Beck Is the Loneliest Number

All haircuts to all people: Beck

Beck Hansen is not white like Elvis Presley. He isn't white like Bob Dylan. He isn't white like the Beastie Boys or white like the Backstreet Boys. He isn't white like Kid Rock or like Eminem or like Limp Bizkit. He isn't even white like Michael Jackson.

No, in Beck you behold Melville's whiteness of the whale, a whiteness that not only is a reflection of all that it beholds, but also reflects everything in the eye beholding it. Beck is the absence of all colors posing as the presence of all colors, and vice versa. He's commercially popular for all the right reasons (good songs) and critically overrated for all the wrong ones (relevance). Like Popeye and Yahweh, he am what he am: a prime little number, divisible only by himself.

It isn't Beck's artistry that's overrated, though: That's why he's such an elusive target for those few critical whalers willing to harpoon him. From the very good Mellow Gold to the very excellent Odelay to the very okay Mutations to the new, good-as-he-ever-was Midnite Vultures (Interscope), Beck's albums have been far livelier, funnier, and just plain more listenable than most objects of critical devotion are likely to be. The high-stepping horns, Steve Cropper guitar chonk, and Deliverance banjo antics of "Sexx Laws" jump-start his latest disc so that listening feels like more than cultural obligation. The deadpan robochick choruses of "Get Real Paid" and slobbery jive talk of "Hlwd. Freaks" are as gross and disorienting and funny and tawdry as George Clinton at his most sloppily cosmic.

And through it all, Beck's vocal mimicry encompasses a wider range than ever. The closest his over-the-top falsetto comes to tarring itself with the minstrel's brush isn't when it feints toward Phillip Bailey or Mavis Staples but on the incestuous threesome fantasy "Debra," where it sounds like he's mocking Mick Jagger. "You mean he's toying with white images of blackness?" the grad student in me queries instinctively. No, no, no. Don't you see? He's a blank Scrabble tile--supply him with a context and he'll spell any word you want.

For example: Beck is to Spin as Springsteen was once to Rolling Stone: the media-designated center of contemporary pop culture. Discuss. Well, as the idol of those who celebrate the very lack of such a center to contemporary pop culture, Beck used Odelay to craft monumental music for self-styled bricolage vandals, cloaking high modernist importance in pomo garb. But if jungle, turntablism, and underground hip hop are the rough equivalent of punk--shards of the past haphazardly launched in a subcultural catapult--Odelay was more like Born to Run, a grand, reassuring consolidation of the past disguised as future-shock treatment.

Or maybe not. The wonder of Beck is that he shrugs a noncommittal yeah to both halves of every either/or proposition. As befits our post-humanist era, his bid for significance came when he stopped describing a recognizable bohemian milieu. Back on Mellow Gold, he shacked up with a "Nightmare Hippie Girl" and slaved reluctantly for a "Soul-Sucking Jerk." But when the gangsta parody "Loser" was taken as a slacker anthem, he vowed never to be misinterpreted again. And so Beck rarefied and obscured himself into the ideal postmodern star: What Beck fans now identify with are the trappings of hip--not, certainly, with the human bedecked in said trappings. I mean, does anyone--can anyone--fantasize about being Beck?

For that matter, does anyone--can anyone--fantasize about fucking Beck? He's gorgeous but asexual. He's sexless but not virginal. Nothing in his past lyrics made him out to be the naive, pubescent "manchild" lazy rockcrits batted about--nothing except his wan, permanently dazed look. He opens and closes Midnite Vultures by declaring, "I'm a full-grown man and I'm not afraid to cry," and talks various dialects of dirty betwixt. When he vows to "leave graffiti where you've never been kissed," he voices a disembodied sex act with all fluids siphoned away--sweat most certainly included--and implicitly poses the question of whether a man can fake an orgasm.

But to extrapolate from this that his groove is too intellectualized is to force Descartes onto the dance floor, where the old mind-body split went out with the Mashed Potato. Beck's funk is just fine. His beats aren't alienating; he is. For all his vivacity and humor, his vocal persona is about as human as a voice-mail prompt--particularly when it feigns emotion. Although even the most electronically regulated pulse can seem humanized by a crowd in motion, most of us still expect recorded voices, if not to be expressive, at least to create an ironic distance between the emotive and the affectless--like, say, the Pet Shop Boys. For all of Beck's verbose dazzle, however, the spew of non sequiturs that keeps his signifiers afloat--or is that adrift--remains so literate that a straight-ahead pun such as "I'm mixing bizness with leather" seems to flaunt not its intelligibility but the opaque humor that surrounds it.

In case you haven't guessed, Beck is so difficult on the surface because surface is all he's got to give. His closest Melville creation isn't Moby-Dick but The Confidence-Man, and his closest artistic antecedent isn't Afrika Bambaataa but fellow Hollywood-infatuated paleface Andy Warhol. Beck crafts imitation pop songs--not outright parodies, but hardly useful household objects. If ordinary pop invites consumers to project their desires onto the consumables, the high pop artist mimics such commodities as an end unto itself. Beck is like a counterfeiter who asks us to admire the artistry of his fake currency--and make change for him.

Or is he like a kid at Christmas playing with the packaging instead of the toys? Beck's music may never be nearly as meaningful as, to choose an equally plastic example, Donna Summer's, because he refuses to plunge to the depths of single-minded banality that pop sentiment requires. Not that we masses aren't ourselves more blank than ever. Modern radioheads are so open-minded that any skillful deployment of popular mechanics on the airwaves will find a host of souls willing to give our bodies to its beat. Beck deserves ours as much as anyone does--I've cruised less honest one-night stands over the radio, to be sure. But don't expect me to shell out for cab fare in the morning.

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