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It Takes a Lot To Laugh: The Parody and Pain of Beck

New ‘Morning Phase’—six years after his last album and 21 since becoming a loser, baby—shows the Gen-Xer just getting started

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“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” It’s hard to believe that it has been 21 years since this refrain emanated from what seemed like a novelty record by a certain Beck Hansen, who made self-loathing into something with a good beat that you could dance to, something my generation clearly needed. Generation X was named after a trendy book by Douglas Coupland alluding to a minor punk band fronted by Billy Idol. I started college in 1991, part of a cohort that seemed to be contributing nothing to the world. That summer, Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an underground hit (and convinced me that going to UT Austin, where I nearly enrolled, would be a terrible idea) and Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts. It seemed that people in my aspirational group—that is, those who were just past college age—were making generational anthems about unworthiness.

And yet Beck’s “Loser” wasn’t just any record about being a loser. It was an ode to failure with a self-lacerating duende, one that would grow darker and more grave over time. “Loser” was layered with hilarious samples (“Things are gonna change, I can feel it”), an infectious, Folkways-style blues riff, and, above all else, it had attitude—spot-on and pitch perfect. It was an ideal record for the 1993 zeitgeist. Kurt Cobain was still alive, but Nirvana put out a record, In Utero, that made it clear that Cobain was in a lot of pain and could not to take it much longer. A year before “Loser,” Radiohead released “Creep,” their debut single, which made a similar point, but with more beauty and less parody. It was, in the early ’90s, all the rage for sensitive young men to find innovative ways to hate themselves. I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, rape me, all apologies, I’m a liar and a thief, I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me? Cobain was giving us a preview to his funeral, but Radiohead and Beck were, by comparison, merely flirting with Wetlzschmerz. (Beck’s marvelous and dysphoric new album, Morning Phase, is evidence that he is still perfecting the art of losing.)

We Gen Xers sure knew how to be self-deprecating. It’s a long way from there to, say, Kanye West. Of course, “Loser” turned out anything but a novelty record. Beck’s second album Odelay won Grammys in major categories and, in demonstration of critical consensus, the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll; as an afterthought, it sold 2.3 million copies in the United States alone. The album was a seamless collection of parody and pastiche. Everything was a joke, yet it was stunningly textured and layered. This album included samples of Stan Getz’s “Desafinado” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony (already a fragment, of course), along with a guest appearance by legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who—from his tenure in the great Ornette Coleman Quartet and beyond—knew a thing or two about the beauty of noise and the depth of euphony. Beck made fun of rap—or, perhaps, showed his love for it—by rapping. One of the raps, “Where It’s At,” had, as its parenthetical title, a riff on The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”: “Rock the Catskills.” The guy could rap, sample, and kind of dance, but with borscht belt timing.

I should say at this point that I am not one usually in search of a voice of my generation. My relationship to music is largely historical and archival. When I was in college, I was writing articles about Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins and having conversations with like-minded friends about which conductor was best for which Mahler symphony, or which string quartet was optimal for Beethoven or Debussy or Bartok. But there were exceptions. People look for voices of their generation for the same reason they stay in touch with their high-school or college friends. In addition to an emotional connection, you have a shared sensibility that people somewhat older or younger won’t quite get. So, there were, for my generational peer group, some voices impossible to ignore. The Werther myth of Kurt Cobain hit me along with everyone else I knew, and, among Gen Xers, I found myself following Radiohead and Beck (who were a little older) and Fiona Apple (who was a little younger), along with a few others.

Among that crowd, Beck was the only one who I could recognize as a funny Jew. Beck was a surprisingly graceful dancer, but he used his goofiness cannily, as if the fact that he was even this decent was just a hilarious thing to watch, like the climactic ending of Napoleon Dynamite. He was adorable but also knew he looked like a dork, so the fact that he was pretty limber was part of the joke. Before Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon mixed music and comedy, Beck found that sweet spot first; plus his writing was consistently sharp, and his musical instincts—brought to life by The Dust Brothers and Nigel Godrich—were as stunning as they were idiosyncratic. Critics, including Robert Christgau, were using his name in the same sentence as Dylan. His funniest track, “Debra,” is mostly sung in falsetto, Prince-style. After an outrageous build up, with lines like, “I said, lady, step inside my Hyundai,” he gives the kicker: “I want to get with you, only you/ And your sister, I think her name’s Debra.” His falsetto is as outrageous as the song. Before he recorded it for Midnite Vultures (1999), the song was a cherished secret among Beck fans, who would talk about how each version that closed the show was even longer and more extravagant than the last. Footage from the VH1 Fashion Awards shows him putting his Prince on for the ladies in the house and having a blast.

Soon he would be neither funny nor a Jew. Early on, he would emphasize his Jewish heritage with interviewers—and, just like he was enough of a rebel to drop out of ninth grade, he missed his bar mitzvah, too, but who cared? He was, apparently, in the tradition of Dylan and Cohen and Reed and The Beastie Boys. Before “hipster” became a dirty word, he was hipster royalty. His grandfather, the artist Al Hansen, was a founding member of the Fluxus group and friend to Yoko Ono and John Cage; he lived to see “Loser” become a hit and thought that Hip-Hop was an outgrowth of Dada. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, was a member of the Warhol Factory and appeared in several of his films. His father, David Campbell, wrote string arrangements for Carole King, Jackson Browne, and Leonard Cohen, among others; he would eventually score arrangements for his son. By the new millennium, Beck would begin to lose things for real, and even if it wasn’t fatal, his pain was unmistakable. His girlfriend of nine years left him, and he ended up marrying Marissa Ribisi, who was not only a Scientologist, but who was actually delivered by Beck’s mother, also a Scientologist. (Followers of L. Ron Hubbard do home births.) It turned out that Beck was barely a funny Jew: His paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. His mother is half-Jewish but raised him Scientologist. And yet when the joking stopped, his work just got better. His breakup album, Sea Change (2002), was hailed as a masterpiece. Rolling Stone thought it was the best thing he ever did and compared it to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

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It Takes a Lot To Laugh: The Parody and Pain of Beck

New ‘Morning Phase’—six years after his last album and 21 since becoming a loser, baby—shows the Gen-Xer just getting started