Beck: Artist of the year


Published December 16, 1996 9:22AM (EST)

imagine him behind the wheel of a '68 Plymouth Valiant, driving the streets
of Los Angeles in search of the perfect beat. His eyes are on the road, but
his mind is on James Brown's goodfoot and his radio is tuned to a Spanish deejay
fighting to be heard over the traffic. Beck is in his unnatural element, and
he is in love  with the late '80s rap of Mantronix, mid-'60s Dylan,
Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and the bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Think of Beck as a cultural scrap-collector, picking up a Spanglish word
here, a snatch of Indian melody from godknowswhere, and building strange but
beautiful aural sculptures. He takes the information overload found in any
big city and turns it into fractured dance music.

In a year when an exhumed Nirvana album seemed more alive than the rest of
Seattle rock combined, when hip-hop stayed afloat on Roberta Flack covers and
revenge fantasies turned real, Beck's "Odelay" made more sense
the closer you listened. As Salon contributor David Fenton wrote in his
review of the album, "'Odelay' is as seamless and coherent as any mix of honky-tonk
stomps, jeep-ratting beats, twisted electro-grooves, plaintive pop ballads,
and genuinely bizarre lyrical vignettes could possibly be." And that was just
his studio work. One of the few known antidotes to the Jenny McCarthy virus,
Beck is also an MTV star. Dressed in a short-sleeved white dress shirt and
clip-on tie, he makes fun of himself, Chamber of Commerce boosterism and
country line-dancing  all to a sneaky groove and layered vocal distortion.

After five years of unrelievedly grim rock stars and cartoonishly hard rap heroes,
Beck dared to sound great and look goofy. And he did it without copping a juvenile
lick, like Weird Al or Seattle's Presidents of the USA. Of course, purists will fume:
"Odelay" isn't real hip hop; it doesn't rock like Zep or even
Soundgarden; the pedal steel guitar on "Sissyneck" doesn't add up to true
country, and a guy like Beck, the son of a bluegrass musician father, ought
to know better. He does, which probably explains why Beck is at his least
convincing with just an acoustic guitar and a plain-spoken folk song. We
already know what Woody Guthrie had to say, and there's Bruce Springsteen for
anyone who wants an update. Beck is more valuable as a musical mongrel who
threatens white supremacists, not to mention English lit majors. "Devil's
Haircut?" Gibberish, the latter will say, and maybe they're right. But anyone
capable of echoing the glorious din of a polyglot society deserves our

If that sounds like heresy, don't get me wrong; Beck isn't a poster-boy for
racial unity. Sadly, America in 1996 is too fragmented for that. I mean no
disrespect to Beck when I say that the album that touched me the deepest this
year was "Heaven," a jazz-gospel record of heartstopping beauty.
Its creator, Jimmy Scott, is a hormonally-stunted 70-year-old black man who
looks like a high-school boy and sings with the voice of a battered woman. Of
course, in a country obsessed with youth, race and physical perfection, the
album didn't sell a fraction of the records sold by Beck or, for that matter,
Tupac Shakur.

But don't accept the easy lie that suburban kids who bought Shakur's ultimately
self-destructive stereotype are somehow more progressive than their peers who
preferred "Odelay," or that Michael Bolton's crossover into the African-American
community suggests a particularly bright future. Beck is an imperfect hero in an
imperfect world, but so what? "Odelay" was the pop-culture artifact of the year, a
self-mocking celebration of all the things Beck genuinely loves. As a
one-man-melting pot, he made me proud to be an American. And I don't mean that
with even a hint of irony.

By Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Keith Moerer

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