Beck to the future
January 20, 1997
v149 n3 p74(1)

Christopher John Farley


When the nominees for the 39th annual Grammy Awards were announced last week, a lot of familiar, if not shopworn, names were on the list, including Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow and Journey. There were also, thankfully, some fresh, exciting names--the Haitian-American hip-hop band the Fugees certainly deserved their nomination in the Album of the Year category, as teenage country crooner LeAnn Rimes did hers for Best New Artist. But one name stood out from all the others. Or rather, kind of leaned against the wall, looking cooler than everyone else in the vicinity in a throwback to James Dean. That name was Beck Hansen, the folk/hip-hop/punk rocker who was nominated in three categories, including Album of the Year. 

If Beck (he uses only his first name professionally) were a sports team, sportswriters would say he's having a heck of a postseason. His album Odelay has sold only about 750,000 copies; in contrast, Celine Dion's Falling into You, another Album of the Year nominee, has sold more than 7 million. But in a year when overall record sales were flat and creativity seemed flatter, Beck has become a critics' darling, deservedly so, and has garnered an impressive number of end-of the-year accolades. Rolling Stone's music-savvy readers voted Odelay the Album of the Year; rival music magazine Spin selected Beck as Artist of the Year. Says Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences: "(Beck) crosses so many genres and creates so many emotions. He can be poppy; he can fuse rap and rock. He's a pretty remarkable guy." 

In person he cuts a rather unremarkable figure. He has shaggy Neil Young-like sideburns that seem to have missed the memo that the '70s are over; his eyes are big and wide, giving his face a look of almost perpetual astonishment and naivete. Although he's just 26, Beck's voice has an old-soul weariness. His lyrics can be, at first listen, silly and playful, but they carry an underlying seriousness. His 1993 hit single, Loser, managed to be simultaneously humorous and a bit tragic with its self-deprecating, self-destructive refrain, "I'm a loser baby/ So why don't you kill me?" 

With Odelay, his second CD on a major label, Beck proves he has more than one good song in him--in fact, he has a whole musical outlook. Odelay deftly mixes folky acoustic-guitar riffs with atmospheric lyrics and hip-hop samples and beats. One song, the hard-driving Devils Haircut, attacks America's culture of physical vanity as suffocating and inescapable; another, the smooth Where It's At, pays tribute to rap's roots by praising its resourceful spirit. 

Beck says the low-tech nature of rap and folk is what initially attracted him. All rappers need, to paraphrase Where It's At, are two turntables and a microphone; all folk singers need is a guitar. "I always wanted to play music as a kid, play guitar, but it just seemed impossible to me," says Beck. "You turn on the radio, and they'd be playing, what, Huey Lewis or some superproduced '80s music. That music--it was so professional--there didn't seem any way to be able to do that." 

Mixing rap and folk, however, seemed doable, even natural. After all, Beck's family was artistically eclectic: his father was a bluegrass musician; his mother, who raised him in Los Angeles, played the occasional gig as a singer; and his maternal grandfather, Al Hansen, was a pioneering multimedia artist and colleague of Andy Warhol's. As a teenager, Beck traveled to New York City and got caught up in the music scene; later he hooked up with hip-hop producer Karl Stephenson and cut Loser. The song became an unexpected hit, he was signed by Geffen records, and his hip-hop/folk career was launched. 

And just in time. Straight-ahead rock is a bit exhausted right now. Instead, rockers who draw from R. and B., hip-hop and/or ska are hot--the funky rock band 311, the pop-ska band No Doubt, the ska-punk band Sublime. "Some of the stuff that's big for us lately seems less rock and has more of a beat influence," says Lisa Worden, music director for kroq, an alternative-rock station in Los Angeles. "Beck stays away from the typical rock sound." Odelay isn't a flawless album--Beck isn't as soulful as some of the  hip-hop stars he emulates; No Diggity, the simmering single from Dr. Dre and Blackstreet, has more soul than anything on Odelay. But perhaps his hip-hop awkwardness is what draws some critics and rock fans to him. If a gawky folkie like Beck can feel the funk, even a little bit of it, there's hope for