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Jake Nyberg tromps through the mall, his rainbow-tinted, mirrored sunglasses reflecting the expensive wares: gourmet chocolates, $60 men's silk bowties, $4 organic juice. In his sleeveless Miller beer T-shirt, black cut-off jeans, and tall white socks, he is distinctly out of place among the lipsticked ladies at the upscale Galleria shopping center in Edina.
He strides into Big Bowl, a restaurant that serves heirloom pork (whatever that is) and boils down fresh ginger root to make its own ginger ale. He asks for a can of Busch Light. The bartender bites her lip. They don't have it.
Nyberg begrudgingly accepts a Miller Lite on tap. As the bartender punches the order into a touch screen, she leans in to her coworker and whispers. The coworker turns around, looks at Nyberg, and laughs.
Nyberg has a mullet.
He's intentionally trimmed his mop to recall those dark days of the 1980s, when manliness was measured by the volume of party-in-the-back. Nyberg uses product to spike up the top, and it's admittedly not full '80s plumage, but it looks pretty badass. A writer/director and amateur sociologist, he's at the Galleria on a mission: to see how shoppers and store clerks treat him and his horrible head of hair.
It's been just shy of three weeks since Nyberg cut his hair into a mullet. He's been documenting his experiment at www.mulletlikeme.com, a take-off on Black Like Me, a white journalist's account of darkening his skin and traveling through the American South in 1959. Just as John Howard Griffin attempted to expose racism, Nyberg hopes to expose "mulletism"—the mistreatment of mulleted Americans based on their hairstyle.
He acknowledges that the comparison is kind of obnoxious: "I'm taking on a mission with way lower stakes, and a lot less courage," he says.
The style may be as old as the cavemen, but the term "mullet" is fairly new, says Mark Larson, co-author of The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods, and the nation's foremost expert on the hairdo. He traces the term to Cool Hand Luke, the Paul Newman flick, in which people were called "mullet-heads" as an insult.
"It meant somebody who was foolish or stupid. Our contention would be that it was an ill-found name for a great hairstyle," Larson says.
David Bowie popularized the modern mullet in the 1970s. As Larson tells the tale, Bowie showed his stylist photos of two haircuts in Parisian magazines, and requested both. Other celebs followed suit: Bono, Lou Reed, Paul McCartney, Andre Agassi, Mel Gibson, Barry White, Ice Cube, Larry Fortensky, and, of course, Michael Bolton and Billy Ray Cyrus.
The mullet's popularity peaked in the 1980s, when big hair was in for both men and women. Throughout the decades, the mullet took on various forms and appellations, Larson says. "We discovered easily 100-plus names for the mullet: the Kentucky Waterfall, the Tennessee Top Hat, the Missouri Compromise. Everybody wants to blame it on somebody else."
As he worked on his book in 1999, Larson worried that the style might lose its cultural relevance. But then the fashion world saved him. "Gucci put mullets on all of his runway models," Larson says.
The fashion mullet was born. Flatter on the top, more graduated in length than the two-level '80s cut, the fashion mullet and its close cousin, the ironic mullet, became all the rage in Europe and among Twin Cities hipsters. Two or three years ago the style began to fade locally, says stylist Mackenzie Labine of Hair Police, except for among certain demographics. "You see gay boys with it, and lesbians. Not so many straight boys," she says.
Nyberg is well aware of the mullet's rich history, and one period has caused him notable anxiety: the hipster-mullet romance. More than one person has snarked that he's simply another annoying hipster—a label he finds insulting. "I can't be a hipster because I need to lose 40 pounds," he says. "I can't fit into skinny jeans."
On his mullet missions, Nyberg talks nonstop. He worries that his mullet isn't good enough, or that he's going overboard with the mullet personality. He analyzes everything. "Was the fact that nobody said anything at Wal-Mart kind of sad?" he wonders.
After three weeks, he's getting kind of defensive—even testy. When a fellow scenester proposed a competing blog about his mohawk, Nyberg was miffed. "A mohawk is kind of cool," he says, and addresses the pretender: "You wouldn't know what it's like. You're not a mullet."
Nyberg has been contemplating a cut. It's getting annoying when people he doesn't know come up and touch his hair, as happened recently at an ad industry event. Sometimes, he just wants to wear a hat and blend in.
But the mullet has been good to Nyberg. A week into the gag, his site had 1,000 unique visitors. Three weeks later, the audience doubled. "It's been fun," he says, "in that it's been an exercise in not taking yourself too seriously."