Wednesday, January 27, 2016


When I was still a young man Beck released the song "Loser."  In 1993 the Reagan era was in collapse, Generation X was still a viable concept, Clinton was President and it appeared that a life of low-wage unfulfilling work loomed ahead of all of us who weren't Boomers.  I was in graduate school, living with a bunch of other graduate students in a newly gentrifying neighborhood in San Francisco, the students and white kids slowly moving into apartments recently vacated by African-American families.  (Not all of those families were economic refugees; our landlord was African American, and that was true for about half the places I lived in San Francisco).

Beck's song was this incredibly creative combination of deft wordplay, deceptively simple sampled slide guitar, a sneer and some politics.  (Although it turns out the guy we all thought was George Bush faking optimism in his recent loss to Clinton - I'm a fighter I'm a winner/Things are gonna change I believe it - was, in fact, just a random guy inserted to sound like George Bush faking optimism.  Bush never actually said any of that, so it was a fake sample.  Which is so postmodern we've gone around the Moebius strip twice.)  Beck appeared to be making fun of rap, frankly, because the poetry was nonsense.  It was the sort of thing a singer who wasn't a rap artist would put together to make the singer sound like they were really good, the kind of nursery-rhyme babble that, as a friend of mine used to put it, made the user sound "deep" but which, in point of fact, didn't mean anything.  And that was the point, clearly.  One of my roommates got up early one morning, made himself a pot of coffee and carefully fast-forwarded and rewinded his way through the song to transcribe the lyrics, which I dutifully memorized.  Some people memorized Keats and Yeats when they were impressionable.  I know Beck.
Forces of Evil in a bozo nightmare
Ban all the music with a phony gas chamber
Cause one's got a weasel and another's got a flag
One's on the pole shove the other in a bag
But those lyrics, while apparently meaningless or at least edging toward politics - clearly an equal-opportunity attack on both the Moral Majority and the PMRC! - were also poking fun at the kind of Indie obscurity and obfuscation that Michael Stipe of REM made famous:

There's a problem feathers ironBargain buildings, weights and pulleysFeathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the airBuy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky

At a certain point an Indie band had to wax opaque about their feelings, and if you understood you were in and if you didn't you were out.  Understanding was always relative, at least enough to ensure you could exclude or at least identify the chronically uncool.  It was the inevitable consequence of 12 years of Conservatives selling their dynamic and fluid notions of truth - everyone knew the President was lying and senile even if he painted himself as moral and avuncular, and Bush pardoned the Iran-Contra conspirators because he was a co-conspirator, and Ollie North was a hero despite committing what amounted to treason.  Ironically NWA was coming right out and saying what they thought, categorically rejecting the long-standing tradition of poetic masking you find in so much African American pop music.  That's one reason NWA became really popular, obviously.

So let's consider for a moment what Beck is parodying: His slide lick is simple and obviously sampled, and as he's actually an accomplished slide guitarist its clear he's making fun of "roots" samples, the kind of thing Moby did in earnest about a decade later.  He's making fun of obscure lyrics.  Read through the lyrics to "Loser" at one of the various lyric sites online and you'll see they don't actually add up to much.  He still manages to convey a lot, and its an excellent example of how people can use pure phonetics to get across attitude; its the kind of thing that dogs, cats and little kids are adept at, for example, this ability to understand meaning from tone and fluence, and Beck does it masterfully.  He's also making fun of a certain kind of white rap star, I think: Everyone knows that when the white kid can't compete with the black kid in the rap battle he just makes stuff up, maybe because he was forced to memorize Jabberwocky as a kid and if it worked for Lewis Carroll...  And given that all this parody is wrapped in a very catchy hit song, in which the singer flat-out tells everyone that he's a Loser-with-a-capital-L, we get the full-on GenerationX anthem.  Beck encapsulates the sense that sure its all relative, until its not, in which case you're the one that seems to benefit, which we all had in our 20s.  The current belated and breathless discovery that vast and increasing levels of inequality cause deepening and debilitating levels of economic insecurity are not new to poor people and people of color, at least in this country; the middle-class white kids in Generation X were perhaps the first middle-class white kids in fifty years to see that chasm opening up in front of them.  It made a lot of them conscious of class in ways their parents never had been, and it also made them politically apathetic: Clearly the system is rigged, and people who argue otherwise are irrational or, as the stock traders say of corporate investment analysts, arguing their book.

At around the same time I discovered that I lived around the corner from this lovely young woman with a Louise Brooks haircut, who I struck up a conversation with in the bar I frequented.  It turned out that she was also Canadian, and had visited the town I grew up in as a child, and her mother was a television personality every Canadian had heard of.  And that she knew Beck because they'd gone to Scientology school together in LA, where her father was a screenwriter, and she'd grown up with his family.  Plus some details that I had a hard time parsing, given how vanilla my background was, like how he'd stopped going to school at 14 and busked on the street while still living at the school, or home, or something like that.   (I did my best to keep her interested in me but as a homesick vanilla kid with no identifiable skills and very little tolerance for marijuana - I mean, its a wonder anyone hung out with me.  I can only imagine how dumb I must have looked, and while I may have appeared to be a stalker, honestly, I was just clueless and lonely.  Sorry.)

But that gave me some insight into Beck that has ever since creeped me out.  I don't use the word "creep" all that often, but the guy, while clearly a genius, is also just creepy.  Its a little known fact that grade-schools run by Scientology offer very little in the way of actual education.  One critical function that the public school system performs is acculturation: it provides kids with both basic skills they can use to work together - like math, or language skills - and in attitudes and shared history.  Kids learn basic concepts about American history, for example, and while you may or may not think those concepts are wrong, they gain a shared language they can use to talk about those concepts.  Kids who've gone to Scientology schools gain none of that; many of these kids don't have the most basic ideas about American history or politics, or math, and many of them are incapable of surviving without people who do know these things, who are there to do the work for them.

So we look at people like Beck (or Jaden Smith, or other famous kids of Scientologists) and we think they're capable and with-it.  But I've read accounts from former Scientologists (which I looked around for and couldn't find) that describe conversations with Scientology-educated kids as just plain boring.  They don't know anything, certainly not enough to have opinions, and they're cloistered away from television and newspapers.  They don't know what's happening in the modern world or how things happened to get the way they are, and many of them are just basically naive.

Which explains how Beck, who appeared to be so immensely perceptive on that first album, has become so odd as an artist.  His music now has an uncanny-valley aspect to it - clearly the work of a genius, but one who's in fact alien to our way of life and is faking it just enough to pass.

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