane between reality and parody. Yet in this land of unthinkable freedom, there was unlikely oppression in its native sport. In the Australian Football League, there seemed to be only one approved haircut.
The haircut itself goes by many names - The High and Tight. The Disconnected Undercut. The More-on-top . It's had its own cultural moment, twice profiled in the New York Times. The cut as a coded symbol projects power, masculinity and control. Kim Jong Un himself wears a version of it. A brief scan of this year's AFL official player photos reveals an overwhelming majority of high and tight undercuts. What becomes of reality when virtually everyone is projecting power, masculinity and control? Does a totem lose its meaning? Why does everyone in the AFL look like bloody Macklemore? I needed to talk to someone about what I was seeing. I needed to contact someone who plied their trade in the middle of what I perceived to be a swirling monoculture.
I wait in the main floor of Hair by Ciccone next to a large poster of a preposterously chiseled man. He has an immaculate high and tight haircut. He also wears other millennial regalia I have academic knowledge of: sleeve tattoo, tight T-shirt, confidence. The man holds two tubs of hair product in each large, ludicrous hand. I can't identify him, but a caption does - "Kyle from Geordie Shore". Kyle is advertising the Ciccone house product, Smash It.
Despite having little web-presence, Ciccone and his salon Hair by Ciccone have found themselves hashtagged into a reputation for styling footballers, celebrities and social-media influencers. Frank also cuts the hair of players from my team, the Carlton Football Club. Carlton haven't been good at football for five or so years, but our guys may have the best hair.
I meet Ciccone himself up on the mezzanine floor, a crow's nest overlooking the rest of the salon. Frank's hair is neat on three sides, then it begins. Stormy grey hair crested and fell into darker, tumultuous waves of keratin. I could almost hear the sea. A pair of sunglasses crowned the top of his head, the high and tight king. I had the right guy. "Are we going to cut your hair?" he asked.
Speaking to Ciccone is accessing a mind-palace of hair trends. Hearing him eulogise the ghosts of trends past, it's hard not to pick up on the ingredients of a successful haircut. Firstly, it has to capture a pop-culture zeitgeist. Next, it has to have a celebrity patron. Lastly, it has to appeal to hairstylists, combining the right mix of practicality and technical skill. If something is going to catch on, it had to be hard for the average punter to do themselves, but not too demanding for a stylist to do multiple times a day. The last real trend, Justin Bieber's virginal hair swoop, hit that particular Venn diagram so hard its legs wobbled.
The most popular variant of the high and tight calls for something called a 'skin fade'. The short sides are cut in a gradient, gradually fading to bare skin. Frank is already growing weary of its use. The technically demanding use of the electric clipper has become somewhat of an overused gimmick, the latté art of hairdressing. I ask Frank about the high and tight itself. "It probably started in the UK. That's a version of a 90's undercut. I had that haircut. AFL players did, soccer players did," he says. The pop-culture trigger? "Mad Men was huge for it." The hard drinking, womanising characters of the TV series display a simple masculinity that's one-part problematic cautionary tale, one-part glossy magazine iconography.
It has no shortage of celebrity patrons. Brad Pitt's skin fade in his World War II movie Fury has sustained a two-year wave of business for Ciccone. "As soon as it's on Instagram? Straight away. As soon as Ronaldo, Beckham, Brad Pitt wear it, I'm cutting it." It was only a matter time before it pollinated other entertainments. Last year, Frank was summoned to a hotel room by high-profile clients. The job? Styling soccer giants Juventus for their soccer tour of Melbourne. All this effort isn't just reserved for the big games. In the age of ubiquitous coverage, virtually every game is showtime. Carlton onballer Patrick Cripps was just in two days before, ready for a game on the weekend. Sport is now performative entertainment, with its own requisite hair and makeup. The maintenance of the high and tight guarantees repeat business. It's a two week cycle for a skin fade, a four week cycle for something longer on the sides.
Frank is unsurprisingly, an incredibly skilled hairstylist. I've had probably three hundred haircuts in my life, thinking deeply about none of them. Frank wields an economy of movement, a mastery you'd see on any field, any stadium. He is an artist. Although I sense the artist is at odds with his own craft. I ask him about his ideal workday. "I want to do at least four or five different haircuts in one day. Not the same haircut. I want to change it up a bit, y'know what I mean?" I'm inclined to think this hasn't been his recent experience. "I could cut someone's hair the same way for the next twenty years the same way but-" He pauses. "But you're a creative person," I say. "It would kill you." He relents. "Exactly". He is conscious to couch his statements. "At the end of the day the customer is always right."
I am having my hair cut adjacent to framed photos of another chiseled man. In one, the man is kissing Frank's cheek. It's not Kyle from Geordie Shore, as far as I can tell. "That's Gaz," Frank says. "From Geordie Shore," he adds. Frank tells me that a Facebook post from a member of the Geordie Shore can generate hundreds, even thousands of clicks via Facebook. Those clicks translate into significant business for the salon, for Smash It.
In all, Frank spends thirty minutes on my hair. It's easily the best haircut of my life. I didn't just look like a bloke with great hair. I looked like a guy who doesn't write think-pieces about hair. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was supposed to find Frank in his industrial-chic spider-hole and hold him accountable for the decay of modern culture. I suspect Ciccone may be mired in this as much as we are.
It's a strange time when reality is not defined by facts and figures, but whatever two parties agree to be true. Anything that helps curate an image is of tremendous value- even a haircut. Justin Bieber now wears an undercut to restore a forgotten image as a not-cockhead. American white supremacist Richard Spencer uses it to normalise, even glamorise neo-nazism. I now sport a version of the high and tight to convince women that I am a significant journalist, not an idiot who writes about haircuts. Optics are the new facts.
I confess, I have dark thoughts. Of going to bars that haven't been blessed by culture blogs. Of having breakfasts that aren't Instagram-friendly. Of not living in a scandi-inspired world of raw wood and concrete. Similarly, I prefer my footballers to be aspirational. I don't want my icons of popular entertainment to share my own prosaic struggles with monoculture.
Fortunately, there is cause for optimism. This season is a great season for hair. Crow Rory Atkins has fallen into a vat of peroxide, dragging Collingwood's Jamie Elliot in with him. Demon Jayden Hunt campaigned to wear a coloured headband. This past off-season, Western Bulldogs on-baller Tom Liberatore, the world's most interesting footballer, had the top of his head cut to a friar tuck. This haircut was conducted on a field in Vietnam with stationery scissors whilst Liberatore was playing ruck for Macau's international AFL side. (An incredible sentence, I know.)
This is how we identify our heroes. They will be unconcerned with our totems of masculinity, of success and of control. This is how we are reminded of something truly aspirational, like freedom.
Illustration: Phoenix Trinidad