For a man who kick-started his career with “MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack”, Beck has kowtowed assiduously to their demands since hitting paydirt. He is the ideal cipher for them – white, blonde, pliant, all things in his ephemeral, bric-a-brac way but ultimately nothing.
To begin with, he was different. Take the threadbare, punk/folkish Mellow Gold. Songs like “Truckdrivin’ Neighbours Downstairs” and “Beercan” demonstrated their empathy with poor white trash by being similarly poor, pallid and trashy. It comes across like Nirvana, minus volume and urgency and that quality of being any fucking good which comes in so handy.
However, in “Loser”, he coined a sufficiently glib, cartoon encapsulation of early Nineties US rock’s whiney, heavily inverted comma’ed self-loathing and self-pity to wow MTV. With Odelay, Beck somehow confirmed himself as Man Of the Nineties, by dint of a Canal Street-style second hand aesthetic. Odelay is the sonic equivalent of cheesy shirts and loud shiny trousers. Some heavy fuzzbox, some tablas, a sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, some squiggly noises, and drolly delivered lyrics reeking with self-congratulation at their oblique satire and suddenly, American critics, gormlessly and blinkeredly accustomed to rock music being about real white men playing straight-ahead guitars in real t-shirts, were enchanted at the sheer novelty of it all. Beck was hailed as a post-modernist pop genius.
Small matter that The Jam had already filched The Beatles’ “Taxman” riff years earlier. The Jam were haircut English guys. Small matter that The Beasties had done a far defter job of funky bricolage on 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. Those guys were rappers (who’d also been doing this stuff for years). The important thing is, he was the first white American rocker to do it, so therefore he’s the first one that matters, much as Livingstone is credited for “discovering” The Victoria Falls on account of being the first white Englishman to visit his attention upon it.
It’s bad enough not even being first person to think of stealing the stuff he steals but worse to steal without panache. Take last year’s single, “Tropicana”, with its pointlessly flip Thompson’s Holiday Brochure bossa nova rhythms and contrast it with Arto Lindsay’s far svelter, subtler treatments of Brazilian music. But then, Arto Lindsay isn’t, never was, MTV’s It Boy. Beck isn’t an eccentric but the embodiment of the zeitgeist of the white college 20something American consumer, in all their arrogant doziness, quietly mocking the world with deadpan irony but too lazy and cynical to energise modern culture with something new. They use the idleness they’ve been afforded by the world’s richest state to opt out of making any meaningful contribution of their own but look on at the wealth-creators and the culture makers with flippant scorn, even as they’re gulping feebly on their teats.
Beck’s camp fascination for the myriad of pop styles he affects to adore reflects a typical American hipster’s basic contempt for modern culture. He refers to The Gap band’s “fat beats” as “musical hamburgers” which sums it up – pop is fun but not especially nutritious and even though we know better, we can’t help ourselves. That’s his attitude that has him eat up American folk music and r&b, yet mock it in his silly rhinestone outfits or the lampooning dance steps of his 1997 MTV Awards performance.
Beck is an energy-sapper, a taker. His vocals rise from his records listlessly, as if really wanting another hour in bed. Either you’re alienated by his yawning absurdism or sneer along to those clever-clever ditties about the poor saps “with the briefcase blues” (“The Devil’s Haircut”). A classic “slacker”. Yet ironically, Beck isn’t even that. He actually works very hard as a good little major player in the record industry should. Beneath that lame duck surface persona there’s a lot of furious paddling going on. He’s as busy as a busker, writes a song a day, has another album out soon. His slowness, his innocence, his “laziness” are themselves affectations. Beck is the biggest fraud in modern American music today.