Music

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

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.

During the trajectory of a career, nearly every notable artist goes from being the epitome of cool to the opposite of cool. If one generation worshipped you as a shibboleth of hipness, there’s a good chance that the next generation will view you as utterly lame. It’s just how Father Time works — he turns everything into dad rock eventually.

For Beck the pivot point exists somewhere between 2005’s Guero and 2006’s The Information. If you still care about Beck, it’s almost certainly because of the albums up through Guero.. If you don’t understand why people care about this guy, your point of view is most likely informed by the post-Information period.

After 2008’s Modern Guilt, Beck took a six-year hiatus before re-emerging with Morning Phase, the ultimate Rorschach test in his discography. Beck’s original audience from the ’90s, including yours truly, was inclined to view Morning Phase as the return of “sad Beck,” introduced on 1994’s One Foot In The Grave, refined on 1998’s Mutations, and perfected on 2002’s Sea Change. For younger people, however, Morning Phase is largely viewed as the record that was wrongly honored as Album Of The Year at the 2015 Grammys, over Beyoncé’s more deserving self-titled LP. Somehow, the role of “stodgy-ass Grammy spoiler,” which had previously been played by acts like Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock, now fell to the one-time voice of the slacker generation.

There’s a similar generational “inkblot” quality to Colors, which as a “funky” pop-oriented gesture either reads as “Midnite Vultures Part 2″ or “an old guy’s mid-life crisis,” depending on when Beck first came into your life. But there’s more to Beck’s incredible shrinking legacy than middling late-career albums or an aging fanbase. Because even Beck’s older, classic work feels less essential now. I mean this in the macro and micro sense. Odelay doesn’t seem like a particularly vital touchstone for contemporary acts, and, personally, I never feel like listening to Beck’s ’90s records anymore. My friend Evan put it well after seeing a Beck concert this past summer: “Beck’s music has soundtracked my life but doesn’t really mean anything to me.”

How did this happen? It’s not as if decades of uninspired music has dulled my appreciation of, say, Rivers Cuomo or Billy Corgan. And you can definitely hear the influence of Pinkerton and Siamese Dream on musicians who were born around the time those albums were released.

If the significance of Beck’s art has truly has shrunk in the past 20 or so years — Google those Odelay reviews if you need evidence of his former stature — what is the cause? I blame the decline of the musical dilettante.

Part of Beck’s charm in the ’90s was that he was jack of all trades and a master of none. He rapped, he played folk dirges, he crooned R&B sex jams — he was never the best at any of those things, but he did them all pretty well. The point was that the same guy could dabble in so many different styles that normally didn’t exist in the same context. This was refreshing back in the ’90s, when music was more codified. “Years before the rise of post-internet genre-hopping, Beck wielded Odelay as a sledgehammer to musical segregation, a blow to the walls separating rock from hip-hop, funk from punk, Latin rock from heavy metal,” wrote critic Zoe Camp in a thoughtful appreciation for Spin last year. “In doing so, he helped bring multiculturalism into the cultural discourse of the time.”

The pitfall of being a self-styled innovator is that your breakthroughs usually don’t seem special to subsequent audiences who come to take those accomplishments for granted. When the internet emerged and undermined previously entrenched genre distinctions, birthing a generation for whom eclecticism is a given, the need for an artist like Beck and his “sledgehammer to musical segregation” also evaporated. But now listeners are the genre-benders, whereas artists are expected to stay in their lanes.

In the process, the musical dilettante has gone from being an admirable artist to, often, a suspect one. Consider if Odelay came out 2017 — would it be praised for its “multiculturalism” or criticized for as an example of “white dude” cultural appropriation? The thinkpieces practically write themselves: Why listen to Beck “borrow” from other (often black) artists when you can seek out the original article just as easily? Who needs Odelay when we have diverse Spotify playlists?

Of all the many ways that internet has altered the experience of listening to music, perhaps the most profound is that it has transformed average music fans into rigorous musicologists. When we hear a new song now, we instantly deconstruct it into component elements and pinpoint exactly what or who influenced the overall aesthetic. Social media has compounded this phenomenon, enabling the hive mind to perform musical autopsies just minutes after an anticipated single’s release. If that song has an obvious antecedent — if it sampled an obscure ’70s funk jam, referenced an ’80s sitcom in the lyrics, or ripped off the chord progression from a classic ’90s oldie — we all know it immediately. And then we have the ability to go to the source material, and measure it against the “new” track.

The side effect of a more informed listener population is that an album like Odelay no longer seems like a paradigm-shifting magic trick. In 1996, you had to be neck-deep in vinyl to immediately recognize all of the bits that went into creating that record. But now Odelay just sounds like a syllabus of cool music to seek out elsewhere. As for Beck, it’s probably not a coincidence that he has tended to stick with “safe” singer-songwriter-oriented rock and pop styles as he’s gotten older. That’s his lane now, and it has diminished him. He’s a good songwriter, but not a great one. He makes fun dance jams, but you can find funkier. And his lyrical flow is… well, let’s just say Kendrick has nothing to worry about. In his day, Beck was progressive. But progress eventually got the best of him.

Colors is out now via Fonograf/Capitol Records. Get it here.

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