Why Does Beck, Once The Most Innovative Musician Of His Generation, Seem So Inessential Now?

Cultural Critic
10.25.17 30 Comments

Peter Hapak

Earlier this month, Beck’s thirteenth studio album, Colors, entered the world like a perfume mist, floating along as a pleasant-enough, light-as-air confection before rapidly dissipating into the ether. Like any intangible haze, it was difficult to describe with concrete language. (Here’s my best attempt: It sounds like the soundtrack for a montage of middle-aged men trying on incongruously fashionable pairs of pants.) Anyway, good luck finding anyone who’s still talking about it. Colors has already disappeared into the deep, dense jungle of your preferred streaming service, likely to never be heard from again.

It wasn’t always this way with Beck. Music fans of a certain age are accustomed to projecting importance and prestige on to every new Beck album. For instance, I was 18 when Beck released his masterwork, 1996’s Odelay. In Rolling Stone, it was likened to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited AND The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. “Could the future of rock & roll be a snot-nosed slacker with a bad haircut, an absurdly eclectic record collection, two turntables and a microphone?” the magazine mused. Later, Odelay topped the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz and Jop critics’ poll, nearly doubling the amount of votes for the runner-up, The Score by The Fugees. Culturally, it was a real event.

I started college in 1996, and Odelay was a staple in dorm rooms that fall semester. You could walk from one end of campus to the other and hear “Where It’s At” and “The New Pollution” coming continuously out of people’s windows. This was several months after the album was released — incredibly, people still listened to records that were more than a few weeks old back then, as songs were delivered from artists to fans via carrier pigeons. Maybe I’m mis-remembering this. At any rate, listening, and life in general, were both slower in the ’90s.

As a budding critic, I was greatly influenced by all of this Beck talk. My view at the time was that he was the most innovative artist of his era. Beck mixed rock with hip-hop, punk, blues, folk, Sly Stone, and Van Morrison’s garage-rock period. His music sounded like the future, man! But it also retained the best aspects of the past — Johnny Cash and Tom Petty had covered his songs before Beck’s 27th birthday.

A few years later, right before that nefarious computer glitch known as Y2K threatened to wipe out civilization as we know it, I wrote a column for my college paper declaring that Beck was the greatest artist of the decade. Maybe the oncoming apocalypse tweaked my brain. Even in 1999, a lot of people thought I was a fool for writing that. But it seems impossible to comprehend now.

Last week, I hit up my editor (born in 1988) on Slack for her take on Beck. “Of all the bands, why is he famous? Seems random,” she replied. When I mentioned my college-newspaper column, and the not-uncommon belief back then that Beck was the Bob Dylan of his time, she was incredulous.

The response was similar when I asked my Twitter followers born in 1990 or later for their Beck opinions. Some held Beck in high regard, lauding his eclecticism and comparing him to David Bowie. But most were skeptical. “A musician that Rolling Stone/mainstream music press kept pushing as vital, but as a teen in the mid-’00s it felt pretty hollow,” read one typical tweet. “Thought he was Moby for a long time,” read another, more hilarious comment.

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